This article was also published today on Positive Psychology News Daily.
I previously wrote an article about Sam Sommers’ new book, Situations Matter (see Why Men are better than Women at Math.) But I liked this book so much that I agreed to write a second article in order to participate in their online book tour traveling around the internet (cool idea.) The theme of the book is about the importance of context in impacting our beliefs and behaviors.
This article was inspired by a small scrap of paper with “Face, Butt, Wit” written on it. It’s an example of a response that Sommers got from one of his undergraduate psychology students from Tufts university when he asked them what they are attracted to in a potential romantic partner. While the responses varied, there were some common themes. Most of the answers captured either a physical characteristic (face, butt, legs, fitness, etc.) or a personality trait (humor, witty, confidence, intelligence.)
Sommers reminds us that who we actually end up with probably has far more to do with situational factors than it does with these aspects of appearance and personality. For example, one research study of a new residential community found that friendships formed based on how closely people lived to one another. “For every meager nineteen feet of apartment floor plan that separated two Westgate neighbors,” Sommers said, “their chances of developing a close friendship were cut by nearly half.”
Another study showed that marriages were also fueled by the proximity of the pair. In Ohio, for example, 1/3 of married couples were within 5 blocks of each other when they met. It may not be as romantic as going on an around-the-world quest to find your soul mate (see Around the World in 80 Dates Around the World in 80 Datesby Jennifer Cox, and while you’re at it read How the World Makes Love by the wonderful Franz Wisner), but the good news is your future partner is probably regularly shopping in the same supermarket you do.
This may not sound too surprising. I mean, there may be some amazing potential partners in other parts of the world that you will never have the chance to meet and eventually marry. But Sommers shows that this is more than just the convenience of proximity. He also shared research showing that familiarity breeds attraction. Having more incidental contact with someone leads to greater attraction, even between strangers.
Reading Sommers’ book, I can’t help but think about how I met my own wife. We met on match.com, and presumably we both had our profiles built and our own list of “Face, Butt, Wit” characteristics that we were looking for in a partner. But my wife Catherine will tell you there were strong situational forces at play.
She was about to give up and went online to cancel her match.com membership. But she decided to do one last search for eligible men around her age within a one mile radius of her house. A picture of me popped up wearing an Alpaca wool sweater that was identical to a sweater that Catherine’s brother had brought her from a trip to South America. Catherine sent me a note, “Nice sweater, how was Bolivia?”
I could say, “and the rest was history” but even that would not cover how we came together as a couple. It was not love at first sight. But we met and found that we both loved surfing and so we started spending time together and the attraction grew and grew.
Surfing with a potential partner is a great way to heighten romantic feelings. Sommers cites research showing that people are more attracted to others when they are in a high adrenaline situation, such as on a high narrow bridge. So Catherine and I fell in love riding the waves on our favorite beach in Long Island and sharing our love of travel with surf trips to Puerto Rico, El Salvador, Fiji and South Africa.
So if you are looking for love, my advice is to forget about “face, butt, wit.” Crumple up your list and throw it away. Instead, start paying attention to the situations that are bringing interesting people in and out of your life and the situations that will help the seeds of love to blossom and grow.
References and recommended reading:
Sommers, S. (2011). Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World. Riverhead Hardcover.
Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher.