I am still amazed at how terrible I am at evaluating my own romantic and sexual situations objectively. In fact, I’m sad to report that I think I’m better than most at it, and I’m still terrible. The fact is that we’re all terrible at it. Like when you bragged to your friends about that girl and she shows up on the first date, but you can’t remember why you liked her so much. Or the woman you’re so convinced is relationship material, but when she unexpectedly breaks things off you realize that you actually feel better without her around. Or the ex-boyfriend you miss horribly for months, but when you reunite with him it becomes abundantly clear why you broke up.
We’re all terribly unobjective with our emotional lives. We can’t seem to help it either. We all have ideals and dreams of what we want our perfect partner to be, what we want our perfect relationship to be, how we want our relationships to play out. Therefore we tend to see what we want to see in someone else, not what’s actually there. We’re all experts at projecting and distorting the reality in front of us to try to fit our own ideals. These distortions are called perceptual biases. They are the fun-house mirrors that misshape our perceptions of others in front of us. Some people are (far) more afflicted than others, but none of us are immune to it. But with practice and conscious awareness, we can help ourselves become more aware of these biases, and prevent them from getting us into too much turmoil.
Perhaps the biggest problem with both psychological research on attraction and relationships/dating advice is that we’re trying to measure and quantify something we can’t be completely objective about. Psychological research into attraction is mostly based on self-reporting. Dating advice is based on personal experience. The problem with both approaches is that we’re unable to provide reliable data. We’re poor curators of our own emotional experiences. The phenomenon of perceptual biases has intrigued me for a couple years now. Many of my close friends have grown annoyed and tired of me constantly pointing out their biases to them. “You only liked her that much because she was the only girl on the bus,” or “Yeah, it makes it a lot easier when they think your job is cool.” Yeah, I’m a buzzkill.
Below are ten perceptual biases that most of us fall victim to, five which distort how attractive we perceive someone to be, and five that distort how emotionally connected to a person we feel.
Perceptual Biases of Attraction
1. Contrast Bias – The contrast bias occurs when we meet a moderately attractive person in an environment with unattractive people (and vice versa).1 For instance, if you go to an office party, the one cute girl at work will suddenly look like a stunner surrounded by a bunch of married, aging, overweight women. Put that same girl in a night club and she’d look pretty average. But at the office party, suddenly her stock has shot through the roof. Another common example is when you have the “hot friend” phenomenon. When you meet a group of women, all of which are unattractive except for one. Suddenly that one attractive woman looks a lot better. Welcome to the contrast bias.
2. Scarcity Bias – The scarcity bias2 is similar to the contrast bias, except instead of overestimating how attractive a person is based on other people being unattractive, the scarcity bias overestimates how attractive a person is because there are few or no other options. A perfect example of this happened with a friend recently in Thailand. We were taking a boat tour, and there was a very plain-looking French girl on our boat, along with about 12 Chinese tourists, most of whom were elderly or older couples. My friend started chatting to the French girl, who was pleasant but nothing really too exciting. By the end of the full-day boat tour, he excitedly described to me how they traded Facebook information and how he thought he liked her and wanted to meet up with her. I looked him in the eye and said, “You liked that she was the only available woman on a boat that you were stuck on for 12 hours, that’s what you liked. By tomorrow you’ll have forgotten about her.” Sure enough, he did.
3. Reciprocal Bias – The quote of mine that’s been passed around the dating industry more than any other is, “The biggest aphrodisiac is someone who likes you.” This is the reciprocal bias.3 That cute girl, as soon as she grabs your hand and tells you that you’re hot, goes from “cute” to “really sexy” in a heartbeat. The reciprocal bias goes in reverse as well. That “smoking hot woman” over there, once you talk to her and she shows absolutely no interest in you, immediately turns into that woman “with a nice body, but terrible attitude,” and you’ve already convinced yourself that you’d never date her and that you were stupid for wanting to.
4. Personality Bias – The personality bias may be one of the only good biases. The personality bias occurs when someone’s personality makes them appear more physically attractive to you.4 When a woman has a great sense of humor, or shares similar interests to us, or has similar perspectives on life, we inevitably find them to be more attractive. Recently, I met a cute girl and I found out she used to compete in Halo tournaments for XBox. The nerd in me couldn’t help it and she immediately jumped up a level in my book.
5. Barriers Bias – The barriers bias relates to the scarcity bias in that we tend to overvalue things in which we perceive to be hard to obtain. The barriers bias occurs when there are barriers to being with a particular person, causing our attraction for them to increase.5 An extreme example of this would be celebrities. From a purely physical perspective, you and I probably meet women who are just as physically attractive as celebrities, but our perception of them would not be even close to the same. The barriers bias can play out on a large or small scale. The girl you were talking to and her friend stepped in and dragged her away, chances are you are going to remember her as more attractive and more interested than she actually was. The girl you meet who is moving across the country tomorrow, otherwise she would definitely go out on a date with you, your perception of her will probably be that she’s more attractive as well.
The barriers bias also affects relationships or perceptions of relationship material as well. We have a tendency to idealize people we’re unable to be with, both in terms of how attractive they are, but also in terms of how good our relationship would be with them. Which brings us to…
Perceptual Biases in Relationships
6. Physical Bias – Plain and simple, the more physically attractive a woman is, the more likely we will be to idealize her, overestimate her, and become emotionally invested in her.6 As men, our emotions are yanked around by how physically beautiful a woman is. And it’s a pretty short leash.
This one definitely afflicts me often, and I hate that it does. I would like to say I’m not so shallow, but the more physically beautiful she is, the more I’m going to invest in her emotionally, and the more I’m going to convince myself that there’s potential for something more significant with her when there probably actually isn’t. Believe it or not, the physical bias can actually be negative as well, depending on a guy’s beliefs. I have met a number of guys who, when confronted with an attractive woman, will get excited and talk about how attractive she is. But when confronted with an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous woman, they begin to nitpick faults and criticize her before even meeting her. If a man believes himself to be unworthy of a supremely beautiful woman, he will actually develop a perceptual bias AGAINST them.
7. Sexual Bias – One of my strictest rules for myself and my clients is to never make any major commitment decisions with a woman without having sex with her first. Aside from the whole “test drive before you buy” argument, the fact remains that men are not objective about a woman before we’ve had sex with her. We inflate our perception of them and overestimate how much we actually like them. Yeah, it’s screwed up, but it is what it is. The reverse is often (but not always) true as well: that our perception of a woman immediately after sex will be deflated and we will underestimate what we actually feel for her.
8. Mystery Bias – This one is probably more common for women than men, but we both do it. The mystery bias occurs when you really like someone, but you don’t know a whole lot about them yet. The less we know about them, the more we fill in the gaps with our own idealizations of who they are.7 This can be particularly dangerous if we’re not able to be around them often, such as in a long-distance relationship scenario.
Long distance is so dangerous emotionally because we’re not forced to be in the other person’s business all of the time, our communication is always full of excitement and longing. The multitude of boring, drab interactions where she does a myriad of minor things to annoy you are missing. You don’t see their flaws, only their virtues, since that’s all you have time to show to one another. As a result you replace their flaws in your mind with made up virtues. And eventually reality comes and bites you in the ass.
9. Turbulence Bias – The turbulence bias is when we overestimate the emotional connection and compatibility we have with someone whom we’ve suffered through a lot of emotionally difficult circumstances with.
This can play out in a number of ways. A girl who you’ve gone through a traumatic event with can suddenly seem like someone you relate to and connect with on a deeper level than you actually do. Or, with a girlfriend who you keep breaking up and reuniting with, it’s easy to perceive those break ups and reunions as further proof that you two belong together, since you’ve gone through so much together. Or the girl who is cheating on her boyfriend with you, and is struggling to decide whether to end that relationship or not and the drama that ensues as a result, one can easily feel that these struggles and obstacles you overcome together “mean” something, and imply that there’s some deeper purpose for you being together. This is all fantasy. It’s a romantic concept better left to Disney movies.
10. Serendipity Bias – Another romantic fallacy. The serendipity bias is when we interpret coincidences involving a woman to signify something deeper or some sort of “fate” that is bringing you two together.8 For instance, maybe you go on a few dates with a woman who moves away to go to grad school. You then take a job overseas in Barcelona, and just happen to run into her walking around Barri Gotic. She’s studying abroad. The spark reignites, except this time you can’t help but feel that there’s some deeper purpose that’s bringing you together. As a result, you overvalue the meaning of the relationship and perhaps see an emotional connection that isn’t really there.
Perceptual biases are an inevitable part of dating. Of course, I’m being a little hyperbolic when I claim we all “suck” at dating. The fact of the matter is the dating game is a numbers game, and all of us are going to strike out the vast, vast majority of the time. Whether an interaction ends within five seconds or five years, almost all of your relationships are going to end. The hard part is knowing when they’re ending or if they should end or not. We’re all bad at that. Perceptual biases act as a fog that most of us have trouble wading through and realizing there are obstacles in front of us until we smack right into them. The goal is not to get rid of perceptual biases, but to understand them and become aware of them. Perceptual biases can be enjoyable at times, but they can be dangerous as well. Know and understand which ones you’re susceptible to, and use that understanding to inform your relationship decisions in the future. Hopefully, you can spare yourself a little extra heart break.
(Cover image by Thomas Leuthard)
- Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(1), 131–140.↵
- Mittone, L., & Savadori, L. (2009). The Scarcity Bias. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 58(3), 453–468.↵
- Montoya, R. M., & Insko, C. A. (2008). Toward a more complete understanding of the reciprocity of liking effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(3), 477–498.↵
- Montoya, R. M., & Horton, R. S. (2013). A meta-analytic investigation of the processes underlying the similarity-attraction effect. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(1), 64–94.↵
- Parker, J., & Burkley, M. (2009). Who’s chasing whom? The impact of gender and relationship status on mate poaching. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 1016–1019.↵
- Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285.↵
- Norton, M. I., Frost, J. H., & Ariely, D. (2007). Less is more: the lure of ambiguity, or why familiarity breeds contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(1), 97.↵
- Jung, C. G. (2010). Synchronicity: An Acausal Connecting Principle. (Vol. 20). Princeton University Press.↵