College of Liberal Arts

Meet the Parents

Psychologist Carin Perilloux is looking into a crazy little thing called love — and finding out why it's so complicated when that special someone meets the parents.

Good looks, personality, religion and earning potential may all come into play when choosing a serious sweetheart. But Perilloux, a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas at Austin, determined those traits don't stack up exactly the same when comparing the preferences of college students to what their parents want for them in a mate.

Carin Perilloux
Doctoral candidate Carin Perilloux

"There's no ideal mate. We have to trade off traits," Perilloux said. "We hypothesized that the tradeoffs would differ between parents and offspring."

Just in time for Valentine's Day — when some couples decide to tie the knot and others spend lavishly on flowers and a fancy restaurant — Perilloux and fellow evolutionary psychologists offer new insight into mate selection in an article in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Perilloux, also an assistant instructor, and her co-authors take their research into a new realm by comparing college students' ranking of traits in an ideal mate with their parents' rankings. Previous studies focused separately on students and parents.

These parent-offspring opinions offer an obvious contrast, which the researchers suggest is based in part on evolutionary interests. Parents can increase their chance of genetic success in future generations possibly by influencing their offspring to select a mate with certain characteristics.

Offspring get more immediate benefits in a mate, and therefore prefer different traits such as physical attractiveness.

"Sometimes parent-child conflicts over mating issues are just a natural thing," says Psychology Professor David Buss, Perilloux's adviser and a co-author of the study. "It's not necessarily a sign of a dysfunctional relationship or horrible parents or horrible kids."

Perilloux says her findings can help students in maintaining a productive dialogue with their parents and "maybe trying to get each other to see a little bit more eye to eye."

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