Carnegie Mellon University
September 04, 2020

SURF Study Explores the Question: What Makes Someone Attractive?

Dominique Powell aims to make research related to partner selection more inclusive

By Heidi Opdyke

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing & Communications
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Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
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Dominique Powell wants to broaden the understanding of what a person looks for in a mate, in particular when it comes to gender and sexual minorities.

"My research seeks to include the LGBTQIA+ community in conversation about how people pick partners," said Powell, who is a senior in biological sciences and biopsychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "Because while it's the same, it's different."

Powell said that as a minority she feels obligated to make sure that LGBTQIA+ people are heard and included in discussions of relationships related to evolutionary psychology. 

"Science is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and focusing exclusively on heterosexual people is not representative of reality," Powell said. "We're also missing out on important data by being myopic about LGBTQIA+ inclusion — and that does everyone — LGBTQIA+ and not, a disservice."

Powell earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant from CMU's Undergraduate Research Office to create and test a better way to understand how people select mates. Mate value refers to one's desirably as a romantic partner based on a series of self-reported survey questions based on a sliding scale. For example:

I value financial security.

0                1                2                3                4                5                6                7

Strongly Agree                                                                                                      Strongly Disagree

David Rakison, an associate professor of psychology, is advising Powell on her work.

A number of studies have established many commonalities that heterosexual men and women are looking for in a mate. Both want partners who are funny, healthy, kind and sympathetic, and want children. But, there are areas where they differ.

Rakison said that men value attractiveness and youth more than women do. Whereas women value financial resources, ambitiousness and stability because those things imply that men will provide resources for the couple's prospective children. 

Powell said that one of the things she is trying to do is establish norms for individuals of different sexual orientations.

"Previous research has had mixed success in finding a way to measure this," she said. "These differences are important to catalog, because we don't want to erase the differences that people have."

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