Are People Who Fear Being Single Less Selective?

Research distinguishes between desire and desperation.

Posted Mar 11, 2021 |

Some singles who would like to be part of a couple worry they might inadvertently lower their standards to broaden the range of acceptable prospects. This question is distinguished from the “last-call phenomenon” I discuss in a previous column, where single bar patrons claim that prospects magically look more attractive right after the bartender announces, “Last call.” But the broader question remains the same: Do singles desiring company blur the line between desire and desperation? Research has some answers.

 Alexandr Ivanov/Pixabay
Source: Alexandr Ivanov/Pixabay

Fear of being single and settling for less

Stephanie S. Spielmann et al. (2020) examined how fear of being single (FOBS) impacts romantic selectivity.[i] They note that FOBS is likely to predict “settling for less” in relationships. How? They note that for both men and women, having a higher level of FOBS predicts having a higher level of romantic interest in dating potential paramours who are less physically attractive, less responsive, and less likely to initiate a breakup with a partner with whom they are dissatisfied. They also acknowledge that research demonstrated that people with a stronger FOBS had a less selective matching strategy during a round of speed dating, as evidenced by their expressing interest in more people.  

Spielmann et al. sought to explore whether perceptions of physical attractiveness were linked with FOBS and if that predicted whether people with FOBS would settle for less. Participants in their study rated their own perceived level of physical attraction and were rated by others. Interestingly, for the judge-raters, FOBS was not linked with a perception of being less physically attractive, although findings were mixed in terms of FOBS and self-ratings. However, neither judge nor self-ratings of attractiveness appeared to explain the decreased selectivity of people with FOBS while speed dating.

Spielmann et al. note that likely, the most important distinction theoretically as well as empirically is the relationship between FOBS and attachment style. They note that anxiously attached individuals, described as people who are “characteristically clingy and needy in their relationships,” resemble individuals with stronger levels of FOBS due to insecurity regarding being worthy of love and whether their partner will “be there” for them. Nonetheless, they note that FOBS and anxious attachment appear to be separate relational constructs related to unique types of insecurities.  

Less selective does not mean less selected.

Are people with FOBS less attractive to others? Thankfully, apparently not. The research of Spielmann et al. was consistent with previous findings in that people with stronger FOBS tend to be “less selective, but not differentially desired by others” during a speed dating study. 

They extended the findings of prior research in suggesting that a lower level of selectivity by individuals higher in FOBS is not explained by ratings of attractiveness, either by participants themselves or judge-raters. Spielmann et al. note this is important because it suggests that people who have a higher level of FOBS are not necessarily settling for less when seeking a mate because they assume they will be unsuccessful due to being unattractive. Instead, their findings indicate selectivity is likely due to other factors.

Spielmann et al. explain that while they cannot test alternative explanations with their data, they opine that perhaps people with stronger FOBS perceive themselves as lower in mate value in other dimensions, such as sociability, personality, social status, fertility, or earning potential—whether or not such perceptions are accurate. They also raise the possibility that people with greater FOBS may be more likely to internalize societal prejudice toward singles, which might impact their goal of attracting a partner.

The bottom line? Some singles with a strong FOBS might be less selective, but perhaps they don’t need to be, as they are viewed by others as attractive and desirable.   


[i] Spielmann, Stephanie S., Jessica A. Maxwell, Geoff MacDonald, Diana Peragine, and Emily A. Impett. 2020. “The Predictive Effects of Fear of Being Single on Physical Attractiveness and Less Selective Partner Selection Strategies.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 37 (1): 100–123. doi:10.1177/0265407519856701.