The Matching Hypothesis: Choosing Partners On the Same Level

We all like attractive people. However, when it comes to choosing mates, we opt for those who are similar to us. Why does this happen? It could be due to the matching hypothesis.
The Matching Hypothesis: Choosing Partners On the Same Level
Elena Sanz

Written and verified by the psychologist Elena Sanz.

Last update: 07 November, 2023

Who attracts us and why? On what basis do we choose our partners? Are some people really out of our reach? These issues provoke a great deal of interest. In fact, it’s true that we all seem to like a hegemonic physique, the kind that prompts positive reactions and emotions in us.

However, in reality, people of all shapes, sizes, backgrounds, and characteristics come together, mate, and are fully satisfied with their relationships. This may be due to Walster’s well-known matching hypothesis.

Elaine Walster (now known as Elaine Hatfield) is a social psychologist. She’s long been a pioneer in the science of relationships. She proposed that people prefer and tend to form relationships with partners who are similar to them in terms of their level of attractiveness. But, is this really true? If so, what implications does it have?

couple talking
In short exchanges, the aspect that prevails the most is attractiveness.

The importance of physical appearance

Our appearance determines how others see us and the way they address us. In daily life, it’s easy to see that people who conform to the canons of beauty are rather privileged in terms of the opinion they generate in others. This has been backed up by science on numerous occasions.

We tend to make more positive judgments about attractive people. In addition, we assign them extra qualities (such as kindness, sympathy, or good intentions) even without knowing them. For example, one study found that adult participants judged the transgressions of less attractive children more harshly. Moreover, they were more sympathetic and optimistic about the more attractive ones.

In another experiment, people had to judge an alleged crime of robbery. When the criminal was attractive, they recommended a much lower sentence than when they weren’t.

The above helps us to get an idea of how important image is to us. It explains why we all choose and prefer the most attractive people when it comes to forming relationships. However, this doesn’t always happen.

The matching hypothesis

According to Walster, it’s the similarity or being at the same level in terms of physical attractiveness that makes us opt for particular partners. This is the hypothesis that she tested in a study conducted in 1966.

More than 700 young people participated in the experiment and were paired randomly for a ‘computer match dance’. They all evaluated or qualified how much they liked their partners. After six months, a follow-up study was conducted.

The results showed that the most attractive individuals scored their partners most harshly. This was regardless of whether they were similar to their partners or not, and irrespective of other personality traits. In the follow-up study, it was found couples were more likely to continue interacting if they were similarly attractive. This supported Walster’s hypothesis.

Several years later, in 1971, they repeated the study. However, on this occasion, they allowed the participants to meet beforehand and to think about what type of partner they’d like to have. In this case, couples who were more similar to each other (in terms of physical appearance) were more attracted to each other.

Couple looking at each other
In long exchanges, the aspect that prevails the most is similarity.

Are we afraid of rejection?

The matching hypothesis has been tested on several occasions. It’s demonstrated that, in fact, people do tend to choose those who are ‘on their level’ as partners. So, why does this happen?

The answer could lie in the fear of rejection. We adjust our expectations to what we think we have to offer. Trying to get close or match up with more socially desirable people puts us in vulnerable positions that we seem unwilling to assume. In fact, in a study conducted by Huston in 1973, it was observed that, when the probability of rejection was nil, the participants chose people more attractive than themselves as a partner.

However, it’s not yet clear if this is really the cause and more research is required. What we can say is that fear and low self-esteem often limit us when it comes to demonstrating our full potential. If we were to overcome these obstacles, perhaps new and exciting possibilities would open up for us.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Berscheid, E., Dion, K., Walster, E., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: A test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(2), 173–189.
  • Dion, K. K. (1972). Physical attractiveness and evaluation of children’s transgressions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(2), 207–213.
  • Huston, T. L. (1973). Ambiguity of acceptance, social desirability, and dating choice. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology9(1), 32-42.
  • Sigall, H., & Ostrove, N. (1975). Beautiful but dangerous: Effects of offender attractiveness and nature of the crime on juridic judgment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31(3), 410–414.
  • Walster, E., Aronson, V., Abrahams, D., & Rottman, L. (1966). Importance of physical attractiveness in dating behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(5), 508–516.

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