Over dinner at a recently renovated firehouse-turned-pizza-kitchen in downtown Durham, NC, Dan Ariely, noted scholar of irrationality (and my boss), hosted a talk on the science of dating and relationships.
While he was speaking, an assistant affixed to each person’s forehead a post-it note labeled with a number between one and ten. This number signified everyone’s hotness, and the game was to pair off with the highest possible number you could (without looking at your own number). Since my whole table immediately started to vie for my attention, I suspected right away that I’d lucked out.
After finding and pairing with a ten, I learned I was right.
The game, while too crude to be properly scientific, roughly demonstrates assortative mating, a common theory of how couples pair. I wasn’t the only one who had matched with the same number. Assortative mating suggests this kind of even matching is roughly how dating works.
Sometimes the real world looks similar to the game we played, but not always. When a relationship starts between two strangers (like in our example) they tend to be relatively closely matched in attractiveness. But when relationships have their roots in friendship things start to look a little different.
It’s a phenomenon explored by three researchers in a June paper from the journal of Psychological Science. To test the effect of diverging personal preferences on real couples, the three (Paul Eastwick, Lucy Hunt, and E. J. Finkel) asked 167 couples how long they’d known each other before becoming romantically involved—and whether they were friends first. On average, couples knew each other for about four months before they started dating, and about 40 percent of couples were friends before pairing off.
Next, the researchers asked strangers to rate how attractive each member of the couple was. Couples who started dating less than a month after they met one another were much more likely to pair off like the couples in the game I played—the nines with nines, and so on. The longer couples knew each other before they dated, though, the bigger the difference in how attractive they were. The same effect held for couples that reported being friends before they dated—those who answered yes were less closely matched on attractiveness.
While we generally tend to agree on who’s attractive and who isn’t, our tastes are sometimes idiosyncratic—you might prefer tattooed extroverts while your neighbor might prefer someone more reserved. This means that each person really has two numbers on their foreheads: one reflecting the personal preferences of whoever’s looking and the other reflecting general consensus. Sometimes the two numbers are very close to one another, and other times they’re very different.
When and why personal preferences and general consensus diverge is something Eastwick and Hunt (both from the University of Texas at Austin) are committed to investigating.
In another study, they asked students in one discussion section to rate each other at the beginning and end of the semester. In a different one, they asked people to rate several friends of the opposite sex. Either way, the results were the same: the longer you’ve known someone, the more your rating of them differs from everyone else’s. While you might join the crowd in saying that someone you just met is a six, you might start to see that six as a seven once you get to know them better.
Attraction is more than physical looks, of course, and while these results held for more superficial measures, the difference was strongest for aspects of attractiveness that had to do with the potential quality of a relationship—questions like whether that person would provide intimacy and companionship, respect you, and be a good parent. The authors suggest that the longer you have to get to know someone, the more you can learn their quirks and see how good a romantic partner they might be.
While “the friend zone” used to have broad cultural capital—there was an MTV show named after it, older sitcoms like Friends and Scrubs frequently referenced it, and all your friends in high school never stopped talking about it—it’s looking more and more like a notion that’s antiquated, sexist, and untrue. While studies show that men are more likely to report being attracted to their opposite-sex friends than women are, there’s not much to support the idea of a narrow window or ticking clock where, after a certain amount of time, romantic relationships become impossible and women (it’s usually women) say to men (it’s usually men) “I just see you as a friend.”
More than showing that plenty of relationships start as friendships, Eastwick, Hunt, and Finkel’s research shows that the longer you’re friends with someone, the more possible ways there are for that person to be attracted to you—instead of matching how other people see you, your friends are able to have more idiosyncratic and deeper feelings. While most strangers might find a grown-man’s appreciation for the cartoon My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic creepy or weird, a friend might see it as an endearing expression of someone’s values.
Other notions of the friend zone, where men invest emotional intimacy into women but don’t receive romantic or sexual intimacy in return, seem to simultaneously cheapen the concept of friendship and externalize men’s own shortcomings. Friendship, instead of something important and valuable in and of itself, becomes something instrumental men pursue on the road to a relationship. And when that relationship never materializes, “I was friend-zoned!” sounds a lot better to a bruised ego than “someone I like isn’t romantically or sexually interested in me.”
It’s obviously painful to have feelings for someone who doesn’t share them back, but this doesn’t make friendship a cheap consolation prize we’re left with when our romantic aspirations fail. Friendship is more important than that—one might say it’s magic, even—and women shouldn’t be blamed for men’s unrequited feelings.