The Heart Speaks Its Mind: The Empathy Gap

Get a pen and paper. Rank the following from what’s the most important to you in a romantic partner to what’s the least important: 

  • Physical attraction

  • Intelligence 

  • Ambition 

  • Sociability

  • Kindness

When you meet people in real life, how confident are you that you’re going to be attracted to those that are high on the traits you ranked as “the most important”?

According to a speed-dating study conducted by Paul Eckstein and his colleagues at Northwestern University, you shouldn’t be too confident. 

As it turns out, the traits participants found attractive during the speed-dating event were not consistent with what they stated as ideal preferences prior to the event. 

For example, participants who ranked physical attraction as the most important trait they look for in a romantic partner were not more likely to be attracted to others that they found the most physically attractive than those participants that didn’t. This finding was consistent with other traits as well, such as personality and earning prospects.

One of the major explanations the researchers gave for why this might be the case is a concept called the empathy gap: while stating our ideal preferences, we tend to underestimate our tendency to be influenced by varying mental states, and to make decisions that only satisfy our current emotion, feeling, or state of being. 

Following this line of thinking, when we get a pen and paper and state what’s important to us, we make these assessments in a cool and rational manner, using preconceived beliefs we have about romantic relationships. On the other hand, when we’re out and about meeting potential partners, our emotional state is often different: We may be anxious, excited, horny, or perhaps running low on our social battery.  These varying mental states end up having a significant impact on what and who we’re attracted to, causing us to make decisions that don’t match what’s on the paper.

But does this mean that what we state on paper has no credibility? Not necessarily. Researchers emphasize that these are short-term findings: The follow-ups after the speed-dating event did not go beyond 10 weeks. Who knows? Maybe after some time, when we are able to suppress the voice of our heart, we do revert back to our ideal preferences– finally revisiting our good, old, rational list of what we think we are attracted to!