Pure Pedantry

“So I am a Libra. I enjoy science and blogging. I dislike dogs, people who talk in movies, and other people’s children. I am looking for a woman who breathes regularly and is at least partially heterosexual.” — so speaketh the Speed-dater. (Actually, I have never been speed dating, but I have been on an insane number of first dates.)

Speed dating — aside from being an absolutely ridiculous situation that you should laugh about with your friends when you get home — offers an interesting experimental model for why people are attracted to one another. Researchers at Northwestern have discovered that being selective (among other things) is attractive:

Speed daters who romantically desired most of their potential partners were rejected quickly and overwhelmingly, according to a new Northwestern University study.

Conventional wisdom has long taught that one of the best ways to get someone to like you is to make it clear that you like them. Now researchers have discovered that this law of reciprocity is in dire need of an asterisk in the domain of romantic attraction.

The more you tend to experience romantic desire for all the potential romantic partners you meet, the study shows, the less likely it is that they will desire you in return. (Think too desperate, too indiscriminate.)

In contrast, when you desire a potential partner above and beyond your other options, only then is your desire likely to be reciprocated. (Think hallelujah, finally, someone really gets me.)

In the past, social psychologists have had a difficult time observing initial romantic attraction in action, but the speed-dating methodology used in this study allowed the investigators to take a serious look at the chemistry that has been at the center of so much literature, art and imagination throughout the ages.

“Potential partners who seem undiscriminating are a definite turnoff, and those who evoke the magic of feeling special are a big draw,” said Paul W. Eastwick, the lead author of the study and a Northwestern graduate student in psychology. “The wild part is that our speed-daters were negotiating all of these subtleties with only four minutes for each date.”

“Selective vs. Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity is Created Equal,” by Eastwick and Northwestern’s Eli J. Finkel, assistant professor of psychology, will be published in the April issue of the journal Psychological Science. Also contributing to the report are Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

This is total confirmation of conventional wisdom, but I still love it. Actually, the part about people making the decision very quickly also doesn’t surprise me. In my experience, you don’t know whether you will fit with a person in the first thirty seconds, but you definitely know if you don’t fit with that person.

I was just having a conversation with someone about one of the attractive things about a mate is when they are aloof. This desire for someone aloof I feel like has a similar flavor as someone who is selective. There are three reasons for this:

1) You know that they aren’t desperate. They aren’t going to turn out to be really needy.

2) You know that they have something interesting going on in their life. They could eventually include you in those interesting things.

3) The thrill of the chase. No one likes a easy bet. You want to work for it. It makes the story better.

My theory is that geeky types like scientists can use this desire for aloofness and selectivity to their advantage. “I’m sorry but I just have so much to do today, reading papers, doing experiments, saving the world, the usual. I could pencil you in in two weeks.” She swoons.

I recognize that this is entirely mercenary, but most things with dating are. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

I am curious to hear your opinions on this only moderately scientific issue.


  1. #1 Dave F.
    February 7, 2007


    There seems to be something to the ‘not too desperate’ notion, though the dater (the observer) could also be projecting onto the date-ee.

    In such a case the dater overreacts to what seems to be eagerness, or lack of social skills, or what-have-you.

    We do that all the time, of course — look for patterns, then act on the patterns we think we see.

    There’s also self-selection, in which a fair chunk of the date universe keeps itself far from speed-dating settings.

  2. #2 Joanna
    February 7, 2007

    It’s interesting that I just recently tried speed dating out for myself for the very first time – it was an organized activity by my University for graduate students in all departments.
    It was really quite fun, and fascinating how many complex social/cognitive processes are all occuring at the same time, and most all of them are completely unconscious – 2 minutes really goes by fast, thankfully in some cases.

  3. #3 katherine sharpe
    February 7, 2007

    Aloofness can be attractive, for sure. But in addition to the reasons that you mention, I’d add another, slightly more sinister reason why we may be attracted to aloofness: the part of us that ‘doesn’t want to belong to a club that would have us as a member.’ Aloof people take advantage, consciously or not, of our tendency to assume that other people must be cooler than us, that they act distant because they’re better and more interesting, and that if only we could close that distance, we could be cooler, too.

    At least, that’s what I sometimes think.

  4. #4 cephyn
    February 7, 2007

    I really get disappointed by studies like this, and by “conventional wisdom” – I don’t think this way at all, and I’m only recently realizing I’m fairly rare.

    I don’t believe you can figure out someone after 2 minutes, 2 emails, 2 days, or maybe even 2 weeks. I know many friends who have known their spouses off and on for years and never dated – then, suddenly, they realized what they were missing. If they had just dismissed each other initially, they’d never have their mate.

    I don’t believe that there is ONE person out there for everyone. I believe that there are many people who you could fit with quite fantastically. And sometimes, you don’t know it right away. Many times, you don’t. The person you meet initially is very often not the “true” person – maybe they’re nervous, maybe they’re trying real hard to impress (when in fact, they’re just a regular person like we all are), maybe they’re just having a bad day. The point is, I don’t believe in making snap judgements.

    I have more respect for a person who will give a range of people a chance, instead of the person who rejects tons of people for superficial and instant reasons. Because you never know. I just don’t understand why few others think that way. I’m not more attracted to someone who is selective. I’m more attracted to a decent person who isn’t judgmental.

  5. #5 Amy
    February 8, 2007

    I wonder if that’s part of it, cephyn. I’ve never speed-dated, but I think I would be distinctly unimpressed by someone who “experienced romantic desire” for me after only two minutes. (This is perhaps why I have never speed-dated, so YMMV). The more over-the-top interested they seemed, the more it would be a turn-off: either they are incredibly indiscriminating, or incredibly needy, or incredibly lonely — none of these options is particularly attractive.

    Far more compelling would be someone who, after two minutes, felt something like, “Hmm, she seemed like a kind of interesting person who it might be worth getting to know better.” I can’t imagine having a more positive reaction than that to anyone based on two minutes of conversation, and therefore am somewhat suspicious of someone who would.

  6. #6 topher
    February 8, 2007

    If early in the courtship (speed dating all the way until 6 months) I have the impression that the best thing in my girlfriend’s life is our relationship, then I end it. It’s a measure of what you bring to the table. Interesting people are interested in interesting things, and this should distract from doting. It’s not that all their eggs are in your basket, it’s that they only have one egg.

  7. #7 Agnostic
    February 8, 2007

    It’s not clear that the aloofness vs eagerness is the causal factor — more likely, a guy who is truly a loser (if you compiled whatever data you liked and had it rated by a representative sample of female judges) is going to appear more eager as well as show his true loser colors. There’s definitely some personality basis for clinginess — probably high Neuroticism, and perhaps high Agreeableness too.

    Trying to change these things is pretty difficult. If your data say that you’re a loser yet you act aloof and cocky, she may be initially drawn in, but it won’t take long to figure out that you’re a loser. Ditto for temporarily suppressing your high Neuroticism / clinginess.

    The only case where real change can be made is the equivalent of a high-IQ slacker who just needs to get his shit into gear — that is, someone who truly is desirable but irrationally behaves in a desperate way. Like the high-IQ slacker, who must represent somewhere around 1% of all slackers, the great catch who acts clingy must be a tiny minority. So overall, the picture is not likely to change a whole lot.

  8. #8 bioephemera
    February 8, 2007

    It’s not that all their eggs are in your basket, it’s that they only have one egg.

    I’m stealing that, topher! It describes so many people I know.

    Anyway, this study only makes intuitive sense if you are slightly picky, ie not desperate. Extreme pickiness gives diminishing returns – not only because potential matches may assume you’re not interested in dating (since they almost never see you doing it), but because reciprocation is never a certainty. So says the extremely picky, not-so-sure-this-strategy’s-working single gal. 😉

  9. #9 Cathy in Seattle
    February 8, 2007

    >>My theory is that geeky types like scientists can use this desire for aloofness and selectivity to their advantage. “I’m sorry but I just have so much to do today, reading papers, doing experiments, saving the world, the usual. I could pencil you in in two weeks.” She swoons.

    This is absolutely true. It’s like trying to woo Spock. Seemingly impossible, but worth the effort if you succeed.

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