Do we actually prefer different characteristics in new romantic partners?

August 2, 2021 - Liz Schondelmayer

When looking for their next romantic partners, most people would think they'd like to avoid someone who is just like their ex. But new social science research suggests that the majority of us actually do the exact opposite - or will even look for someone who reminds us of our parents. 

According to a new study from Michigan State University graduate student Katelin Leahy (pictured left) and MSU psychologist Dr. William Chopik, people tend to show romantic interest in people who resemble their exes or their parents. Called transference, this concept holds up across the lifespan - meaning that younger, middle-aged and older people all tend to follow this pattern. 

The study is the first of its kind to test the theory of transference among adults from all age groups, as past research had focused solely on college students. For this study, the researchers asked over 500 participants to use adjectives to describe their past partners, such as "nice," "helpful," or "charismatic," and then designed dating profiles to mimic those traits.

Leahy and Dr. Chopik found that, not only did the majority of participants favor profiles with similar traits as their exes, they began falsely attributing characteristics to those profiles which actually applied to their ex. "For example, the transference effect suggests that people would remember a profile saying they enjoyed a certain band, but the band was nowhere on the profile - it was actually their ex's favorite band," explained Dr. Chopik. 

For Leahy, a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, this research served as her Master's thesis project. "As a close relationships researcher, I'm interested in understanding how people choose romantic partners. After discovering the theory of transference, I wanted to test if people really are interested in dating the same type of people over time and across life," Leahy said.

Leahy notes that the study's results may seem counterintuitive: "You would think an ex is an ex for a reason, right? However, for some reason, we seem to be drawn to familiarity and comfort, even when our relationships with similar people continuously fail." 

Transference was especially present in participants who were older and/or confident in their ability to get into or maintain relationships. This means that these patterns of misremembering and preferring people from our past were somewhat stronger as people age or become more comfortable in relationships.

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The published study can be found here.