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New research suggests that we want a life partner to share many of our own personality traits – but with a few surprising exceptions

“Birds of a feather stick together,” it’s often said, but does this maxim apply to life partners? Do we choose to date someone because we have personality traits in common with them?

It’s a question that Jessica De La Mare and Anthony Lee, two psychologists from the University of Stirling set out to answer. They recruited 205 heterosexual, cis-gender women and 178 men and assessed them on what are known as the Big Five personality traits. These are: agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, extraversion, and openness. The participants were then invited to look at 100 randomly chosen profiles of men and the same number of women on a dating app.

However, the photographs on these profiles were, in fact, fake – they were generated by Artificial Intelligence (AI). The written profiles were also invented and here they were written in such a way as to emphasise one of the Big Five personality traits. For example, one said: “Whenever I’m going through a rough time, I always try to pick myself up and brush myself off. Tomorrow is always better,” while another read: “I love theme parks and last year I went skydiving. Give me a message if you’re a fellow thrill seeker looking to share some exciting experiences.” These profiles were written to be gender-neutral so they could be paired with both male and female photos.

Participants in the experiment were then invited, as is the case in real life, to indicate whether they’d like to be matched with any of these profiles and to say whether they thought each of the 100 personal descriptions displayed high or low levels of their particular personality trait on a seven-point scale, going from, “Extremely Low” to “Extremely High”.

Extroverts and dating

In fact, levels of extroversion weren’t the key to matching participants and profiles. Instead, participants chose people with personalities that were similar to their own. However, this was only the case for some of the Big Five traits, not all of them. It was true that participants who had expressed greater agreeableness, openness, or extraversion were more likely to connect with profiles that they perceived as being more agreeable, open, and extraverted respectively. Agreeableness is certainly – and not surprisingly – important.

“High agreeableness relates to trust, generosity, and helpful behaviours; these characteristics are all associated with cooperation which has been a primary reason for the success of human evolution,” note the researchers. “Consistent with this notion, a significant, positive main effect of personal description agreeableness score indicates that individuals tended to prefer dating profiles perceived as highly agreeable, regardless of their own level of agreeableness.”

Another trait – emotional stability – was favoured by all participants however highly they scored themselves on this trait.  In many ways this makes sense – however emotionally stable or prone to hysterics we might be ourselves, having a partner who’s calm, balanced and steady is clearly appealing. “Emotionally stable individuals tend to provide their partners with greater relationship satisfaction than partners who are more neurotic,” write the researchers, perhaps slightly obviously.

A surprising mismatch

There was another interesting mismatch between participants and profiles regarding conscientiousness. Given that other studies have suggested that life partners do tend to be equally conscientious, this might suggest that once people get together as a couple, their level of conscientiousness evens out.

Now, the team at Stirling admit that their research is based on a cohort that was heterosexual and WEIRD (White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic). They also analysed the traits one by one whereas in real life we judge a person in their entirety. However, there are some significant findings here that can be translated into a workplace environment.

But what about the workplace?

The similarities between what works for our personal and our professional relationships are obvious. We want to work with people who are seen as agreeable. Given that we spend long hours together, sometime working under pressure and that collaboration is essential for a team to operate effectively, being agreeable and encouraging our reports to act in an agreeable way is essential. Fostering an environment in which being agreeable to each other is also a key goal for leaders. The same is true of emotional stability. These are difficult times – corporate and personal finances are under pressure, technology is disrupting businesses and many of us are still coming to terms with remote working.

It’s more essential than ever, therefore, that leaders are aware of their own emotional states and use mindfulness, self-awareness, and other tools to maintain their own emotional stability while creating the conditions for their teams to achieve a mindset that embraces resilience and consistency as well.

Finally, can we also transpose from home to office the finding that, to put it crudely, conscientiousness averages out between couples? Yes, if we regard it as meaning that it’s essential to cultivate an environment, again led from the top, in which doing things well and delivering for clients and colleagues is the norm. Here too, what works for our life partners also works for our relationships at work.