Top science dating tips

15 February 2016

Interview with

Professor Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University

When you're dating, what exactly makes you attracted to people, and how do you make sure they like you back? There's a wealth of information from pickup artists out there, but the science often says something a little different. Viren Swami is a psychologist from Anglia Ruskin University, and he joined Georgia Mills to give her some top science dating tips, and to go through what actually makes us attracted to people...

Viren - I suppose the first thing is that, if you are physically attractive, you'll receive a sort of premium in terms of dating.  So attractive people tend to get asked out on dates more often, they also tend to have sex more often and, if you're female, you probably have more orgasms during sex.

Georgia - Ah, that's not fair!

Viren - Well the idea is that if you're with someone who is physically attractive, your partner is more likely to make an effort with you in bed.

Georgia - Wow!  Why is good looking so important then?

Viren - Why it is that seeing someone attractive is rewarding in some way.  It activates a part of the brain that is also activated when we get any kind of reward, like drugs or money.  So it's possible that seeing someone attractive is rewarding and, if that's the case, then we want to see them more often.  The other possibility is that most human beings have a stereotype about what attractive people are like.  We tend to think that attractive people are more popular, more sociable, healthier, and we have all kinds of weird thoughts about these attractive people.  So it probably makes sense that if these thoughts are at least partially based in reality then we want to be with attractive people.

Georgia - Is attractiveness just a bonus in your dating life?

Viren - No, it's a bonus in all kinds of spheres.  So, in occupational settings people who are attractive tend to get hired more often, they tend to get fired less often, they get a higher starting wage, they make more money over the course of their lifetime.  In other settings, university students get a higher grade if they're attractive - I could keep going.

Georgia - This is not cheering me up this Valentine's day but, I suppose, it's not that surprising.  So what other things have you found - what about personality?

Viren - Well, lots of surveys have been conducted where you simply ask people what they look for in a potential partner and there are three main categories.  So the three categories tend to be physical appearance, and secondly possibly things like status and reputation.  But usually, the most important criteria that most people are looking for are things to do with niceness.  We like nice people, we like people who are loyal, have a good sense of humour, who are faithful, and so on.  And this is true of both women and men so, both women and men say they would like a partner who has all these qualities.  One of the things people maybe don't think about very often is the effects of proximity.  We like people who are nearby, in general, and we we tend not to have too many relationships with people who are further away, but when you ask people about proximity, it maybe doesn't figure so much in their thoughts a potential partner.  We don't tend to think like I'm looking for someone who's nearby, but that's actually what tends to happen.

Georgia - What about 'playing hard to get' - is this a good idea?  I've heard a lot of people suggest this as a sort of tip for getting a man?

Viren - Well, the science suggests that it doesn't work, and it doesn't work because it contravenes the theory of reciprocity.  The theory of reciprocity simply predicts that we like people who like us, so showing someone that you like them, in theory, should result in them liking you in return.  Playing hard to get contravenes that; it shows that you dislike someone or you're too difficult to get.  The idea from science is that, actually, there is a separate thing you can do which is to play selectively hard to get.  And playing selectively hard to get simply gives the impression that to every possible suitor in the world you are hard to get but to that one special person that you like - you are very easy to get.

Georgia - So just be mean to everyone else except the one you want?

Viren - Exactly.

Georgia - Now speaking of dating tips.  We spoke a little bit yesterday about some good and bad chat up lines and you fed me some lines, which science says should be good or should be bad, and I went out to Cambridge Brew House, with some help, on a little social experiment to try some of these lines. So the first one you gave me is "if you could have any topping on a pizza what would it be?"  So let's hear how we got on...

Robbie - I've just got a question for you? If you could have any topping on a pizza right, anything you want, what would you have?  Anything on a pizza?

Girl - On a pizza - bacon.

Robbie - Bacon.  Why would you have bacon?

Girl - I don't know.  I like bacon for my pizza.

Robbie - You like bacon? I think I'll have mushrooms - I'm a mushroom kinda guy.

Georgia - That was willing participant Robbie Bennett you heard there trying your line, and it did work pretty well.  They ended up talking together for ages.  So what actually makes this a good line?

Viren - It goes back to the theory of reciprocity. Reciprocity simply predicts that when you ask an open-ended question, you're much more likely to get a reply from that person.  But that particular question also forces the other individual into a norm of conversation.  The kind of tendency is to ask the other person in return what they like - otherwise it just gets awkward.

Georgia - So human politeness if anything else will just force you to engage?

Viren - Exactly.

Georgia - Now you also fed me a bad line, and the bad line you fed me was "I like reading" which I gave it a go.  So let's hear how I got on...

Georgia - I really like reading

Boy - Okay, so do I.

Georgia - Yes?

Boy - Yes.

Georgia - Great.

Boy - Yes.

Georgia - Okay.

Boy - Yes.  That was a bad chat up line.

Georgia - It wouldn't have worked?

Boy - No.

Georgia - What would you say would have been a good chat up line?

Boy - Maybe - I like reading Joseph Conrad.

Georgia - Oh - Heart of darkness, right?

Boy - Heart of darkness - that would work.

Georgia - Okay for next time.

Girl - You like Joseph Conrad?

Boy - Uh oh...

Georgia - Obviously that went really terribly.  There was no interaction at all and what I enjoyed is that his suggestion actually went down really badly with the girl I think he was seeing.  So what made this a bad chat up line?

Viren - Well it's a bad chat up line because it's a closed question.  You are essentially just stating a fact rather than trying to force reciprocity.  I guess for his partner - I guess it raises questions about how similar they really are.

Georgia - And I suppose something else to consider if you're trying chat up lines - don't go over to a couple...

Viren - And also, I think, maybe the important point to emphasise is that these chat up lines aren't going to work in every single situation.  If you went up to someone in a library and asked them what their pizza topping or favourite pizza topping is - it probably wouldn't work.

Georgia - There was one line that you fed me which I was actually too cowardly to try which was "you're short but that's alright because I like short people."  And this is something called "negging."  So tell me something about negging?

Viren - So negging is something proposed by lots of pickup artists and it's simply a man - usually a man - going up to a woman and using either a backhanded compliment or an offensive statement.  And the idea from pickup artistry is that this is supposed to make the woman more attracted to you.  The problem with negging is that I think firstly, the science doesn't support it - the science suggest that, actually, negging doesn't work - it's not a good way of approaching someone.  I think the bigger problem with pickup artistry is that it's simply based on misogyny.  It's based on this idea that you can deprogramme or dehumanise women and that's a good way to get them into bed with you.  Even if you did think that that was a good way of going about the world, the idea that you can lie and trick someone into having a relationship with you is not a good start for a future relationship.

Georgia - So - no negging then.  Well, do you have a top tip of final science hack for anyone who might be looking for love?

Viren - I get asked this question a lot and I always say that dating is stressful.  It is stressful for everyone because there is so much anxiety involved.  In fact, there are studies suggesting that at the start of a relationship, particularly in the first few months, your levels of cortisol start to increase suggesting that it is stressful, and because it's stressful we sometimes behave in silly ways.  And my advice really would be to just be kind to everyone, everyone is - everyone who's dating at least - is in the same boat and they're all being stressed, and they're all finding it difficult and, if you're kind, not just to other people but  also to yourself, I think it goes much better.

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