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The Lure of False Romance: Believing What We Want to Believe

Today I am going to write about something you already know.  The question is, what have you done, or will you do about it? 

I have known it all my life, and yet my knowledge has not prevented me from making, in the past, some pretty devastating mistakes.

The issue I am talking about is: Humans see connections between traits and characteristics in other people where none actually exist. Essentially, people make the connections up!

I know it seems irrelevant but let me start by saying that I am an amateur cellist. 

Stjepan Hauser, a Croatian cellist, is one of the greatest living cellists.  He probably has several cellos, but one old one on which I have heard him play has a sound that is just unbelievably beautiful. 

And yet, there is one thing that bugs me: The cello is so incredibly ugly!

Look, we all know that old cellos have been around a long time: The odd thing is that, the longer they have been around, often, the better they sound but the worse they look. 

If someone is attractive, you'll likely think they're a great person

In a way, many people aren’t so different.  The longer they have been around, the wiser they become, but—um—their physical appearance does not always get better as they grow older. 

I’m not just talking in general, either: I don’t go out of the way these days to look in a mirror—not that I ever did!

The great poet John Keats once said: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”  It’s always hard to know exactly what a poet means, but for those of us who study love, the saying is, well, not so beautiful!  

At some level, we all know that beauty does not equal truth.  There are many attractive people who are nice and great people. 

For example, Actress Charlize Theron founded the Charlize Theron Africa Outreach Project, which helps to keep African youth safe from AIDS. 

Actress Demi Moore founded Thorn Digital Defenders of Children, which fights exploitation of children. 

Musician Bono has engaged in many pro-bono (!) activities, such as the fight against AIDS. 

But there are also plenty of good-looking people who have been less angelic: There was model Eva Braun, Adolph Hitler’s long-time companion and confidante; and Leslie van Houten was a beautiful young woman who was a member of Charles Manson’s murderous gang. 

Emperor Nero appears to have been a very handsome man, and also one of the most evil rulers of all time.

In the movies, so often, there is a correlation between how attractive characters are and how good they are.

Think of Batman versus the Joker, or Superman versus Lex Luthor, or Spiderman versus the Green Goblin.  Why do so many of us tend to associate better physical appearance with positive traits? 

Studies have shown that we have a tendency to believe that good-looking people are, on the whole, smarter and kinder than their average-looking counterparts.  It's not true, but that's what many believe.

And studies have shown as well, even if it seems unfair, that attractive children are treated better than those who do not look beautiful -- people tend to be more patient and interact more (and in a more positive way) with cute kids.

In trying to make sense of the world, we tend to see connections where there are none

The phenomenon goes beyond physical appearance, of course.  It is called spurious correlation.  It is our very human tendency to create correlations—relationships—that do not exist.  So often, we believe what we want to believe.  

We create many such spurious correlations.  Some politicians inflate the appearance of their wealth, sometimes, grossly so, to appear to be smart—they figure that people will think they are smart because they have accumulated so much money. 

Many politicians also pretend to be religious, or to care about religion, to get the vote of people who are religious. 

Or they may pretend to care about the environment, when all they care about is the votes of environmentalists.

Who among us has not created a false correlation?

In relationships, misjudgments can have serious consequences

In love, spurious correlations are a major cause of failed relationships. 

We want to believe that the person who is very attractive to us, or of the same political ideology, or of the same religion, or who has had a similar background, will be what we are looking for.  But often, they are not.

Here's how to minimize your chance of falling prey to misjudgments about a partner

Here are some things to keep in mind when passion is about to overwhelm you: 

1. Don’t assume. 

If you feel passion overwhelm you, be suspicious.  I wish I had been when, on more than one occasion, I did assume. 

We all make up correlations so that we can believe what we want to believe. 

2. There's no correlation between relationship success and the beauty or wealth of partners

That's no surprise, right? Look at the many celebrity couples that have had unsuccessful relationships -- Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston as well as Angelina Jolie, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner.

Good looks or great wealth don't guarantee pleasant personality traits in a partner, and they certainly don't predict the happiness of a relationship.

3. People in happy relationships do not tend to mention beauty or wealth as a distinguishing characteristic of their partner

When you ask happily married people what they value in their partner, you will find that they will mention many traits of their loved ones -- smartness, kindness, patience, caring, or humor, for example.

You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone mention the beauty of their partner's physical appearance or their partner's bank account.

So when you feel overwhelmed by passion, hold on!  Make sure that you’ve got the real thing. 

But how do you do that? How do you actually figure out whether you have a future with a particular partner?

There is no secret formula that can predict without fail the future of a relationship, but our research studies all around the world have shown that happy couples have several things in common:

  1. They want the same amounts of intimacy, passion, and commitment in their relationship. If you want to see where your relationship is headed, take our free quiz here.
  2. They have similar ideas about the character of their relationship and how they picture a successful relationship. For example, for some people, a successful relationship is one where partners work together to achieve happiness or an active family life or wealth, or perhaps they work out a schedule that accommodates parents, children, and business appointments.  Maybe they just work smoothly together (business story). For other people, a good relationship is one where they both continually tend to each other's needs and their relationship, consciously trying to grow their relationship and make it better (gardening story).

Keep these things in mind as you evaluate a partner or your relationship, and you will greatly increase your chances for a happy long-term relationship. 

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