What people believe they want and what they might actually prefer are not always the same thing. And in the case of being outperformed as an element of romantic attraction, the difference between genuine affinity and apparent desirability becomes clearer as the distance between two people gets smaller.
In matters of relative performance, distance influences attraction. For example, someone of greater intelligence seems attractive when they're distant or far away in your mind. But less so when that same person is right next to you, according to a new study by a University at Buffalo-led research team published in the latest edition of the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
"We found that men preferred women who are smarter than them in psychologically distant situations. Men rely on their ideal preferences when a woman is hypothetical or imagined," said Lora Park, associate professor in the UB Department of Psychology and the study's principal investigator. "But in live interaction, men distanced themselves and were less attracted to a woman who outperformed them in intelligence."
Previous research has shown that similarities between individuals can affect attraction. This new set of studies suggests that psychological distance -- whether someone is construed as being near or far in relation to the self -- plays a key role in determining attraction.
"It's the distinction between the abstract and the immediate," says Park. "There is a disconnect between what people appear to like in the abstract when someone is unknown and when that same person is with them in some immediate social context."
Even though the research focus of the current study was on romantic attraction and, specifically, men's interest in women, Park says the result might potentially be a broader phenomenon, extending to other interpersonal situations.
"That's a question for future research," she said. "But presumably, anyone who is outperformed by someone close to them might feel threatened themselves. We just happened to look at men in a romantic dating context."
Park's team conducted six separate studies involving 650 young adult subjects. The studies ranged from presenting subjects with hypothetical women, to women they expected to meet, to actually engaging in an interpersonal interaction.
"In each case, how much you like someone or how much you are attracted to them is affected by how intelligent that person is relative to you and how close that person is relative to you," said Park.
But the area of performance has to be something important to the individual.
"The domain matters," says Park. "If you don't care about the domain, you might not be threatened. Yet, if you care a lot about the domain, then you might prefer that quality in somebody who is distant, then feel threatened when that person gets close to you."