The Dating Go Round

Speed dating offers scientists a peek at how romance actually blossoms

Dating is hell. It’s a tiptoe traipse on a high wire strung across the Grand Canyon. One wrong move and you’re in free fall, tumbling crazily toward a final goodnight. It’s no accident that single adults laugh and commiserate over dating horror stories. Tales of dating bliss just don’t cut it at the watercooler.

THE DATING GO ROUND | Speed dating offers scientists a peek at how romance actually blossoms. Cary Wolinsky

Dating can also be a monumental chore. All too often, someone who seems cute and funny chatting in line at the coffee shop turns into a date from — well, you know.

Enter Rabbi Yaacov Deyo. He is generally credited with inventing speed dating in 1998 to help Jewish singles in Los Angeles meet each other. Deyo gave people literally looking for love a way to cut to the chase and perhaps even avoid catastrophic spills.

In the past decade, speed dating has spread. No major metropolitan area in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia or Canada lacks speed dating opportunities. Entrepreneurs now run events for speed networking, speed interviewing and speed friending. About a dozen speed dating companies have emerged as major players in the United States. That doesn’t include, though, specialty operations geared toward arranging meetings between members of particular groups, such as Christians or gays.

Even psychologists have gotten into the act, for purely scientific reasons. Without intending to, Deyo devised a way to study real-life romantic attraction and relationship formation. That’s no small feat — couples who have just met and started dating are usually in no mood to be scrutinized by nosy researchers.

At a typical speed dating event, the romantically inclined pay a fee to go on a series of brief “dates” with potential partners. Men sit across from women, and the pairs of speed daters talk for no more than eight minutes. Each man then moves and sits across from another woman. This process continues until all the men and women have had brief conversations.

Afterward, speed daters describe on a questionnaire or a website which people they would or would not want to meet again. If two participants express interest in each other, the host of the event provides them with contact information so that the pair can chat further or arrange a traditional date.

For the past 40 years, attempts to discern how relationships get off the ground have largely relied on questionnaires and laboratory tasks that probe for qualities people value in prospective dates and mates. “There’s a big difference between evaluating people’s dating preferences on paper and evaluating living, breathing potential partners,” says psychologist Eli Finkel of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

New speed dating research indicates that men and women in fledgling relationships anxiously long for an emotional bond with each other, even if it takes years for such a connection to form. This gut-wrenching reaction may draw couples together with the same pull as mutual sexual desire.

Speed dating investigations also illuminate a considerable gap between what people say they’re looking for in a romantic partner and traits of the people they actually want to go out with. Some evidence raises doubts about whether men value women’s physical attractiveness and whether women cherish men’s financial prospects to the degree that questionnaire responses would suggest.

 Other findings hint that, for good evolutionary reasons, female speed daters become more choosy as they meet larger numbers of potential dates. Evolution may also lie behind women’s tendency to mask their romantic intentions more than men do. Intriguingly, though, during speed dating, women’s dating palates become much less discriminating if they move from one man to the next, rather than waiting for men to approach them.

No other available research method could yield such findings, remarks psychologist Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. “It cracks me up that speed dating was invented by a rabbi because it seems like it was designed by a psychologist,” Diamond says.

Worried love 

The late psychologist Dorothy Tennov studied love more than 30 years ago, well before the advent of speed dating. After interviewing thousands of people, she concluded that romantic passion feeds off a mix of hope and uncertainty. Love grows out of opposing beliefs that the other person reciprocates one’s feelings but, at the same time, may not really be as interested as he or she seems, Tennov proposed.

A speed dating study conducted by Finkel and NorthwesternUniversity psychologist Paul Eastwick supports Tennov’s view. Worries about desired partners’ underlying romantic feelings flare up in many people — and it is this worry that motivates pursuit of the relationship, Eastwick and Finkel say. Anxiety toward a love interest, combined with hope that one’s feelings will be returned, triggers the same attachment system that forges emotional bonds between children and their parents, Eastwick and Finkel conclude in the September Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“We see an embryonic stage of the attachment process as soon as a person develops a romantic attraction to someone else,” Finkel says. Scientists have usually assumed that mutual sexual desire largely motivates people to pair up in the first place, with attachment bonds forming only after at least two years together.

Eastwick and Finkel conducted seven speed dating events for college students, 81 women and 82 men. After an event, students used a website the researchers set up to both view and communicate with matches. For one month after a speed dating session, students visited the website every three days and completed relationship-related questionnaires.

In particular, the scientists tracked what they call partner-specific attachment anxiety. Volunteers scored high on this measure by affirming statements such as, “I need a lot of reassurance that [partner’s name] cares about me” and “I worry that [partner’s name] doesn’t care about me as much as I care about him/her.”

This uncertainty kept people interested. Participants were far more likely to date someone and to stay romantically focused on that person if they thought he or she liked them, but only if at the same time those participants experienced constant twinges of attachment anxiety.

These conflicting responses are precariously balanced in budding relationships, Eastwick says. One couple stopped dating after a couple of weeks because one person felt insufficiently desired by the other. Another breakup occurred after one person’s attachment anxiety toward the other had declined sharply for more than a week. In that case, one dater may have lost interest in another whose romantic intentions were no longer in doubt, Eastwick suggests.

For one couple that dated casually throughout the follow-up period, each person’s feelings of desirability and attachment anxiety ebbed and flowed, but both reactions were always present.

Fledgling daters who experienced attachment anxiety reported far more interest in forming a serious relationship than in having a one-night stand. People with troubled backgrounds, who generally felt anxious about their standing in any close relationship, usually didn’t contact their speed dating matches.

But for the vast majority of daters, partner-specific attachment anxiety accompanies romantic attraction and imbues unrequited love with its signature sense of wretched despair, the researchers suggest.

Some researchers believe that worries stirred up by budding relationships should not be called attachment anxiety, since actual, traditional attachment bonds have yet to form.

Eastwick demurs. “It is almost as if a central component of passionate love is the fantasy that one will ultimately possess an attachment bond with the desired partner,” he says.

Feminine mystique 

Evolution-minded psychologists regard women as more likely than men to want a committed relationship and to feel anxious about getting one. Because women have, since the dawn of humanity, faced much greater pressure to raise children, they have evolved to behave relatively cautiously and coyly with potential mates, according to these researchers. This tactic improves a woman’s chances of weeding out the users and the losers.

Men, on the other hand, are more apt than women to pursue short-term sexual relationships with many partners. Physical signs of a woman’s youth and beauty initially stand out for men. This perspective suggests that it is only after deciding to seek a long-term mate that men look beyond women’s surface qualities.

Consider a 2005 analysis of speed dating data, by psychologist Robert Kurzban of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Men tended to choose to have further contact with every other woman they met. Women only wanted to meet again with one in three men.

Related evidence comes from a speed dating study in the January Psychological Science. Psychologist Peter Todd of IndianaUniversity in Bloomington and his coworkers found that observers of speed dating encounters are moderately good at picking out who later expresses romantic interest in whom, with women being harder to read than men.

In Todd’s investigation, 28 female and 26 male college students who don’t speak German watched video clips of 24 speed dating interactions among German young adults. Clips lasted either 10 or 30 seconds and featured different parts of each speed date.

Observers correctly judged others’ romantic interest in a partner about 60 percent of the time, a good but not great accuracy rate. “Some people hid their true intentions in this dating context, especially females,” Todd says.

The true feelings of the female speed daters were harder to identify in general, and five women were nearly impossible for observers of either sex to figure out.

Observers judged speed daters’ intentions best when viewing clips taken from the latter parts of encounters. Speed daters must have gathered information about each other throughout their brief interactions, making their intentions easier to read toward the end, Todd suggests. If so, then partners evaluate much more than each others’ physical attractiveness during the few minutes of a speed date.

Nonetheless, men being men, they still focus on what women look like, even if unwilling to come right out and admit it. In a 2007 speed dating study, Todd and colleagues found that men and women alike said beforehand that their ideal mate possessed all sorts of physical and personal attributes that reminded them of their own. Yet men’s choices of which women to contact after speed dates were, by admission on later questionnaires, based mostly on physical attractiveness.

Women were again the choosier sex. And each woman used judgments of her own physical allure to pick a few men having comparable desirability, based on a woman’s perceptions of each man’s wealth, status, family commitment, physical appearance and health. In other words, a woman’s opinion of her own physical beauty determined what she aspired to in a partner. Women’s self-perceived beauty lay behind their determinations of which men were good prospects.

Women become especially choosy given a large pool of prospects, picking only a few men ranked highly by nearly all female daters, Todd’s group reports in January in Animal Behaviour.

Females in many nonhuman animal species do just the opposite, expanding their mating choices when faced with plentiful male options. In those situations, high-ranking males find it more difficult to control low-ranking males’ access to fertile females.

Speed daters play the mating game in a peculiarly human way, Todd proposes. Given only a handful of choices, women get less picky because they can evaluate many characteristics of each potential date. But faced with 20 or 30 alternatives, it’s possible to track only a few obvious clues for each man, such as facial appearance and body type, narrowing the woman’s pool of choices.

Moving attractions 

There’s a simple and until now unexplored way to get female speed daters to lower their romantic standards, according to Finkel. Just have them move from one man to the next, rather than waiting for each man to approach them, as is the practice at virtually all speed dating events. “The mere act of physically approaching a potential romantic partner increases one’s attraction to that person,” Finkel says.

Finkel and Eastwick describe this phenomenon in a paper to be submitted for publication. Related research has already shown that individuals tend to feel more positively toward objects or people that they physically approach, versus those viewed from a stationary position.

At 15 speed dating events organized by the NorthwesternUniversity researchers, either men or women rotated from one partner to the next while the other sex remained seated.

When men approached and women sat, men reported far more romantic desire for their various partners than women did. Men also cited greater romantic chemistry with partners, relative to the seated women, and picked larger numbers of speed dating partners for further contact. But when women approached and men sat, the number of people men and women wanted to date was about the same.

Men are generally expected, if not required, to approach women in most situations that offer romantic opportunities, Finkel notes. This subtle social expectation may substantially explain why women are choosier daters than men.

In a related 2008 study, Finkel and Eastwick found no differences between male and female speed daters’ tendencies to favor partners with good looks or promising careers. Yet on questionnaires, the men had described a preference for physically attractive dates and women had emphasized a search for guys with good earning prospects.

“Purported sex differences in mating strategies have been touted as part of our evolved legacy, but that’s a vastly oversimplified view,” Utah’s Diamond says.

Todd disagrees. Until other researchers confirm that women become less selective when told to approach prospective dates, he reserves judgment on Finkel and Eastwick’s new study. The Northwestern researchers study college-aged daters, who may not exhibit clear sex differences in dating preferences because most seek short-term relationships, Todd notes.

His own speed dating studies include 20- to 50-year-olds. Todd regards members of this age group as the best bets for seeking a committed partner and showing sex-specific mating strategies.

However evolutionary scenarios pan out, speed dating offers an efficient tool for studying real-life love connections, remarks ColumbiaUniversity economist Raymond Fisman. Dating websites and census data on marriages offer other avenues for such research.

These research approaches can help answer other questions about love, such as why some people experience no qualms about interracial dating while others do. Last year, a team led by Fisman reported that prevailing racial attitudes and racial diversity in people’s home regions strongly influence their willingness to contact speed dating partners of other races. Fisman now investigates people’s attitudes about organizational and corporate corruption. When considering either corruption or dating, he says, it’s important to remember that people often lie both to themselves and others about their underlying motives. “We all tell ourselves comforting stories,” Fisman observes.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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