Researchers from the and the University of Essex and the University of York analysed more than a million lonely hearts ads and found that in the USA, France, and Canada, there was a sharp decline in economic factors when choosing a partner. However, finances remained an important issue in India when it came to relationships.
To see how partner preferences changed over time, the researchers analysed lonely hearts ads from various major news outlets from Canada, France, and India. They collected data from publications from 1950 to 1995, the year that most of these ads shifted to being online. Also, they also looked at ads from 41 regional newspapers from Canada and the USA in 1995.
The researchers analysed the language of these ads and categorised them into four distinct preferences.
The first of these was economic, which focused on a potential partner’s financial situation. The second was personality, which covered traits such as openness or extroversion. The third category was physical, in which ads expressed a preference for body types, and the final was taste, which covered issues like hobbies or habits.
This allowed the researchers to identify broader trends of how partner preferences changed over time in a range of countries.
The researchers found that between 1950 and 1995, personality played a much greater role in partner preference in Western countries, while economic factors declined in importance, particularly after the 1960s. However, in India, finances remained a key issue for people searching for love, becoming more prominent after 1970, while personality factors remained stable.
Co-researcher Dr Quentin Lippmann, from the University of Essex, said: “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.”
In the sample of ads from Canada and the USA, by 1995 around 40-45% of the words used by women to describe their ideal partner related to personality criteria. At the same time, only around 10% mentioned finances. Similarly, 35-40% of words in lonely hearts ads placed by men by 1995 focused on personality traits, while only 5% were related to economic factors.
The researchers found that up until the 1970s, the share of words relating to finances in Indian ads remained stable at around 35%, but after the 1970s this started to rise. By 1995, this had increased to around 60%.
There was some gender disparity in the data from the ads, as there was a greater rise in the importance of economic factors in ads placed by men than those placed by women.
Study co-author Dr Khushboo Surana, from the University of York, said: “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.”
The research team presented their preliminary findings at the Royal Economic Society annual conference in Glasgow.