The qualities people list as ideal in potential partners don’t really reflect personal preferences so much as they are just generally positive qualities, according to new research.

Perhaps our ideal partner is funny, attractive, and inquisitive. Or maybe they’re down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful. But do we actually have special insight into ourselves, or are we just describing positive qualities that everyone likes?

“The people in our study could very easily list their top three attributes in an ideal partner,” says lead author Jehan Sparks, a former doctoral student at the University of California, Davis who is now a postdoctoral researcher at University of Cologne.

“We wanted to see whether those top three attributes really mattered for the person who listed them. As it turns out, they didn’t.”

Ideal qualities in a partner

In the research, more than 700 participants nominated their top three ideals in a romantic partner—attributes like funny, attractive, or inquisitive. Then they reported their romantic desire for a series of people they knew personally: Some were blind date partners, others were romantic partners, and others were friends.

Participants experienced more romantic desire to the extent that these personal acquaintances possessed the top three attributes. If Vanessa listed funny, attractive, and inquisitive, she experienced more desire for partners who were funny, attractive, and inquisitive.

“We wanted to see whether those top three attributes really mattered for the person who listed them. As it turns out, they didn’t.”

“On the surface, this looks promising,” says coauthor Paul Eastwick, a professor in the psychology department.

The researchers included a twist: Each participant also considered the extent to which the same personal acquaintances possessed three attributes nominated by some other random person in the study. For example, if Kris listed down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful as her own top three attributes, Vanessa also experienced more desire for acquaintances who were down-to-earth, intelligent, and thoughtful.

“So in the end, we want partners who have positive qualities,” says Sparks, “but the qualities you specifically list do not actually have special predictive power for you.” The authors take these findings to mean that people don’t have special insight into what they personally want in a partner.

Dating online and picking partners

Eastwick compares it to ordering food at a restaurant. “Why do we order off the menu for ourselves? Because it seems obvious that I will like what I get to pick. Our findings suggest that, in the romantic domain, you might as well let a random stranger order for you—you’re just as likely to end up liking what you get.”

The findings have implications for the way people approach online dating. People commonly spend many hours perusing online dating profiles in the search of someone who specifically matches their ideals. The research suggests that this effort may be misplaced.

“It’s really easy to spend time hunting around online for someone who seems to match your ideals,” notes Sparks. “But our research suggests an alternative approach: Don’t be too picky ahead of time about whether a partner matches your ideals on paper. Or, even better, let your friends pick your dates for you.”

The paper appears in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.