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Role reversal undermines speed-dating theories

June 2, 2009 By Matt Kaplan This article courtesy of Nature News.

Women become less choosy when they, rather than men, move from table to table.

Speed dating is not just popular among those looking for romance. Psychologists have worked out that they can get swarms of student participants in mate-choice studies by offering speed-dating opportunities on university campuses in return for the right to analyse the dating behaviour during the events.

A study in Psychological Science points out that chivalric behaviour created by the speed-dating experience may be skewing the data1.

Normally in speed dating, men walk around a room and visit a succession of seated women for mini dates just a few minutes long. Later, the participants note down whom they would like to meet again. If there is a match, the organizers help the people to get in touch. Psychologists have found that although men choose, on average, half of the women present, women choose to see only a third of the men again2,3.

This isn't really a surprise. Among animals, females are usually the picky ones, because they make the larger reproductive investment. However, the new research, by Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick, social psychologists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, demonstrates that tinkering with the speed-dating format alters human behaviour, dramatically changing the outcome.

"We asked executives from a commercial speed-dating company why they always had men rotate. They told us it was because women tend to have purses and other things to carry and because 'it seems more chivalrous'," says Eastwick. So the researchers decided to explore whether having males literally walking up to seated females was having a psychological effect.

The researchers established 15 speed-dating events for 350 young adults. During eight events, men rotated around the seated women, and during seven events, women moved between seated men. When men rotated, men said yes 50% of the time and women said yes 43% of the time. However, when women rotated, the trend for higher female selectivity vanished, with men saying yes 43% of the time while women said yes 45% of the time.

Allure of proximity

"It was astonishing that simply reversing which sex rotated demolished such a well-established sex difference, one that has frequently has been attributed to deep-rooted psychological adaptations," says Finkel.

It was astonishing that simply reversing which sex rotated demolished such a well-established sex difference.
Eli Finkel
Northwestern University

The researchers think the reason for this phenomenon is related to embodiment — the idea that physical actions can alter perception. Pulling something closer makes the object being pulled more appealing, whereas pushing something away makes the object less desirable4,5.

Finkel and Eastwick argue that approaching someone makes the mind want what it is approaching, because people are in the habit of moving towards objects that they want and moving away from objects that they don't want.

"I would like to see the finding replicated with other populations and other methods — but if there are robust effects of motion leading to changes in mate choice, that does indeed suggest an effect of embodiment that should be explored further," says Peter Todd, a psychologist at Indiana University in Bloomington, who has collected data suggesting that women are more selective than men during speed dates3.

All in the hips

However, other possibilities do exist. "These are undergraduate men in this study and we know that female waist-to-hip ratio is very important to them," says Robert Kurzban at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, who has also published speed-dating studies showing that women are more selective than men2. "In scenarios with men sitting and women rotating, those seated men could have become more selective simply because they could gather more waist-to-hip information than men who only socialized with seated women."

Regardless of the reason for the effect, Finkel and Eastwick's findings have the potential to force a re-analysis of data collected from earlier speed-dating studies.

"The results from older studies are likely to be changed if we repeat past speed-dating experiments with women rotating instead of men," says Kurzban. However, he is quick to add that he does not think this finding is going to counter the large body of literature showing that females, of many species, are the more selective gender. "This finding reveals a piece of the mate-preference puzzle that we had not seen before, but it does not, on its own, change the overall picture," he says.

But not all past speed-dating research will have to be re-run, says Todd. Many studies — such as those that use speed-dating interactions as 'stimuli', with third-party individuals watching a speed date and being asked to judge the romantic interest of others — would not be affected.


  1. Finkel, E. J. & Eastwick, P. W. Psychol. Sci. (in the press).
  2. Kurzban, R. & Weeden, J. Evol. Hum. Behav. 26, 227–244 (2005).
  3. Todd, P. M., Penke, L., Fasolo, B. & Lenton, A. P. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 104, 15011–15016 (2007).
  4. Cacioppo, J. T., Priester, J. R. & Berntson, G. G. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol.65, 5–17 (1993).
  5. Kawakami, K., Phills, C. E., Steele, J. R. & Dovidio, J. F. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 92, 957–971 (2007).


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