I was on a business trip to New York with two female (and single) colleagues — one in her late twenties, the other in her late thirties — and while I am also single, I’m now in my late fifties. As we got into a high-rise elevator, we were joined by a mysterious man who took my breath away. He was probably in his late forties and sported shaggy graying hair, a hint of five o’clock shadow and a slightly paunchy middle… but with his sapphire-colored cashmere scarf wrapped around his neck, this man also looked incredibly stylish. And there was something about the devilish way his eyes twinkled when he grinned, asked us which floor we wanted, and then joked about the oppressive heat outside on the ride up. When he stepped off a few floors below us, I said: “Oh my! There went my dream man.” My two younger colleagues immediately wrinkled up their noses. The one in her twenties said, “Not my type,” while the other in her thirties said: “He’s bad husband material; I can tell.”
Are we attracted to different people as our relationship goals change? I was both incredulous… and amused. I thought, Why was my reaction markedly different from theirs? It reminded me that, during each decade of our lives, singles look for different things in a romantic partner — from a kid who’s willing share Twinkies with us in grade school to someone who will lovingly remind us to take our meds during the Golden Years. Our differing reactions to the exact same man made me realize that in our twenties, singles are still having fun — we’re usually looking for someone who looks like Chris Evans (or Scarlett Johansson) and imagining that a sexy smile and fit physique are the only criteria necessary to build a solid companionship. After 30, women tend to get much more serious about finding a husband. The woman in her thirties remarked on my elevator crush’s resemblance (at least in attitude) to Keith Richards and subsequently labeled him as being a bad bet for a spouse — or, at minimum, a man with whom she would never bear a child.
I, on the other hand, actually prefer a man with some wrinkles and carrying a few extra pounds, an air of confidence, intelligence, a warm personality and an inviting grin rather than some young guy with six-pack abs. Although truthfully, it wasn’t always so: when I was in my twenties and married my first husband, he was a champion swimmer — gorgeous, athletic (and little else). But I didn’t care; that kind of relationship worked well for us at the time. Of course, things fell apart when we both learned who we were inside and what we each really wanted in a partner — and it wasn’t something that could be accomplished while we were still married to each other.
What singles can learn about attraction from online dating
The good news about being single at any age is that there are literally millions of fish in the sea. But what’s the best way to reel these catches in? Consider the smorgasbord of romantic possibilities provided by the Internet. Research conducted by John T. Cacioppo of the University of Chicago and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that, of the more than 19,000 married couples surveyed, 35% of those married between 2005 and 2012 met online. No longer does it raise an eyebrow to introduce your new love interest by saying, “we met online.” Where friends used to be the primary resource for meeting other eligible singles to date, researchers now believe that the Internet could soon become the number-one method for finding dates and establishing new relationships. This is why myriad studies are being made of online dating sites, which are rich with plunderable data. The goal? To discover our likes and dislikes, then use that data to analyze what attracts us to each other.
How men and women differ in defining “attractive” traits in a mate One study coauthored by Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely found that men ranked a woman’s attractiveness as her most important trait. Pretty superficial, right? But women are equally guilty, per the same study: to them, a man’s height was his most important feature. (And contrary to one popular stereotype, income was not ranked as being especially important.) So, what kind of physical type did the men in Ariely’s study find to be most attractive of all? They preferred women who were on the svelte side. Yes, the smaller the body mass index, the better. Women’s ratings of what they found attractive in men were less focused on physical attributes, and their opinions diverged widely on which men were more attractive to them than others. It didn’t matter if a heavier woman held several advanced degrees; any education beyond a bachelor’s degree did nothing to increase her desirability to men. And apparently, having fresh breath is also not a compelling factor in gauging a man’s interest: According to the study, a woman’s smoking habit actually increased her desirability on dating sites — perhaps because men subconsciously associated smoking with sexuality. Also unsurprising is the study’s data analysis showing that men tended to look for younger women to settle down with, while women preferred partnering with older men; in addition, women were pickier than men were about what they were looking for in a potential mate.
Another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by Wake Forest University psychologist Dustin Wood also found that men were very aligned in their thinking about what specific traits makes a woman attractive to them: a slender figure, a sense of seductiveness and projected aura of confidence. For women, the study reinforced that assessing desirability in men is a somewhat more complex issue. Some women gave high attractiveness ratings to men whom other women said were not attractive to them at all.
How the right photo can instantly make you seem more attractive to others
There are no studies that I can find about how our perceptions of attractiveness change as we age, but in some ways, online daters have quite a bit in common, regardless of which generation they were born into. An OkCupid study analyzed 7,000 user photos and discovered that women get more male attention when they flirt into the camera or smile; men, on the other hand, got better responses when they looked away from the camera and didn’t smile. It seems that men prefer a friendly face, while women are drawn to men with a more mysterious air in their photos. Interestingly, one thing both men and women of all ages are universally drawn to is the color red, according to studies published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology and Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The takeaway lesson? Pair crimson lips with a red tie on your next date, and you’ll go from blushing strangers to a power couple sooner than either of you expected!