A (Very) Brief Interlude

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

By Wray Herbert

I first learned about “speed dating” by watching the sitcom Sex and the City. Frustrated with her less-than-exciting romantic life, the red-headed Miranda Hobbes decides that she’s going to skip all the usual dating rigmarole and trust her first impressions. That’s basically all you can do with speed dates, which typically consist of one-on-one encounters lasting just three or four minutes. Miranda’s dating experiment ends badly, in large part because both she and her date, Harris, lie about themselves from the get-go. Not white lies, whoppers. He pretends to be an emergency room doctor, and she tells him she’s an airline stewardess, rather than the hard-driving Harvard-educated lawyer she really is.

Now I'm no expert on romantic attraction, but I have this theory that lying is not the best way to start a relationship. Not only because lies tend to catch up with you, as they did with Miranda and Harris, but also because people can detect so much about another person in just a few minutes: authenticity, confidence, fear, desperation.

Psychologists are very interested in first impressions, and in the nature of romantic attraction. What makes a date attractive, very quickly and in a romantic way? And what turns people off? Is falling in love just a subset of liking? It’s well known that we tend to like people who like us, and people who are generally friendly tend to be well liked. Does this hold for romantic attraction as well? Do amorous people attract the most attention? Or is it more appealing, as the old saw has it, to play “hard to get”?

A team of psychologists decided to explore some of these questions experimentally, and the tool they used for their research was—that’s right—speed dating. Paul Eastwick and Eli Finkel of Northwestern and Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely of MIT had about 150 eligible men and women, about 20 years old, go on four-minute “dates” with about a dozen people of the opposite sex. For each of their dates, these men and women said thumbs-up or thumbs-down. But they also completed a set of questions, meant to take measure of both their romantic attraction and how much “chemistry" they experienced in each encounter. Finally, they asked everyone to answer this question about their dates: To what percentage of the other people here today will this person say “yes”? They wanted to see who was perceived as picky and who was, well, easy.

The scientists did allow those who were mutually attracted to one another to hook up again if they wanted to. That was not part of the experiment. It was just a nice thing to do. Then they crunched the data, and as they report in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science, the results were intriguing: If someone found just one of his or her dates especially attractive, but was not particularly interested in the others, the partner tended to reciprocate—with both desire and feelings of shared chemistry.

But if someone was indiscriminate, falling for everyone in the room, that was a big turnoff: Their dates felt neither sexual desire nor chemistry. These were also the people who were perceived as not at all picky—or, to put it another way, as desperate. And they were somehow broadcasting this attitude in these briefest of encounters.

The technical word for this is “loser.” But why, really, are these people sitting home alone on Saturday night? Why are amorous men and women unattractive? The scientists believe it goes beyond dating, and even beyond romantic attraction. People have a fundamental need to feel special and unique, they say, and this basic motivation may cut across all of our social interactions.

Other speed dating studies, by the way, have shown that people make up their minds about potential partners not in minutes but in seconds. This means that Miranda was probably wasting her time reinventing her resume. At that speed, that’s almost certainly not what Harris was sizing up.

For more insights into the quirks of human nature, visit “We’re Only Human . . .” at www.psychologicalscience.org/onlyhuman.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 3:20 PM


At 7:08 PM , Blogger curious said...

That was interesting. No wonder I can't get a steady date. Drat, drat and double drat.

At 4:40 PM , Blogger Experimentaholic said...

I wonder though whether this need to feel unique and special is a Western thing? Given the recent work on cultural differences in self-enhancement by Steven Heine and others, perhaps this effect would be significantly attenuated in Asian samples. Then again, I doubt that speed dating exists in many Asian Cultures, making that study hard to do.

At 10:40 PM , Blogger Mar Yoom said...

Your blog is so interesting and insightful! :)


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