Have you ever spent time recently wistfully daydreaming about that devastatingly attractive coworker/friend/guy who sat next to you on the N train and then realistically bemoaning the fact that they were out of your league? Researchers at Northwestern University may have just handed you a scientifically sound roadmap to relationship bliss. A new study in Psychological Science suggests that your best chance of success is the long con—of friendship.
Researchers Hunt, Eastwick, and Finkel decided to examine assortative mating, the psychological phenomenon in which people pair off with partners who share their physical, behavioral, or psychological characteristics. Hot people with hot people, schlubs with schlubs, rich with rich, lawyers with lawyers, etc. But what about those couples that break the assortative mating mold?
The study looked at assortative mating based on physical attractiveness. More specifically, they were interested in whether it is influenced by how well a couple knew each other before they began dating. The 167 couples participating were a mix of dating and married, with an average relationship length for all couples of just over 8.5 years (the range of time was significant, from 3 months to 53 years). Participants were asked how many months they had known their partner and for how many months they had been romantically involved. Their physical attractiveness was assessed by undergraduate coders (which sounds like an entertaining gig).
The study found that hotness correlation was strongest for couples who began dating within a month of meeting. Couples who had known each other or been friends before becoming romantically involved were less likely to be matched in attractiveness.
So, essentially, if you know someone better, you’re more likely to consider other factors along with their looks when thinking about their desirability. Meaning, in those cases where an Adonis is happily paired with a normal looking person and you have a fleeting, ungenerous moment of wondering “How did they land THEM?”—there’s your answer. As lead researcher Hunt put it, “There may be more to the old saying than was previously thought. Maybe it’s the case that beauty is partially in the eye of the beholder, especially as time passes.”
There was also, notably, no association between matched attractiveness and relationship satisfaction. So, assuming (and this is a gigantic assumption, but let’s be optimistic for once), that the same could be said about other factors—education, race, religion—we may be able to poke some holes in the whole “marry your own kind or you’ll be miserable” argument.
That said, there is far more research to be done. This study’s participants were heavily skewed to the majority populations. The vast majority of couples participating were white (78.9 percent) and heterosexual (the statistic for this was not explicitly mentioned in the text). It’s unclear how the findings would carry across those lines.
But to the friend who sent me this article along with a one line email (“So if I just ingratiate myself with some hot dude I have a chance, eventually?”) my answer is yes. The dreaded friend zone might actually work out for you—assuming your love interest isn’t snapped up by assortative mating first.
Caroline Weinberg is a doctor with a masters in public health. She has previously written about science and health at Eater, Vice Motherboard, Aeon, and a few dry academic publications. You can find her on twitter @ckw583.
Image via Universal