When it comes to dating, we’re often told that we should trust our instincts: If it feels right, go for it, but if you get a bad feeling from someone, steer clear.
These instincts can certainly be helpful at times, but they’re also subject to a number of biases that can lead us to trust the wrong people and overlook the right ones.
Here are just three ways that our romantic instincts can lead us astray.
1. We see old people in new people.
Have you ever met someone and felt immediate warmth and affection toward them, only to realize later that he or she reminds you of one of your closest friends? Or have you gotten inexplicably bad vibes from someone and then noticed that he or she just happens to share certain (annoying) mannerisms with your ex? The thing is, a lot of the time we don’t consciously notice these similarities, but they shape our perceptions and behaviors nonetheless.
This phenomenon is called transference, and it’s not limited to a psychoanalytic context: research suggests that it’s a common experience in everyday life, and can occur in a range of relationships.
In a number of clever experiments, researchers manipulated transference by introducing participants to a new, unknown person who in some subtle way resembled a significant person in participants’ lives. They found that participants tended to perceive the unknown person through the lens of the known person, attributing the known person’s traits and motivations to them, all without conscious awareness of this connection. In addition, participants’ feelings, expectations, and behaviors in relation to the new person often mirrored those that they had experienced with the known person.
In other words, our instincts about new people are often influenced by their incidental resemblance to other people in our lives. Our desire to fill in the blanks and make our social worlds more predictable, though useful at times, can also make it difficult to see new people for who they really are. As a result, we may find ourselves attracted to people for the wrong reasons—specifically, because we attribute positive qualities to them that they don’t actually possess. By the same token, we may feel repulsed by people who are in reality not guilty of any of the offenses we associate with them.
2. Some of our instincts are stuck in the (evolutionary) past.
Gut feelings aren’t just influenced by past relationships—they’re also influenced by our evolutionary past. Evolutionary psychologists have found evidence to suggest that attraction in modern humans is shaped by factors that may have aided our hunter-gatherer ancestors but have little bearing on what makes for a satisfying relationship in modern life.
For example, research shows that women tend to be attracted to socially dominant, masculine-looking men during ovulation and to less dominant, less masculine-looking men at less fertile times of their cycle. Some have speculated that this attraction pattern evolved as a dual mating strategy, in which women reproduce with socially dominant men (who presumably have good genes), but settle down with commitment-oriented types (who can be trusted to stick around and help raise the kids).
Supporting this hypothesis, research suggests that women are more likely to fantasize and engage in extramarital affairs with more masculine men during ovulation. Needless to say, following these types of romantic instincts is probably not advisable in modern times.
Men, for their part, are believed to have evolved an instinctive preference for younger women, because such partnerships can increase their likelihood of passing on their genes. To the extent that these youth-seeking instincts are blindly followed, though, they can cloud the consideration of factors that may prove more relevant for lasting relationship satisfaction, not least of which is similarity in age.
It’s important to note that when people experience these types of romantic instincts, they aren’t typically aware of why they are experiencing them. Women aren’t consciously thinking, I’m ovulating, so I should probably hook up with that masculine-looking guy and trick my husband into thinking the baby is his; and men aren’t thinking, Wow, that woman looks really fertile today! Rather, these instinctual preferences are more likely to be experienced as general feelings of attraction and chemistry—the kinds of feelings that we tend to assume must reflect our true desires.
3. Automatic judgments are often prejudiced ones.
Perhaps the most destructive way our instincts can lead us astray is through their association with prejudice and discrimination.
Decades of research on intergroup processes has shown that our reactions to people from different racial or ethnic groups are driven to a large degree by automatic processes—processes that take place outside of conscious awareness.
For example, one study found that European-Americans were more likely to attribute hostile intentions to the same ambiguous behavior if they associated it with African-Americans as opposed to European-Americans.
Other studies showed that participants in a video-game simulation were more likely to mistakenly shoot an unarmed target—and faster to shoot an armed target—if the target was African-American versus European-American.
These biases can also be seen on a neurological level: When viewing other-race faces, people tend to show greater activation of the amygdala, a part of the brain responsible for processing threat.
For many people, racial bias is not driven by malicious intentions, but rather by deeply-ingrained stereotypes about different groups. A lifetime of exposure to negative stereotypes can condition people’s fear responses and make them less trusting of others, and this distrust can interfere with the development of friendships and romantic relationships across groups.
Like other forms of bias, automatic prejudice isn’t typically consciously experienced as such. Rather, it may be experienced as a vague negative feeling about someone, something you can’t quite put your finger on. Because the source of this feeling is often not consciously accessible, it can be difficult to recognize that it’s a form of bias (i.e., it feels like an accurate assessment), making it all the more powerful.
The lesson here is that we can’t always trust our instincts about others, especially when we’re evaluating members of other groups, since it’s possible that automatic prejudice is playing a role in shaping our judgments. By becoming more aware of the potential for our instincts to be biased, we can consciously choose not to heed them blindly and instead strive to take a more open-minded, trusting approach, one that defaults to seeing individuals as individuals rather than simply group representatives.
In sum, instincts may have evolved to protect us from perceived danger and increase our odds of successfully passing down our genes, but the context in which they evolved is very different from the world in which we now live, where the things we want in our lives tend to extend far beyond what was desirable—or possible—for our ancestors. Instincts are not useless, but they’re often a lot less meaningful than they feel.