Sena Koleva
“You would expect a bunch of 19-year-old college students to want a fun, physically attractive partner, but instead they chose honesty and faithfulness,” says recent doctoral grad Sena Koleva of her research into desirable traits. Steve Zylius / University Communications

College students and 30-something professionals aren’t very different when it comes to the traits they value in romantic partners. There is, however, a gender divide, with men preferring attractive mates, while women prize a sense of humor.

These are just some of the findings culled from Sena Koleva’s research on human morality and love relationships. She recently earned a Ph.D. in psychology & social behavior at UC Irvine, specializing in social/personality psychology.

Koleva surveyed heterosexual college students, individuals recruited from the Internet and romantic couples both in person and online on whether they cared more about moral characteristics (honesty, kindness) or nonmoral characteristics (attractiveness, intelligence) and how these preferences played out in mate selection.

The student sample was small – about 327 UCI undergrads – while 3,665 people of various ages and occupations from around the world were questioned via the Internet. In one survey, Koleva asked participants to pick 10 traits they considered desirable in a long-term romantic partner from a menu of 36.

“I was shocked by how much consistency existed between the two groups,” she says. “You would expect a bunch of 19-year-old college students to want a fun, physically attractive partner, but instead they chose honesty and faithfulness.”

In fact, both top-10 lists contained eight of the same adjectives: intelligent, honest, loyal, affectionate, attractive, funny, dependable and communicative. In the only mismatches, undergrads selected “caring” and “supportive” and the online sample opted for “emotionally stable” and “interesting.” Other results reinforced common beliefs about gender preferences.

In a related study, Koleva found that long-term, committed couples were significantly similar in their moral concerns and political attitudes but not in their personality traits. Women who shared moral outlooks with their mates reported higher levels of satisfaction with their relationships than those who did not.

“Women are much more in tune to issues of morality and moral characteristics, because they stand more to lose if their partner leaves them and their children,” Koleva says. “Even though both men and women seek someone who is honest and dependable, women prioritized these traits to a greater degree.”

Overall, the findings suggest that moral attributes play an important role in partner preferences, romantic attraction and relationship satisfaction, she says.

A native of Bulgaria, Koleva moved to California in 2000 and enrolled five years later at UCI, where she earned a master’s in social ecology in 2010 and a doctorate this month. Her many UCI accolades include a 2010 Most Promising Future Faculty Member Award, bestowed annually on just two graduate students across all fields.

Koleva credits the support of her mentors – Peter Ditto, Belinda Campos and Eric Knowles – with allowing her to pursue a varied and ambitious research agenda, encompassing political psychology, moral reasoning, the biology of attraction, and romantic relationships.

A co-founder of the popular website, she is moving on to postdoctoral work in psychology at USC. She hopes to continue her studies on relationships and attraction.

“Moral attitudes come up in so many facets of married or partnered life, such as child rearing and decisions about how to divide household chores and responsibilities,” Koleva says. “Sharing similar backgrounds and professions may not be as important in the long run as how you view the world and your beliefs about right and wrong.”