The science of sleeping around


    Modern science has taken the romance out of lots of things – religion, cigarettes, baseball — but what about romance itself? New research is trying to bring hooking up out of the dark corner of the party and into the scientific light.

    I wanna be speed-dated
    In 2004, Northwestern social psychologist Eli Finkel was teaching a seminar about the psychology of close relationships when a grad student, Paul Eastwick, kept asking the same question: How do people get into relationships in the first place? A student brought up speed-dating – events where singles meet many potential partners for four minutes or so each, hoping for a second date. Sure enough, they were a psychological goldmine. “I’m sort of like a kid in a candy shop,” Finkel says.

    Since 2005, Finkel and Eastwick have analyzed hundreds of speed-dates between Northwestern students, coding everything from menstrual stages to politics, to find out what turns us on. They discovered that attractiveness, personality and earning potential (in that order) were most important to either sex.

    Their most striking conclusion: We are surprisingly awful at knowing what we want in a partner. The characteristics that speed-daters listed as desirable were often inconsistent with who they actually desired. “People have terrible introspective accuracy,” Finkel says. For this reason, he is skeptical about dating web sites like, based on people correctly reporting their own romantic preferences.

    Finkel and Eastwick have uncovered loads of sociological curios – liberal white daters are more likely to couple interracially; earning potential is more important for men and less important for women than we expect. And some good news: “Having a good personality,” Eastwick says, “is nearly as important as physical attractiveness, even after meeting someone for only four minutes.”

    One finding that stands out is the value of romantic selectivity. In the social world, if you like everyone, everyone will tend to like you back. “Who doesn’t like the guy who likes everyone?” Finkel says. In the dating world, though, this effect is reversed. If a dater telegraphs an attraction to every woman he meets, the odds are greater that none of them will be attracted. This is not to say acting aloof will get you a date. As Finkel puts it, “You should be broadcasting something close to: ‘Wow, there are a lot of exciting people at Northwestern but there’s something special about you.’” In other words, be responsive but don’t look desperate.

    Funny smelling…
    Scent would seem pretty straightforward: Smell nice and potential partners will like you. The reality is much more subtle. In 2007, Feinberg School researcher Wen Li exposed volunteers to different odors at levels barely perceptible to bloodhounds. She found that the smells still had a measurable effect on how “likeable” the volunteers found random faces. Foul-smelling valeric acid made faces appear less friendly, on average, while a lemony scent had the opposite effect. Beguilingly, once the scents were increased to detectable levels, the “likeability” effect vanished. But don’t put on seven-parts-per-trillion of Chanel No. 5 just yet.

    New research shows that the real point of perfume may be to turn ourselves on. University of Liverpool scientists found that a commercial scent sprayed on male volunteers increased their self-confidence so much that when women watched the men on video, they actually found them more attractive. So cologne might work best if you’re the only person thinking about it.


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