Why Romance From Afar Can Fizzle Close Up

In romance, what we think we want and what we actually prefer don’t always line up.

For example, someone of greater intelligence may seem attractive when they’re distant or far away in your mind. But they may seem less appealing when they’re right next to you, according to a new study.

Says Lora Park, associate professor in the University at Buffalo psychology department and the study’s principal investigator:

“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.

But in live interaction, men distanced themselves and were less attracted to a woman who outperformed them in intelligence.”

The Abstract vs. The Immediate

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.”

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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 says. “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,” says 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.”

Lora E. Park, Ariana F. Young, and Paul W. Eastwick
(Psychological) Distance Makes the Heart Grow Fonder: Effects of Psychological Distance and Relative Intelligence on Men’s Attraction to Women
Pers Soc Psychol Bull November 2015 41: 1459-1473, doi:10.1177/0146167215599749

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