Does genetic compatibility play a role in our mate choice?

Karen Wu

This project ended on:
1 November 2013

Might genetics explain the "spark" we experience with some people, but not others? To answer this question, this study utilizes a speed-dating design, in which participants' mate choices have real-life consequences.

What are the goals of this project?

What is responsible for the “chemistry” that people sometimes experience when they meet a potential mate? I posit that an unseen force, that is, genetic-compatibility, may play a role in human attraction. This project aims to examine the possible role of genetic compatibility in human mate selection through a unique methodology--speed-dating.

Specifically, I am asking the following two research questions:

(1) Does genetic compatibility play a role in whom we are attracted to and choose to date?

(2) Do oral contraceptives reverse women's genetically-based mate preferences?

Previous research suggests that genetic compatibility via major histocompatibility complex (MHC) genes may play an important role in human mate selection (e.g., Chaix et al., 2008; Santos et al., 2005; Wedekind et al., 1995). MHC genes code for peptides that defend against pathogens (Lie et al., 2010). Diversity in MHC alleles resulting from MHC-dissimilar parents may thus increase the immunocompetence of offspring (Penn et al., 2002).

Several studies suggest that normally-ovulating women may be more attracted to men who are more MHC-dissimilar (e.g., Garver-Apgar et al, 2006; Wedekind et al, 1995). However, the detection system for MHC-dissimilarity can be disrupted by oral contraceptives, which are now used by 60% of sexually-active female undergraduates (Huber & Ersek, 2009). Oral contraceptives have been found in several studies to reverse women's mate preferences, such that women on the pill prefer the scent of men who are more MHC-similar rather than MHC-dissimilar (Penn & Potts, 1999; Roberts et al., 2008; Wedekind et al., 1995).

Why is this research important?

Because MHC-similarity between partners has been linked to poorer health outcomes, such as lower birthweight of offspring (Reznikoff-Etievant et al., 1991) and higher rates of miscarriages (Ho et al., 1990; Koyama et al., 1991; Laitinen, 1993), it is important to examine whether MHC-based attraction may play a tangible role in real world mate choice. My research uses a speed-dating design in which participants' mate choices have real-life consequences. If use of oral contraceptives is associated with mate preferences, couples should be informed before making decisions regarding their use.

How will the funds be used?

Your donations will go entirely towards the genotyping of participants' DNA samples. In return I will keep you updated on my progress with this research, and send you all publications and poster presentations that arise from the project.

Thank you for your support!


Budget Overview

This project requires a total of about $10,000. I have been awarded grants from the Society for Research on Adolescence and Psi Chi International Honor Society, but I need additional funding to reach my target sample size. I am thus requesting $3,000 in funds for the genotyping of 100 participants at $30/sample.

Meet the Researcher


I am a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology and Social Behavior at the University of California, Irvine. My research largely focuses on the dynamics of intimate relationships, and has more recently expanded to human mate selection. I have been working on this project since January 2012 under the guidance of Drs. Chuansheng Chen, Ellen Greenberger, and Robert Moyzis at the University of California, Irvine.


A special thanks to my advisors on this project, Drs. Chuansheng Chen, Ellen Greenberger, and Robert Moyzis; the "Chenberger" lab; and my undergraduate research assistants for their hard work on this project: Jonathan B. Lim, Stephanie Nguyen, Blaise Lallathin, Ronica Senores, Justin Huft, Gabriel Corpus, Melody Lim, Jennifer Lai, Paul Phandl, Yvonne Vo, Marissa Tom

Thank you as well to all those who donated money or participated as speed-daters! Your contributions are much appreciated.

Project Backers

Bonnie Schrack & Matthew Fomine ForkaCindy WuzacfaubionjzingerArashKeissamiDenny LuanKaren L. Blair, PhDkorethgreenshamroxajohnson23giardialambliaOscar Jasklowskicschen