A Rational Checklist Is No Match For Emotions In Matters Of The Heart


A Rational Checklist Is No Match For Emotions In Matters Of The Heart
Your cold, hard list is no match for hot emotions. Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash, CC BY

For many people, there are few things more rewarding than crossing an item off a checklist. But what if the checklist is about your dream partner? And what if the checklist is wrong?

Relationshopping” is when you hunt for the perfect partner as if people were products. Online dating, now used by almost 40 percent of Americans who are “single and looking,” might be normalizing this tendency. Often aided by search filters, potential daters seek the perfect combination of attributes rather than focusing on the experience of being with a person.

Relationshopping might work if people knew themselves well, but research indicates the contrary. In recent years, psychologists, economists and neuroscientists alike have found that decisions are largely driven by emotion. Furthermore, in the steady, logical environment in which we anticipate our decisions, people struggle to account for visceral drives such as excitement, hunger and sexual arousal.

Psychology researchers like me call this the “hot-cold empathy gap.” This distance between our predicted behaviors in a cold, rational state and our actual behaviors in a hot, aroused state, explains why people often don’t do as they say. It might explain, for example, why you swore you’d stop eating cookies for the New Year – and you really meant it – but then went and ate a dozen (they just smelled so good!) when your colleague brought them to work.

In the cold state, it’s easy to forget about the power of emotions. Given the strong and complex feelings involved, you may be prone to the empathy gap in the search for the perfect partner.

Hot-cold decision-making in dating

Studies have documented the hot-cold empathy gap in an array of behaviors, including young men’s failure to use condoms in the grip of sexual arousal and people’s inability to empathize with social suffering unless they feel a similar pain themselves.

Psychology researchers are now turning to the hot-cold empathy gap to understand why the attributes that people say they want in a romantic partner often differ from the attributes they actually choose in real life. Speed-dating studies provide an ideal venue for examining this question: Researchers are able to compare people’s reports of what they want to their decisions about whom to date.

In one speed-dating study, college students’ reported preferences in a partner showed typical gender differences. Women preferred wealth more so than did men, and men preferred beauty more so than did women. When these same participants speed-dated, however, there were no gender differences in preferences for wealth and beauty. Furthermore, participants’ self-reported preferences did not predict whom they offered a date to in the speed-dating event.

In another study, men found more intelligent women to be more desirable in hypothetical situations, but less desirable if they actually interacted with them in a live scenario. These findings might be accounted for by people’s failure to account for their emotions – like excitement inspired by beauty or inadequacy aroused by a smarter woman – in the presence of a potential partner. In the heat of the moment, emotions may override preconceived notions about what you desire.

Although some of the current research may make it seem like “hot” states lead people astray in love, there may be a brighter side to them. Currently, ethnic preferences in dating are common, even among highly educated circles. Interested in understanding the match between stated and actual ethnic preferences, I conducted a speed-dating study of young Asian-Americans, who may approach love more practically due to a cultural emphasis on meeting their family’s expectations rather than following their own desires. Thus, Asian-Americans may not not show the empathy gap in dating if they strongly prioritize their cold list of parent-approved attributes over any hot emotions of their own.

Unsurprisingly, the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Filipino American participants told me in advance that they most preferred dating within their own group. Their speed-dating decisions, however, did not reflect their stated preferences. Speed-daters weren’t more likely to want to see partners of the same ethnicity again. Perhaps in person, they were too overwhelmed with desire to consider the negative social consequences, such as parental disapproval, of dating outside their ethnicity. The visceral experience beat out the logical checklist again.

relationship checklists2 2 13You can enter dating situations with your eyes open, aware of the hot-cold empathy gap. Rommel Canlas/Shutterstock.com

How to jump beyond the gap

With knowledge of the hot-cold empathy gap, finding a partner might seem even more intimidating. There are, however, some things you can do to bridge the gap between your hot and cold states and hopefully come closer to finding love.

First, understand your own biases, so you can then account for them. How? Ask others. Research suggests that people easily identify others’ bias, but not their own. Another method is to put yourself in the “hot” state, and reflect, at that moment, on what you’re really drawn to in a person. In one study, researchers induced social rejection in teachers – only in this condition did teachers start to truly understand the pain experienced by bullied students.

Once you identify them, you may want to avoid some of the decisions that you make in your “hot” states. So another tactic is to remove yourself from undesirable situations. For instance, maybe you’re attracted to “bad boys” or “bad girls.” Knowing the power of emotions, stay away from places you might meet one, perhaps having friends or family hold you accountable.

Then be reasonable in your expectations. Carefully go through your “cold” checklists of desired qualities in a potential partner and consider removing superficial ones. All those criteria might not matter as much as you think when it comes to falling in love. Consider whether you’re ruling people out unnecessarily based on ideas of what you should desire.

Too many options can mean never being happy. Rather than always searching for the next best thing and “relationshopping,” researchers suggest that people should try “relationshipping” – developing a healthy partnership through mutual time and effort. This doesn’t mean settling down with just anyone. Look for someone who is willing and able to invest the blood, sweat and tears necessary for a successful relationship.

As easy as it is to blame our emotions for “irrational” decisions, people should celebrate emotions as well. At times, “hot” emotions steer people in a more positive direction, perhaps making them care less about the ethnicity or earning potential of potential partners. Emotions serve an important evolutionary purpose, spurring us into action. They push us to help each other, to bond and to take the leap of faith needed to find and build love, sometimes in places we least expect.The Conversation

About The Author

Karen Wu, Assistant Professor of Psychology, California State University, Los Angeles

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Related Books

10 Choices Successful Couples Make

relationshipsAuthor: Dr. Ron Welch
Binding: Paperback
Studio: Revell
Label: Revell
Publisher: Revell
Manufacturer: Revell

Buy Now
Editorial Review: Most books on marriage rightly address communication and conflict as key issues, then advise readers on how to fight fair since conflict is an inevitable reality and cannot be avoided. But Dr. Ron Welch asks the provocative question, Is it? Is every marriage doomed to one conflict after another? Shouldn't we expect better than that?

In this practical and encouraging book, Welch offers a far more positive approach to marriage, outlining 10 specific choices couples can make to minimize or even avoid conflict and increase joy. With his expert guidance, couples will learn how to employ proven strategies to

- communicate accurately and positively
- choose forgiveness over unforgiveness
- understand their marriage type
- and make decisions more effectively

Whether they are engaged, newly married, or have been married for decades, couples will find that this book will transform their relationship.

47 Little Love Boosters for a Happy Marriage: Connect and Instantly Deepen Your Bond No Matter How Busy You Are (Amazingly Simple Little Things Successful Couples Do Series) (Volume 1)

relationshipsAuthor: Marko Petkovic M.Sc.
Binding: Paperback
Studio: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Label: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
Manufacturer: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Buy Now
Editorial Review:

Discover the 47 Amazingly Simple Little Things Successful Couples Do To Connect and Have a Happy Marriage In Just Minutes a Day

Why do you need to read this book

Whether your relationship is a new romance, or one that has passed the test of time, there might be days when you wonder how to keep the fire burning.

As you read this book, you’ll discover amazingly simple little things successful couples do to show their love and connect with their loved one in just minutes a day, even if they’re busy parents with young kids!

We call them the “Little Love Boosters for a Happy Marriage” because they:

  • require no cooperation from your spouse
  • take very little of your time—sometimes only seconds!
  • you can do them at home
  • are free!

Your secret to lasting love

When you download the book, you’ll get the complementary, beautifully designed Golden Collection with 47 little love boosters and a FREE success checklist. You can save it to your phone or print it out and have a quick peek anytime and anywhere you want.

This will become your little secret to achieving a lasting love and a happy marriage even if you’re not an overly creative person or a hopeless romantic.

No fancy jargon

You won’t be wasting your time sifting through useless jargon. Instead, you’ll find straight-to-the-point advice, proven by the author and his wife themselves.

Bonus Audio Book Included!

This book comes with a complementary audio book. You can listen to it while driving the car, cleaning the house, working out, or going for a jog—when your mind is available. This way you don’t have to take any extra time out of your life to make the happy marriage you and your partner deserve.

The results are magical. Download this book now to find out how you can achieve them too.

If you’re serious about taking your marriage from “just fine” to “the marriage we’ve always wanted” and you want that feel-good sensation to last and just keep growing by the day, download this book today.

Scroll up and grab your copy today

The Secret Language of Successful Couples: The Keys for Unlocking Love

relationshipsAuthor: Bill Farrel
Binding: Paperback
Brand: Harvest House Publishers
Studio: Harvest House Publishers
Label: Harvest House Publishers
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Manufacturer: Harvest House Publishers

Buy Now
Editorial Review:

Why is it so hard for married couples to get in sync with each other? How is it that your mate can be a source of joy and of frustration all on the same day?

Marriages operate by a secret language―a collection of key words, actions, insights, and attitudes that determine how a couple's relationship works. If that language is uncovered, love grows and flourishes. If that language remains a mystery, love gets buried behind misunderstandings and irritations.

Bill and Pam Farrel, authors of the bestselling Men Are Like Waffles, Women Are Like Spaghetti, offer biblical and practical insight into this language that God has programmed into each married couple. Laced with the Farrels' trademark humor, The Secret Language of Successful Couples is packed with ideas to help couples connect at a richer, deeper level. As both partners grow in relationship with God and rely on the Spirit for insights into the heart of their mate, they can replace their old, selfish languages with a new one that leads to greater intimacy in every area of life.

Rerelease of The Marriage Code.


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email


follow InnerSelf on


 Get The Latest By Email