Gen Z, those born between the late 1990s up until 2010, are reconsidering what they want from their relationships and they are seeking more genuine connections when it comes to their dating lives. This is according to researchers from the University of California Davis, who say young adults are now in pursuit of meaningful relationships instead of falling into the trap of “hookup culture”.
The study published this week is the first of its kind to look at “crushes” and the time period in which young adults experience rising and falling romantic interest for partners who could, but often do not, become committed partners.
“What took us by surprise is that many of the important factors were the same things you would have seen in a committed relationship,” notes Professor Paul Eastwick, from the UC Davis department of psychology and lead author of the study.
“This supposed hookup melee actually looks a lot like people taking relationships for a test run.”
Crush vs real love
To obtain their data, researchers surveyed 208 heterosexual students about their dating habits, their various likes and dislikes, and attraction to potential partners over a seven-month period.
Participants described an average of five crushes during this stretch of time and reported about 15% of them turning into dating relationships at some point. They collected a total of over 7 000 reports on these potential partners.
Over the course of the study, some of the best predictors of sustained interest in a partner turned out to be markers of attachment, such as seeking out someone’s presence as much as possible, feeling distressed when separated from them, and wanting to tell them about successes. These features are traditionally considered markers of pair-bonded relationships.
“When feelings of attachment and emotional connection start to kick in, young adults seem to take it as a sign that this is a crush worth pursuing,” observes study co-author assistant professor of psychology Samantha Joel, from the Western University.
‘Beauty in the eye of the beholder’
Other factors that were known to be critical in initial impression contexts had no effect at all in the current study. Specifically physical attractiveness, the most commonly studied variable in the whole initial attraction literature, was surprisingly weak.
Participants also uploaded photographs of their crushes, and the researchers used a team of coders, who didn’t know the subjects of the photographs or anything about them, to rate how physically attractive the crushes were on a 1-10 scale. This variable turned out to be completely irrelevant to whether participants were romantically interested in the crushes.
“If we had been looking at a bar or speed-dating, a setting where you have to compete to be noticed, these coder ratings of physical attractiveness should have been exceptionally good at predicting which partners were highly desired and which ones were not,” Eastwick explains. “But that isn’t what the data revealed at all.”
According to Eastwick, these findings imply that early relationship development is a mating context in which people search for evidence of compatibility. “It isn’t about fighting to get the ‘most valuable’ partner you can,” he said. “It’s about trying to find someone who inspires both a sexual and emotional connection. That’s how young people initiate relationships.”