Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valentine's Day Special: An Insider's Guide to Speed Dating

This week's guest blogger is Maya Kuehn, a fellow graduate student at UC Berkeley. We're thrilled to have this talented researcher and writer contribute to the blog. In this post she'll be discussing research on speed dating.

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To my never-ending delight, being a social psychologist can sometimes make me feel like I have an insider’s guide to social life. When I discovered that two dear friends of mine were about to try speed dating for the first time, I couldn’t help offering some (yes, unsolicited) terribly handy research-based advice: “Be selective! They’ll like you more if you don’t show interest in everybody.” My random tip amused my friends, but my outburst didn’t do justice to the scope of research done on speed dating in our field in recent years. For you, dear readers, just in time for Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d provide a quick and dirty guide to the basics of what goes down in speed dating interactions.

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First, a bit of background: speed dating began in the late 90’s in LA, and has rapidly spread since. In a typical session people participate in a round-robin series of interactions, meeting each eligible partner for a 3-8 minute speed date and rating interest in them afterwards. If two people indicate mutual interest (i.e., match), each is provided with his or her match’s contact info. The super short format of these dates lets people make rapid decisions about each other’s eligibility as a mate, and as such provides a rich microcosm of the first impression and romantic attraction dynamics psychologists have speculated about and researched for decades. As you might expect, our field has started studying speed dating interactions to distill the basic elements of initial interpersonal attraction. So what have we found?

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1. Be selective (Eastwick, Finkel, Mochon, & Ariely, 2007)– In platonic (non-romantic) interactions, liking others makes a person better liked, regardless of whether that liking seems selective or automatic. But in romantic interactions, it’s essential that one give off an air of selectivity. That is, if Hannah shows interest in Scott and only Scott, Scott will be more interested in dating Hannah. But if Hannah shows interest in Scott and every other guy in the room, Scott will be less interested in dating Hannah, and so will the other guys in the room.

So be picky, and don’t be afraid to show that you’re picky! Appearing open to anyone and their brother (or sister) makes a person seem desperate, regardless of gender.

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2. Who makes the move (literally) matters (Finkel & Eastwick, 2009) – It turns out that the mere act of approaching someone (in contrast to being approached by someone) makes that someone seem more attractive. This means that whether you sit or rotate at a speed dating event actually matters: rotators, who are forced to constantly approach targets, feel more self-confident and end up experiencing more romantic desire toward partners and feeling more sparks with them, compared to sitters.

How might this explain gender differences? In our culture, men, who are typically thought of as being less selective with romantic partners than women, are also supposed to approach women. Frequently approaching women may make men more attracted to more women, which makes them appear unselective. Funnily enough, having men sit and women rotate in a speed dating context switches the typical gender role and wipes out the gender difference in selectivity, making men just as picky as women.

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3. We don’t really know what we’re looking for (Eastwick & Finkel, 2008) – We’ve all heard the evolutionary aphorism that women prioritize earning potential in a mate, whereas men prioritize physical attractiveness. But what we say we want, it turns out, doesn’t predict what we actually end up wanting. Despite endorsing these traditional gendered preferences before speed dating, both men and women end up preferring attractive, personable speed dating partners with good earning prospects, both for the short- and long-term.

So while we may rely on traditional stereotypes when anticipating what we’ll like in a partner, in the heat of the speed dating moment, men and women alike just want a friendly, good-looking partner with reasonable prospects for the future. So look your best, speak knowledgably about your future plans, and be friendly (but selective in showing real interest!).

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4. People will lead you on (Back, Penke, Schmulke, Sachse, Borkenau, & Asendorpf, 2011) – Speed dating is chock full of flirting, and people will respond to flirting by flirting back. This makes people expect that partners will reciprocate their romantic interest, but flirting appears to be a charade: people perceive far more reciprocal romantic interest than partners actually report. For instance, Hannah and Scott could flirt non-stop during their speed date, leading Scott to believe that Hannah’s actually interested and rate her highly. But at the end of the evening he’ll sadly discover that she didn’t rate him highly, and he won’t be the only disappointed and confused person in the room (nor will Hannah be the only person wielding flirtation in this style). Using the smokescreen of flirtation can let a person gauge the interest and intentions of his or her partner without revealing his or her true leanings, making dating a tantalizing minefield of letdowns.

So take heart, and learn to take it in stride – it’s not just you! People are misled by flirtation all the time. Try using it as a way to build rapport with a partner and see what they’re like, but know that it often doesn’t reflect genuine romantic interest.

In sum, speed dating is an odd modern petri dish in which to explore romantic attraction, for researchers and eligible singles alike. We flirt, we rotate, we indicate interest (both on our cards and through our interactions), and we don’t really know what we want, or who wants us. But in this season of lonely hearts, and given the ever-increasing demands on our time, why not give it a shot? After all, now you know what you’re getting yourself into.

Maya Kuehn is a Ph.D. candidate in social and personality psychology at UC Berkeley. She has two primary lines of research, examining: 1. How social power affects interpersonal dynamics, and 2. The intersection of self-control and emotion regulation. 





References:

Back, M., Penke, L., Schmukle, S., Sachse, K., Borkenau, P., & Asendorpf, J. (2011). Why mate choices are not as reciprocal as we assume: The role of personality, flirting and physical attractiveness European Journal of Personality, 25 (2), 120-132 DOI: 10.1002/per.806

Eastwick, P., Finkel, E., Mochon, D., & Ariely, D. (2007). Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity Is Created Equal Psychological Science, 18 (4), 317-319 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2007.01897.x

Eastwick, P., & Finkel, E. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94 (2), 245-264 DOI: 10.1037/0022-3514.94.2.245

Finkel, E., & Eastwick, P. (2009). Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity Psychological Science, 20 (10), 1290-1295 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02439.x

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