Is love really blind? Positive illusions in relationships

One of the more interesting of our (many) cognitive biases are positive illusions – a tendency to be view ourselves more positively than others, be optimistic about the future, and exaggerate our perceptions of control.  Positive illusions are typically self-enhancing, but if you’ve ever seen a madly in love couple, or been a part of one, you might have the idea that maybe we project positive illusions onto other people.  And it’s true.  People in romantic relationships really do drench their partners in a wave of idealised qualities, and downplay their more annoying aspects. (1)

A number of studies have found that people tend to rate their partners attractiveness as greater than their own (2), but there was one study in particular which was particularly ingenious. (3)  Photos were taken of couples, which were manipulated in a computer to create an array of seven faces – the real photo, three that were more attractive, and three that were less attractive (see ‘What is beauty?‘ for more on standards of attractiveness).  Participants had to identify their partners real face from the fake ones.  Couples who were satisfied with their current relationship tended to pick a more attractive face, couples who were dissatisfied tended to pick a less attractive face!

If you look at your partner and see this, that’s an example of a positive illusion. Or an LSD high. (Credit: NaiM eL NoVaTO)

Why does this happen though?  We’ve already seen that love can have a very powerful effect on us, perhaps these illusions help us to justify staying with a partner, just like a junkie justifies “one more hit.”  That’s an unromantic way of saying that this may just be a normal, healthy way of keeping a relationship going.  And likewise, when a relationship is going badly, the illusions disappear which again could be a way of helping us to make the right relationship choices.

So, our mind may be responding to the amount of satisfaction in the relationship by altering our perceptions slightly, as a safeguard towards helping us stay in beneficial relationships, and against wasting time in bad relationships (when we could be looking for someone new).  And it does seem to be an effective system – one study followed couples over a 13-year period, and found that positive illusions predicted greater satisfaction with the relationship in the early stages of dating and marriage.

So is love blind?  Perhaps not blind, but certainly partially-sighted.  However, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to love.  Our perception of reality is far from objective, particularly social reality, and positive illusions in relationships are just another illustration of the idea that we are specialised organisms rather than rational beings.  Natural selection has ‘designed’ our minds to cut the corners of logic wherever this helps us to solve our problems of survival and reproduction in a more efficient or effective way.  Well, there’s either that explanation, or the ‘love-is-magic’ Disney explanation.  Take your pick.


(1) Murray, S., Holmes, J., & Griffin, D. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70(1), 79-98

(2) Swami, V., Furnham, A., Georgiades, C., & Pang, L. (2007). Evaluating self and partner physical attractiveness. Body Image, 4, 97-101.

(3) Penton-Voak, I.S., Rowe, A.C., & Williams, J. (2007). Through rose tinted glasses: Relationship satisfaction and representations of partners facial attractiveness.  Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 169-181.


  • cat says:

    This is so true. And if you notice when you’re first dating someone, it works from the very beginning. I dated a guy that I found very attractive when I first met him. I thought him very handsome, but after about the third date I started to wonder what I had found attractive about him to begin with. After several more dates, I didn’t find him attractive at all. The reason I assume was that the more I got to know him, the more bored i became (the guy was BORING!) – which equaled to finding him less attractive physically? that’s my hunch.
    .-= cat´s last blog ..Getting Back Together With Ex Boyfriend =-.

    • Warren Davies says:

      Yeah, could be that. After the initial excitement dies down the rose tinted glasses come off. Then it’s the real test of the relationship. Unfortunately some people are already married by this point!

  • Claire Benson says:

    This article really made me think! I took A-level psychology at school, but it never covered anything as interesting as this. And of course, I’ve got a vested interest – I’ve just started trying to find a new partner, using online dating. I’ve chosen to sign up with eHarmony because they aim to find compatible partners for a relationship, rather than me browsing profiles. But what I’m wondering is this:

    1 – is there anything I can do to improve my own positive illusions (eg so that I don’t keep looking for Mr Right when Mr Alright is already in my life)?

    2 – are there personality traits that make some people more likely to have positive illusions than others? So, for example, are optimists more likely to stick at a relationship than pessimists and if so, would the kind of personality matching that eHarmony does tend to deliver a better likelihood of finding somebody who has a similar level of illusions to me?

    • Warren Davies says:

      Yes I think that’s a really good model. I’m not sure what their success rate is but it makes sense – opposites do NOT attract, and we usually don’t actually know what we want, plus the other person might not be displaying themselves as they really are (apparently women report lower weight and men more height than is actually true. My own profile lists me as 7’3″).

      1 – I’m not entirely sure about this, but, I would suggest that focusing on the good things, making conscious note of things you like about them and are grateful for – things like that might work, but I’m only guessing here really and don’t know of any direct research on the area. There are studies which test things like writing down three good things that happen each day, because over time it trains the mind to become more aware of good things that happen. Maybe a similar thing would work in a relationship? (If any psych students are reading this and need a good dissertation idea, there you go!).

      2 – I saw a study which found that people who are more altruistic tend to have more positive illusions, but I can’t recall a study looking at personality traits off the top of my head.

      In terms of optimists/pessimists, optimists are more likely to report still being in love later on than couples who did not idealise each other from the start (of marriage, in this study), and yes they are more likely to persist with the relationship, and have fewer conflicts and doubts about the relationship too.

      As for eHarmony….hard to say. I very much doubt they measure that directly, but they might measure something that overlaps with positive illusions, such as general questions about optimism. Plus, even if they do accurately measure optimism (or something similar), it might be that someone is a low match on that with you, but a high match on everything else – so they are offered to you as a candidate anyway. I’m not sure how eHarmony calculate and measure things, and it all depends on that really.

      Remember though, that optimism is just one part of the relationship puzzle, and these studies are looking at it in isolation. So although it seems beneficial, it’s not necessarily the be all and end all.

      Cheers Claire, and good luck!

  • That’s a very interesting and clever study, yet it doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Do you know what the percentage was that selected the actual face? Or was there even a percentage?

  • Jessica says:

    Oh gosh. Is this true? Have there been more studies about this? It is such a shock to be disabused like this. From past experience, I think this study is on to something. They should create more intriguing studies on relationships like this one.

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