Changing the old dating rules

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

By Wray Herbert

Women are much choosier than men when it comes to romance. This is well known, but the reason for this gender difference is unclear. Evolutionary psychologists think it’s because, way back in prehistoric times, “dating” was much riskier for women. Men who made an ill-advised choice in the ancient version of a singles bar simply had one lousy night. Women who chose unwisely could end up facing years of motherhood.

That’s less true today, yet women remain much more selective. Is this difference a vestige of our early ancestry? Or might it be totally unrelated to reproductive risk, something more modern and mundane? A couple of Northwestern University psychologists, Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick, decided to explore this question in an unusual laboratory: a real-life speed dating event.

For the uninitiated, speed dating is an increasingly popular way for men and women to meet and find potential partners. Participants attend a sponsored event and go on a series of very brief “dates,” about four minutes each. Typically, the women sit scattered around a room, and the men make the rounds. Afterward, both men and women indicate to the sponsor if they would be interested in seeing any of the others again. If two “yeses” match up, they get phone numbers and that’s it. They’re on their own.

Men say “yes” a lot more than women. That’s expected, but Finkel and Eastwick had a novel theory about why. Perhaps it could be explained by the simple convention of men standing and approaching—and women sitting passively. There has been a lot of recent work on the mutual influence of body and mind--how we embody our thoughts and emotions—and the psychologists speculated that physically approaching someone might be enough to make the potential date more appealing romantically—and thus to make the men less choosy overall.

They tested this in a series of 15 heterosexual speed dating events, involving 350 young men and women. Each participant went on about 12 dates, but the researchers changed the rules: In these events, the women and men approached each other about equally. Following each date, each participant rated the other for romantic desire and romantic chemistry. They also rated their own sense of self-confidence on the date. A bit later, they decided thumbs up or thumbs down.

The results were a score. As reported on-line in the journal Psychological Science, the well-known gender difference vanished when men and women assumed more egalitarian roles. The difference didn’t completely reverse when women were on the move. That is, their choosiness went away but they didn’t become more indiscriminate than men. This suggests that the ancient tendencies may still have some force, but they are also reinforced by arbitrary social norms. What’s more, it was increased self-confidence that appeared to make the difference: Simply standing and being on the move boosted confidence, which in turn boosted romantic attraction.

We don’t speed date through real life, of course, but there are all sorts of social conventions based on gender, and these presumably shape romantic feelings and actions. Having men behave more like women and women more like men appears at least to narrow this one gap between the sexes.

For more insights into the quirks of human behavior, visit the “Full Frontal Psychology” blog at True/Slant. Selections from “We’re Only Human” also appear regularly at and in the magazine Scientific American Mind.

posted by Wray Herbert @ 11:41 AM


At 1:29 PM , Blogger occhiblu said...

If the gender-related tendencies change based on behavior, then why refer to them "ancient tendencies"?

You present a great deal of proof that they're cultural, and just a bit of speculation that they may be evolutionary. I think it's premature to then talk about our "ancient tendencies" for speed dating.