Breaking the Norm: Experiment Makes Men and Women Equally Picky When Selecting a Mate

When it comes to dating, are women really choosier than men? The abundance of research on this subject leads us to believe that they are, but a study forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, reports evidence to the contrary.

The study’s authors, psychologists Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick from Northwestern University, suggest that when it comes to mate selection men and women might not be as different as we think. Finkel and Eastwick put a simple twist on a common speed-dating experiment and discovered that simply approaching a potential romantic partner (versus being approached) changes the way those potential dates are viewed.

In this study, 350 undergraduates were recruited for speed-dating events. In half of the events, the men rotated while the women sat and in the remaining events, it was the women who rotated (a procedure nearly unprecedented in professional heterosexual speed dating events). Following each “date” (which lasted four minutes), the participants reported their romantic desire for the partner and how self-confident they themselves felt. Following the event, the students indicated on a website whether they would or would not be interested in seeing each partner again.

When the men rotated, the results supported the long-held notion of men being less selective. This jives with previous research citing an evolutionary basis for women to be more selective of their mates (the reproductive costs for women are greater than for men). But here is where it gets interesting: When the women rotated; they became less selective while the sitting men were pickier.

It turns out that, regardless of gender, the participants who rotated experienced greater romantic desire for and chemistry with their partners, compared to participants who sat throughout the event. In addition, the rotators tended to have a greater interest in seeing their speed-dating partners again, compared to sitters.

Finkel says, “The results suggest a fascinating alternative explanation for the sex difference in romantic selectivity. They suggest that this difference may be due to the roles men and women play in the opening seconds of new romantic contacts, with the physical act of who approaches whom. The mere act of physically approaching a potential partner seems to increase your desire for that partner.” The researchers also suggest that confidence may explain the results. Approaching a potential date increases confidence, which in turn makes the approacher less selective.

On a larger scale, these results have implications for the social norms surrounding romantic relationship initiation and for companies that capitalize on the business of dating. The authors explain, “given that men are generally expected, if not required (as at professional speed-dating events), to approach in romantic contexts, perhaps this factor alone could be sufficient to explain why women tend to be more selective than men.”

This study presents a clear example of how an inconspicuous gender bias (having men rotate and women sit) can affect not only the outcome of a study, but may also skew the chances of a speed dater obtaining a potential match. The present findings add to the literature of romantic selectivity and advise future studies to look at the possible consequences that other social norms may have on their results. The researchers conclude that “the gendered norm we manipulated in the present study is just one of a universe of possible norms that could in principle affect romantic attraction.”

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