Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Are Looks REALLY All That Matter in Dating?

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a 17-year-old boy in Korea and my life’s been great, I have many friends, my grades are super good, and I have passion and confidence.

But nowadays I’ve been thinking about love and I have some questions.

You see, I had a crush whom is my close friend. Our personality matched so much and I thought we would be good for partners but it turns out she only thinks of me as a ‘friend’, and am not interested in dating before turning 20. Sooo I was down but now I got over it, but because of crushing and failing questions about love started to linger in me, and then I started Googling about the subject, and I found some articles.

And they were like “Looks are the 80% that determines romance, you only say personality is more important because you want some excuses to lower your look standards, because you can’t date hot buds. Looks make up for flaws and people who says inner self is important are lying to themselves. People date someone who has the same level look with them.”

And I was kinda shocked when I read the article and people saying “That’s the reality, the truth.” I always thought personality is much more important and if the personality is really truly matching I could even date an ugly girl. Sure, a cute face is cool but it isn’t everything.

And I also thought love was something like wanting the partner beyond anyone else, not being attracted to any other more than the partner, and feeling something another level with each other… In other words, your partner becomes the most beautiful person in the world in your eyes.

But what those guys are saying and agreeing with was that you love someone based on superficial attributes mostly, and if you date with an average/ugly girl or guy it only means that you compromised to reality. And that also means you just settled, the partner isn’t the most beautiful in the world in your eyes, you just settled because she’s the best looker in the pool of girls you are able to date. So there are much more attractive girls but they are out of bounds so you choose her. A lot of people were agreeing with this, and the community was a major one, not a small one which only certain types(usually losers) of people gather. 

Man, if love is like that in reality it sucks. I found my crush the most attractive girl in the universe even if she isn’t in the eyes of the public. She’s quite cute, but to tell the truth there are some girls who are objectively more good-looking than her. But I didn’t feel anything to them. And if someone whom I have been crushing on has feelings to me too, I thought we could have love like I described earlier.

But if the things they said are reality: Love really seems hollow. It’s not romantic: it’s shallow and strategic. I’m about 6~8/10 when it comes to looks (My opinion) so I wouldn’t have serious damage in my relationship chances even if that was true but the problem is the concept just seems HOLLOW if adult love is really like that.

So Is love really like that? What is it like? Are the things that I said/experienced about love only because I’m teen, and real life and love are just look-based calculations? Am I secretly compromising when I say ‘looks don’t matter’?

And am I look-based too? come to think of it I had 2 crushes, and both of them were at least average looking objectively. So if an below-average girl has wonderful personality and really clicks with me could I love her too? Or I’d just kick her out even if I know right now that I shouldn’t do that? Would I have liked my crush in the first place if she was ugly?? Yes we became BF the day we met and I’ve never found anyone that has personality so similar and matching with me(She agreed on that too). But what if she was ugly? Would I still have been attracted to her? I feel I would’ve, but what if I just think like that because I have been crushing on her? If the answer is no I just feel guilty and such.

My message is kinda messed up, but the main question is about looks and love, and about true love. I hope you could give me wise advice about those topics. Thank you for reading.

Worried About Romance

DEAR WORRIED ABOUT ROMANCE: Before we get deep into this WAR, let me give you a quick rule of thumb: if you see a post or an article that refers to 80% or 20% when it comes to dating — such as “80% of dating is about looks” or “20% of men date 80% of women” — you can pretty much write it off as bulls--t right away. This is a common misapplication of the idea of The Pareto Principle which states that 80% of consequences result from 20% of causes. Economist Vilfredo Pareto originally proposed this upon realizing that 80% of privately owned land in Italy was owned by the richest 20% of the population, and that this held true for many other countries. This distribution has been found to hold roughly true in other areas, such as health and safety where approximately 80% of injuries are due to 20% of workplace hazards, or that 20% of video rentals account for 80% of video store profits.

And since some folks love trying to ice skate uphill, people have attempted to apply this to relationships and dating. It’s short, pithy, and it feels true… especially when you’re a would-be tech or finance bro who’s 100% convinced that you have insight into something that nobody else could possibly have thought of before. In reality, however, trying to apply economic principles to things as complex and nuanced as human attraction and relationships is a fool’s errand. But as we’ve seen, there’re always plenty of fools willing to give it a go anyway.

The same goes for the Principle of Assortative Mating — the idea that people date folks who are roughly on the same “level” as they are. Again: this is an attempt by people to take something generally applicable in one area — non-human animals tend to mate with other animals with similar phenotypes — and apply it to things that don’t fit at all, in hopes of giving scientific validity to the things they believe to be true. Once again, this falls apart if you look at it for more than a few seconds because people who buy into this are working backwards. They’re trying to justify their beliefs by saying that X is caused by Y truths and nothing can change that because it’s somehow inherent. In reality, however, this ignores… well, pretty much everything, from cultural forces that define what makes somebody attractive to the socio-economic and class factors that can affect who we meet and spend time with.

Your experience with your crush is actually much more valid. While people may have a general consensus of who is considered to be attractive or what features make somebody good looking, getting to know somebody actually makes them more appealing to you. In their paper “Relational Mate Value: Consensus and Uniqueness in Romantic Evaluations”, University of Texas: Austin researchers Paul Eastwick and Lucy Hunt discovered that uniqueness counts for far more in attraction than generic good looks. While there may be a group consensus about attractiveness at first, when that group spends more time together and gets to know one another — such as, say, when you’re at school and spending most of your day with your classmates — that consensus disappears. People end up having very different opinions about who’s hot or who’s not once they get to know each other on more than a superficial level.

Plus, while people make a huge fuss about good looks, the Halo Effect (the idea that being conventionally attractive causes people to think that you’re a better, smarter or more moral person) or the Dark Triad’s (psychopathy, narcissism and manipulative personality) effect on attractiveness, the truth is that personality actually has far more of an effect on so-called “mate value” or desirability for relationships. In fact, altruism, kindness and confidence rank far higher in terms of mate preference and long-term relationship success than looks.

Now, does this mean that looks aren’t important? Not really. Nobody is going to deny that being more conventionally attractive is an advantage, nor that it gives people a leg up in making first impressions. But not only is “conventionally attractive” a cultural construct, but it’s an advantage that doesn’t last long. Very few people start relationships with someone who they’ve only just met; those “love at first sight” relationships may start quickly, but they burn out quickly as well. More often than not, they’re based on superficial attraction and not deep, meaningful commonalities; it doesn’t take very long for that initial period of “holy crap, she’s got a body to make a bishop kick in a stained glass window” to fade. As a wise man once said: someone could be the sexiest woman in the world, but eventually it starts to feel like f--king the couch.

Just as importantly however, is the fact that while we may find people attractive, what makes us want to spend time with them — which, in turn, helps make them more attractive to us and vice versa — is how they make us feel. When somebody’s presence in our lives make us feel appreciated, validated or otherwise feel good, we prioritize our relationships with them. This is why you’ll see people who seem to be dating people who are “out of their league”; they may not be as physically attractive as their partner, but they have other qualities that caused their partner to fall for them. That almost always ends up being something that makes them feel amazing when their supposedly less-desirable partner is around.

This, incidentally, is why people used to joke that rock and roll was God’s gift to ugly people and why there’re so many jokes about girls falling for broke, unemployed dudes who are in a band or play guitar…

So why do all of those folks on those forums insist that it’s all about looks? Well… in part it’s because they’re projecting. They’re prioritizing looks because they feel that having a girlfriend who’s a 9 or 10 or whatever makes them special and gives them social status. They aren’t interested in girlfriends as something other than a trophy that glorifies how awesome they supposedly are. They’re also almost always trying to justify their lack of success with landing 9s and 10s; they insist that it’s because women only want certain kinds of guys (that supposed 20%) and they’re s--t outta luck because of the ratio of their brow to their jaw or some other phrenology bulls--t, rather than acknowledging that they have awful personalities and think women are just prizes for being The Top Man.

So, yeah, WAR: a big part of why you fell for your crush is because of how much you and she clicked. And it’s certainly possible that you could date someone who most folks would think isn’t conventionally attractive because you got to know her and realized how much she had to offer… and how that made her more attractive to you. The folks who insist that it’s all about looks — or even mostly looks — and define those looks as stringently and conventionally as possible are telling on themselves.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with some words of wisdom from the sage:

“You know when sometimes you meet someone so beautiful, and then you actually talk to them, and five minutes later they’re dull as a brick. But then there’s other people, and you meet them and you think ‘not bad, they’re okay’, and then you get to know them, and their face sort of becomes them, like their personality’s written all over it, and they just they turn into something so beautiful…”

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com