YORK, United Kingdom — What’s the most important factor people consider when looking for a partner? Decades-long research focusing on lonely hearts ads placed in newspapers all over the world suggests that while money and finances may have been the end-all-be-all at one time, over the years personality has steadily gained more importance among singles.
Researchers from the University of York and the University of Essex analyzed over a million lonely hearts ads originally printed in North America, Europe, and India between the 1950s and 1990s to reach this conclusion. All in all, they say there was a sharp decline in economic factors when choosing a partner in the United States, France, and Canada. However, finances remained an important issue in India when it came to relationships.
In an effort to better understand how partner preferences changed over time, study authors gathered and assessed lonely hearts ads from various major news outlets from Canada, France, and India. They pulled this data from publications between 1950 and 1995. The year 1995 marks the year most of these ads shifted to websites online. Additionally, the research team also analyzed ads from 41 regional newspapers in Canada and the U.S. in 1995.
After analyzing the language used in each of these ads, researchers categorized them into four distinct preferences. The first preference was economic, or focusing on a potential partner’s financial situation. The second was personality, or relating to traits such as openness or extroversion. The third category was physical, or ads expressing a preference for body types, and the fourth was taste (hobbies, habits).
This unique research approach allowed the team to detect broader trends relating to how partner preferences changed over time in various countries.
Study authors report that between 1950 and 1995 personality typically played a much bigger role in partner preference among Western nations, while economic factors simultaneously declined in importance, especially after the 1960s. However, in India, finances remained a key issue for those looking for love, and even became more prominent after 1970. Personality factors in India, meanwhile, remained stable.
Regarding the sample of ads taken from Canada and the U.S., by the year 1995 around 40 to 45 percent of the words used by women to describe their ideal partner related to the personality criteria. Only around 10 percent of women even mentioned money. Similarly, roughly 35 to 40 percent of words in lonely hearts ads placed by males by 1995 focused on personality traits, while just five percent mentioned economic factors.
In India, prior to the 1970s, the portion of words relating to finances in Indian ads generally remained stable at around 35 percent. After that, though, the share of words began to steadily rise. By 1995, this had increased to around 60 percent.
It’s also worth noting there were some gender disparities in the data from the ads. Study authors found a greater rise in the importance of economic factors among ads placed by women in comparison to those placed by men.
“The data we have found supports Maslow’s theory of the hierarchy of needs. In this framework, material needs – i.e. financial factors – have to be satisfied before you can focus on the immaterial ones, such as personality traits. It is possible that unlike in the west, people’s first order needs still haven’t been satisfied, which is why we see a focus on economic criteria,” says study co-author Khushboo Surana, from the University of York’s Department of Economics, in a media release.
“Our study shows personality becoming more and more important in western countries such as the United States, but we don’t see the same trend in India. Once India’s economy develops further, and the current generation are more secure financially, they may show a change in preference for personality factors as well. This would align them with the trends we see in the western countries we sampled,” concludes co-researcher Quentin Lippmann, from the University of Essex
The team presented their findings at the Royal Economic Society annual conference in Glasgow.