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July 20, 2010

Dating, With Science on Your Side

http://www.jewishjournal.com/community/article/dating_with_science_on_your_side_20100720

In honor of Tu B’Av, the Jewish dating holiday, let’s acknowledge that while the Internet has helped some single people to narrow the playing field, dating is still confusing. So it may come as some comfort that there’s another, less expected tool to help in looking for love: science.

Most relationships begin with a glance. From across the room, two people lock eyes and acknowledge a mutual attraction. But in that moment, scientists say, more is happening than just a cursory gaze. 

In one of the most frequently cited studies on nonverbal flirting, published in 1985 in the journal Ethology and Sociobiology, psychologist Monica Moore, a professor at Webster University in St. Louis, examined what takes place between two people who encounter each other across a room.

She looked first at the nonverbal cues of females — who, many researchers have speculated, begin the process of courtship — and found that women exhibit some specific, repeated signals to let men know they’re interested.

“Women use a variety of glancing behaviors, a variety of things that draw attention to their body, like primp or hair flip,” Moore said in a recent phone interview.

She noted that the more cues a woman sends off, the more likely she is to be approached by her target. Moore’s subsequent research found that signaling interest was a better predictor of a woman being approached than her physical attractiveness. Moore summarized this finding in a literature review published earlier this year in the Journal of Sex Research: “[A] high-signaling woman of average attractiveness was much more likely to be approached than her low-signaling, beautiful counterpart.”

Other researchers have repeatedly concluded that when a woman makes eye contact with a man and then smiles, he is far more likely to interpret her as being interested and approach her — thereby rendering the smile, in a face-to-face scenario, perhaps the best tool in any single woman’s arsenal.

But suppose you don’t start in a bar — suppose you start where more and more singles are looking these days: on an online dating site.

First of all, you’d be in good company. According to a BBC World Service poll released earlier this year, 30 percent of Internet users worldwide are champions of online dating. But how to construct a profile? How to interact with other users?

To begin with, it helps to know that the main worry of online daters — that other users may be lying in their profiles — is generally untrue. According to research presented at the Computer/Human Interaction (CHI) conference in 2007, people may bend the truth a little in their online profiles — trim a pound here, add
a quarter of an inch there — but in general, the authors wrote, “Many of these deceptions would be difficult to detect face-to-face.”

At another CHI conference in 2008, researchers from UC Berkeley presented their findings regarding what makes some online daters’ profiles more attractive than others.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found the photo is the most important part of the profile. But having an attractive photo doesn’t necessitate having the visage of a Brazilian model. Men preferred photos of women who seemed to be self-confident, not self-centered, and feminine. Women preferred men whose photos conveyed trustworthiness and extraversion.

Once one partner has approached the other in person, whether after an online chat session or a glance across the room, what ensues is like a dance. The woman signals her interest, and the man, if he reads the signal correctly, responds. Either partner may end the courtship at any time, Moore said.

The only complication? Men tend to read courtship signals slightly differently than women. “Men see the courtship behaviors as sending a stronger signal than women see them sending,” Moore said. “They see the rejection behaviors as sending a weaker message than the women see them sending.”

If both partners are on the same page and the relationship moves forward, though, it becomes more difficult to use logic in determining behavior, because intense neural activity kicks into gear. A study published in 2005 by researchers at Stony Brook University looked at the brains of people who had recently fallen in love by using MRI scans of the brain. 

What they found was that the brains of newly in-love individuals were flooded with the chemical dopamine, which mimics the brains of people using cocaine. The study concluded that this may account for the almost addictive behavior of new couples: obsessive thinking, jealousy and feelings of euphoria.

With that as the end result, it’s easy to see why we spend so much time seeking out the right mate — and why science might hold the key.

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