The Science of Attraction


You may have considered speed-dating as means to find your Valentine’s Day date, but have you ever thought of it as a scientific research tool?

For those of you unfamiliar with the trend, speed-dating events introduce singles to one another through a rotation of very short (5-10 minute) “dates.” While speed-dating won’t guarantee that you’ll meet “the one,” it is helping psychologists at Northwestern University study why people are initially attracted to one another. We talked to Evanston resident and associate professor of psychology Eli Finkel to learn about some of the surprising results.

How did you decide to use speed-dating as a method to study attraction?
There wasn’t much research happening on romantic attraction in 2004. Traditionally, relationship studies have focused on why marriages persist or end in divorce. So when students would ask questions about attraction in my classes, very often the answer was “We don’t know.”

So Paul Eastwick, who was a graduate student in my doctoral seminar at the time, suggested that speed-dating might be an interesting way to study why people are initially attracted to one another. We’ve since found that speed-dating is actually a powerful way to do this.

Eli FinkelEli FinkelBut each of those “dates” are so short. Can a person really decide if they're attracted to someone in such little time?
Studies have shown that the power of first impression is actually quite strong, and that you can glean a lot of social information very quickly. This not only includes if a person finds someone else attractive, but also more subtle cues like whether there is enough of a spark to want to see that individual again.

Why else has speed-dating proven to be a good format for scientific study?
First of all, it’s very efficient. With only 20 men and 20 women, we can study 200 dates in just two hours. Also, the environment is unique in that it is well-controlled, yet natural for the participants. We can collect data we need via surveys and closely observe interaction, but the participants are still in a comfortable, real-world setting. Even when they’re being videotaped, people tend to loosen up and behave naturally after a short time, sometimes within minutes.

Finally, speed-dating is amenable to a variety of cool methodological features. For example, we can change variables easily, like the kind of music playing or dim versus bright lights. While we haven’t studied the effects of changing those variables, we have studied how outcomes change when women stay seated and the men come to  them, and vice versa.

What did you find?
Surprisingly, we found that whichever sex was approaching—that is, moving from table to table—tended to be more attracted to the other participants. This finding presents an alternative (although not entirely contradictory) explanation to the traditional evolutionary explanation for why women tend to be more selective than men when choosing a mate. We’ve found that it may not be dependent on sex, but rather who is approaching whom. In a way, this still supports the idea that women would be more selective because, in almost all romantic contexts, men approach women more frequently than women approach men.

What else might we find surprising about what you and Paul have learned from speed-daters?
One good example came out of Paul’s dissertation work, in which he studied whether people are really aware of what attracts them to others. According to what we know about the psychology of mating, women tend to look for status—a good job, good earning potential, etc.—while men concentrate more on physical attractiveness. This has been shown in self-report studies, but it’s also evident in behaviors like personal ads—women tend to talk about their looks and express interest in status and resources, while men tend to talk about their status and resources and express interest in looks.

However, we found that when you actually introduce people, the outcomes are less reliable. Ten days before a speed-dating event, participants completed a questionnaire about what they were looking for in a mate. The answers to these questions matched what we expected—women sought status more than men did, and men sought looks more than women did. Then, the participants attended a speed-dating event, and were asked to rate all twelve participants on attractiveness, good earning prospects, and overall romantic interest. We found that when it comes participants evaluating how they feel about real people (as opposed to hypothetical ideal partners), the sex differences in those preferences disappears. That is, women and men were equally inspired by good looks and equally inspired (albeit to a lesser extent) by earning prospects.

So maybe we don’t really know what we’re looking for?
People don’t seem to have as much insight into their romantic preferences as they think they do. For example, say you have a friend who is looking to date someone who is very funny, and isn’t that concerned about their attractiveness. And you are more interested in finding a very attractive mate, and aren’t so worried about whether they’re funny. We’ve found that these stated preferences don’t tend match how people evaluate potential partners at a speed-dating event and in the ensuing month. For example, it’s likely that you and your friend valued attractiveness equally when it came to rating a person’s overall romantic appeal. 


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