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We're Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.
(Photo: seranyaphotography/Flickr)

(Photo: seranyaphotography/Flickr)

What we want in a relationship and what we end up with are often not the same thing, and the reason is pretty simple, according to a new study. We overestimate our ability to reject people, and we do that because when it comes down to it, we don't want to hurt anyone's feelings.

It might not always seem like it, but people generally don't like being mean to each other—it's what psychologists call "other-regarding preferences." But those preferences can have negative consequences. We tend to be more satisfied in relationships with people who come closer to our ideals, and focusing on others' feelings could keep us from seeking what we truly want.

We tend to be more satisfied in relationships with people who come closer to our ideals, and focusing on others' feelings could keep us from seeking what we truly want.

To test out this theory, psychologists at the University of Toronto and Yale University conducted two dating experiments. In the first, the team sat down 132 undergraduates and had them fill out a dating profile, after which they perused three profiles of potential dates. The researchers then randomly selected about half of their experimental subjects and told them that all three people in the profiles were in the lab and available for a meet-up. The rest were told those potential dates weren't available right then, but they should nonetheless imagine they were. Next, each undergrad selected one person they'd most like to meet, at which point the team showed each participant "a photo of an unattractive person," as they put it, who they said depicted the person they'd chosen.

Finally, they asked whether each undergrad wanted to go through with trading contact information, and it made a difference whether they'd be rejecting someone in the next room or somewhere far away. When they'd been told their potential date wasn't around, just 16 percent wanted to get digits. When they thought that the person in the unappealing photo was hanging around outside, the number jumped to 37 percent. In other words, the researchers suggest, people were on average more than twice as willing to go on a date with the unattractive person when they were nearby.

In a second version of the experiment with 99 new students, the team replaced the unattractive photo with additional information, tailored to each subject based on a prior questionnaire. It indicated the person in their favorite profile had a deal-breaking trait or habit—for example, diametrically-opposed political beliefs. This time, 46 percent wanted to pursue a date when they thought the person wasn't around, and a whopping 74 percent wanted one when they thought the person was nearby.

The reason for these discrepancies, post-experiment surveys showed, was that students didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings, and that concern was stronger when they thought their possible dates were nearby. That could have consequences down the line, the researchers argue. As flaws become more grating over time, one partner may finally call it quits, causing more hurt than if they'd never gone out in the first place. Alternatively, a desire not to hurt a boyfriend or girlfriend could lead them to stay in a strained relationship longer despite the incompatibility.