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It’s not you, it’s me… oh wait maybe it is you

Illustration of: many male avatarsYou’re a single, heterosexual, undergraduate-aged woman. You’re looking at an online dating website, rating men whom you think are attractive, romantic and potentially good partners. A man who you thought fit all three rejects you. You’ve just been socially excluded.  You reject him back, thinking, ‘he wasn’t that attractive anyway, I’m not sure what I was thinking.’ Some people think that would make you all the more ready to accept an offer from a man you deemed unattractive. But according to a new U of T study, that’s not the case.

“The old way of thinking is ‘well, if somebody offers acceptance, then you should jump at the chance for that.’ But it’s more about feeling accepted by whoever you deem the right sort of person,” says University of Toronto psychologist Geoff MacDonald. “When you distance yourself from the unattractive man, then you are able to maintain a sense of ‘well I’m not like him, that’s not who I am’ and maintain the view that you would be acceptable to the kinds of people you’d want to date in the future.”

The finding, from MacDonald’s research paper ‘Resisting connection following social exclusion: rejection by an attractive suitor provokes derogation of an unattractive suitor’ was recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, co-written by former undergraduate students who went on to graduate studies at University of Guelph and Lakehead University.

“People want to distance themselves from unattractive others,” MacDonald says. “If the goal was to have attractive partners, but they start feeling associated with unattractive people, they start internalizing that sense that ‘this is what I deserve’ in a partner. They’ll start feeling like someone who won’t be able to be connected to the kinds of people who they want to be connected to.”

MacDonald and his team conducted two studies the first with 126 participants, the second with 166. The women were told that the researchers wanted to look at the difference between rating somebody in a dating profile as opposed to meeting that person in the real world. They wrote out their online profile on paper, had their picture taken, and then were shown profiles of an attractive man and an unattractive man (being dubbed attractive and unattractive came in a pre-test of participants rating pictures on a scale of 1-7) and told they would later find out if the men were interested in them. Once they saw whether the attractive man was interested in them or not, they filled out a questionnaire. If they were first rejected by the attractive man and then accepted by the unattractive man, they tended to indicate less interest in dating the unattractive man by rating him lower.

“When you are not getting the attention from the people that you want, our study suggests you are going to evaluate the people who you don’t want that much more harshly,” says MacDonald.

MacDonald finds this kind of research on social exclusion and isolation paired with the nature of relationships fascinating. He notes that evolution has led people to be driven by the need to connect with others in order to stay alive. So if we find someone as a partner or as someone who could help us start a family, then there’s a deep part of us that gets excited.

“Relationships are at the heart of what drives people,” he says. “It’s at the heart of the human condition.”

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