By Shannon Proudfoot

A new study reveals some surprising information about what men and women find attractive in a partner, and whether romance is driven by finding the perfect match or by taking advantage of what's on the shelf. Researchers at the University of Essex followed thousands of singles at speed-dating events in the U.K. and studied the characteristics of those who proved most popular. They found that hair colour, contrary to popular belief, had no effect on how full people's dance cards were -- calling into question who really has more fun.

"The stereotype of the blond woman or man is unfounded in our data," says Marco Francesconi, an economics professor who co-authored the study with Michele Belot.

The finding that men gravitate toward women who are young and thin while women prefer men who are young (but not younger than themselves) and tall comes as no shock, but the study also uncovered surprisingly pronounced effects from certain characteristics. An added year on a speed-dater's age meant a five per cent reduction in the number of positive responses received, and an additional five centimetres on a man's height upped his chances of getting a second date by 10 per cent.

Women are much choosier than men, he says. Men give twice as many potential partners the thumbs-up (five at an average speed-dating event); women are more likely to select someone they know has also picked them.

Ultimately, Francesconi and his partner found that people's romantic choices are determined more by the opportunities available to them than by any strong preferences. For instance, daters would consider professionals the hot commodity in a group that included lots of them. But they would be just as happy to pick blue-collar individuals if there weren't a lot of lawyers and executives in the crowd.

"The title of the study is "Can anyone be The One?" says Francesconi. "And the answer is yes, maybe." Francesconi admits to being surprised by the romantic opportunism revealed in the study, but suggests if society encouraged more social mixing, people might find love in unexpected places.

That's the idea behind, a four-year-old company that stages about 150 speed-dating events in Toronto, Mississauga, Ont., Calgary and Vancouver each year. Events are tailored to gay or straight clientele, and involve two groups of 25 people who are given a few minutes with each prospective partner and a match-card to indicate who they'd like to see again.

There's no fear of rejection, as participants are only told they've caught someone's eye if both express interest.

With the chance to meet two-dozen eligible strangers in a single evening, co-owner Ragna Stamm'ler says 25Dates gives people a chance to look for love outside their usual circles.

"We get a lot of feedback from people who say, 'I would never have met my boyfriend if not for this service,"' she says, adding that 75 per cent of participants make at least one "match" at each session, and those who come up empty-handed are invited back for free.

"Sometimes women are just a little more choosy," she says. "Men are a little more willing to try different options, and a little more open."

Stamm'ler herself is a speed-dating success story of sorts, having met her boyfriend at a 25Dates event in January - though she was there as host rather than participant. "He ended up coming out to one of the events and asking me for my number after," she says. "Things have moved rapidly. We're living together now and I couldn't be happier."

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