Biases and Achieving Accuracy in Romantic Relationships

by Jia He, Kenyon ’17

When your significant other praises you for looking your best with sweatpants and no makeup, do they really mean it? At that appraisal, you might insist that your partner must be flattering you; after all, none of your other friends would compliment you on your sweats. On the other hand, you might begin to think that perhaps your partner really sees a different “you” from the one you see every day in the mirror, as well as from the “you” that everyone else sees.

This leads to a whole host of questions pertaining to self-perception, other-perception, and realism. Assuming that there are markedly significant disparities of appearance judgment coming from the self, one’s partner, and everyone else, how might these different appraisals be organized? In other words, is a romantic partner more positively biased to your appearance than your friends, and are your friends more positively biased to your appearance than you? If so, how much more? More profoundly, are they aware of their biases?

In the past, studies in social psychology have found that self-esteem is a huge determining factor in looking for romantic partners. People generally want to be seen in a positive light, and as such, they are drawn to others who can affirm this desire. Positive bias also boosts the romantic partners’ self-esteem via the “basking-in-reflected-glory” phenomenon: people want to be associated with those who are seen in a positive light. Self-esteem could thus be explained as a mechanism underlying the reason for these biases in perception. On the opposite end of the spectrum, some research indicates that people also have a need to feel understood and validated. In other words, people seek partners who perceive them as they perceive themselves. These contradicting ideas create a paradox. While people generally favor others who will help boost their self-esteem, they also want people who will candidly share their reality.

Brittany C. Solomon and Simine Vazire from Washington University in St. Louis have reconciled this paradox by synthesizing the two ideas into a simple theory: people are more positively biased toward their partners in comparison to everyone else, but they are also consciously aware of their own bias. Solomon and Vazire argue that people are able to maintain both an overly positive and a realistic view of their partner in three major ways.

First, they assert that studies on bias and agreement have rank-order accuracy because bias and agreement operate on independent data analytic approaches. As such, everyone will rate their significant other as more attractive than the average rating from other friends, but the person who rated their partner as the most attractive will actually have a partner who is rated the most attractive compared to everyone else in participant sample. Second, Solomon and Vazire posit that that people tend to make overly positive global evaluations of their partners, but more realistic evaluations of specific traits and abilities (“My spouse has a lot of great qualities, but s/he is not very patient”). Third, they suggest that people have more biased judgments for relationship-relevant dimensions and more realistic judgments for dimensions related only to their partner (“My spouse is really attractive but s/he is not very good at soccer”).

But in order for someone to consciously juggle these contradicting views of their romantic partner, there must be some sort of explanation for their mental process. Solomon and Vazire hypothesize that people internalize both their own overly positive appraisal of their partner as everyone else’s appraisals of their partner. This allows for them to perceive a how great their partner is to them, but also acknowledge that other people might not share the same views. Solomon and Vazire group these meta-perceptions operate on two levels: knowledge of identity and knowledge of reputation. They believe that, due to the intimacy of a romantic relationship, partners will have a better understanding of how their mate might see themselves (knowledge of identity). They also believe that it is possible for romantic partners to be aware of how other people might not view their mate to be as attractive as they do.

For the purposes of their study, Solomon and Vazire looked specifically at ratings of physical attractiveness due to its high evaluativeness and relevancy for mate selection. They set out to test these these ideas in the form of five main hypotheses:

  • Romantic partners view targets (the participants of the study) as more physically attractive as compared to friends
  • Romantic partners’ perceptions are idiosyncratic (have low agreement with target and friends)
  • Romantic partners know how targets see themselves (they have identity accuracy)
  • This identity accuracy is unique to romantic partners (friends will not know how targets see themselves as well as the romantic partner will)
  • Romantic partners know how friends see targets (they have reputation accuracy)

Participants were sampled from a group of college students from Washington University in St. Louis. These participants were asked to answer a set of questionnaires regarding their perception of their own physical attractiveness. The participants were asked to name from 2-6 friends (depending on the hypothesis being tested), and questionnaires were sent to these friends and the participants’ romantic partners regarding their perception of the participants’ physical attractiveness and their perception of the participants’ self-evaluation. For the romantic partners, an additional questionnaire was given regarding their perception of the participants’ friends’ evaluations. The researchers used this self-reported data to look for correlations between the target’s self-, partner-, and friend perceptions.

Out of the five hypotheses, only Hypotheses 1 and 4 were fully supported, with Hypotheses 3 and 5 being mostly supported and Hypothesis 2 being partially supported. The findings from this study suggest that romantic partners are biased in their appraisal of the targets’ physical appearance, but they also understand the targets’ self-perception pretty well. This would support the idea that bias and agreement can coexist. However, evidence of romantic partners’ accuracy in perceiving the targets’ reputation is not substantial.

However, these results may not apply to a larger demographic; these findings were extrapolated from a fairly small convenience sample of college students. The most glaring fault with this method for this study is that the relationships of college students would not really be representative of most couples in the United States, let alone anywhere else. These are most likely short-term couples, so it is not surprising that romantic partners are still in the honeymoon phase of judging their significant other in a very positively biased light. Not much is known about how long these effects may last. It would be interesting to see further research in this field using long-term married couples to see if the bias/agreement relationship endures.

But if you’re a college student wondering if your boyfriend or girlfriend really thinks you look great in sweats, they probably do. They also, however, understand if you or your friends feel more confident when you’re all dressed up.

References

Solomon, B.C., & Vazire, S. (2014). You are so beautiful…to me: Seeing beyond biases and achieving accuracy in romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106, 516-528.

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