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Speed Dating and the Science of Attraction

Speed Dating and the Science of Attraction



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Published by Ryan Blitstein
What happens in those first few seconds that makes us fall for someone? Researchers are using speed-dating to help search for the answer.
What happens in those first few seconds that makes us fall for someone? Researchers are using speed-dating to help search for the answer.

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Published by: Ryan Blitstein on May 29, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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I Think I Love you
What happens in that first nanosecond that makes us fall for someone?
By Ryan BlitsteinJune 29, 2008Erika Kokkinos felt like a monkey in a zoo.Technically, she was "dating." At each of 12 tables at an art gallery in Northwestern University'sstudent union, Kokkinos was meeting an eligible college bachelor, some of them quite attractive. Butthe radio/television/film major had trouble disregarding the tripod-mounted cameras and cucumber-sized microphones. Barely an hour before, she had produced a saliva sample-not exactly a sexyexercise-so researchers could analyze her hormone levels. The whole evening of romantic possibilityhad been set up as a science experiment.Kokkinos had arrived at last November's event straight from work, rushing to fix her makeup so shedidn't look tired, and wearing nice jeans and a top that was tight, but not revealing. The primping wasless to impress the guys than to make her feel desirable. Five months after a breakup and weeks fromgraduation, Kokkinos was single and content. A night of so-called speed dating seemed a lark, a way tofind out who might come out of the woodwork at a university with a barren dating scene. She'd beenintrigued by the experiments after taking a psychology class as a sophomore with NU Professor EliFinkel, who was both the night's lead researcher and its emcee.Kokkinos arrived at Eric Anicich's table. Though each considered the other among the best-looking participants in the room, the date did not begin smoothly. After introductions, she said the first thingthat popped into her head: She'd dated another Eric for a year and a half, and everyone thought theywere brother and sister. She regretted saying it immediately. Brushing off the awkwardness, Anicich, arecent transfer from the University of California-Santa Barbara, told her he'd grown up in SouthernCalifornia. So did the previous Eric, she said, laughing. "Wow, should we just stop now? Or is this, isthis like, really awkward?" Anicich joked. The exchange might have torpedoed the date, but it brokethe ice. For the next three minutes, they laughed, learned about each other and shared some very personal thoughts -like a normal, promising first date, on fast-forward. The pair had chemistry. Theyclicked "yes" on a Web site that night, and the next day, they matched.What happened between Kokkinos and Anicich isn't unique-new romantic bonds form every day,everywhere. Most North Americans will fall in love at least once during their lifetime. Yet the momentthese two met-unlike most others among human history's billions of romantic relationships-wasdigitally captured in sight and sound. The video would be one perspective in a Rashomon of romanticdata: Finkel and his graduate student/collaborator Paul Eastwick collected extensive, pre-eventquestionnaires from every participant (199 during nine sessions), along with revealing post-datesurveys over three months and e-mail exchanges between those who matched."This is going to sound immodest," Finkel said of the mountain of information. "I don't think there is adata set that's even close."The Northwestern speed-dating experiments, and similar studies by teams from Wilmington, N.C., toBerlin, have helped revive a surprisingly dormant area of science, upending assumptions and
discovering new truths about the psychology behind what happens when boy meets girl-and how aspark of attraction leads to true romance. Eventually, they may unlock a few of the mysteries of love."It's ground-breaking," says Stony Brook University professor Arthur Aron, author of several classicrelationship studies. The speed-dating research "makes it possible to study something that hasn't beenethically or practically possible to study before."For thousands of years, thinkers from Plato to Erich Fromm have analyzed love, and everyone fromWilliam Shakespeare to Elvis Presley has chronicled the ecstasy of falling into it. But compared withmany scientific subjects-the bonds between atoms, for instance-researchers know precious little abouthow romance works.The modern study of the psychology underlying attraction began during the 1960s, when a generationof researchers set out to show that love could be examined as hard science. Some fixed up opposite-sexstrangers in the laboratory; others showed subjects personal advertisements and asked them howattractive they found such potential mates. One study randomly paired college freshmen with dates to a"computer dance," telling attendees a software program had matched them up. A few teams followedmid-college couples or newlyweds for decades. Just before Finkel, 33, and Eastwick, 29, were born, thenew field seemed to be hitting its stride, forming scientific conclusions about, for example, how muchlooks affect desirability (answer: a lot).In 1975, however, Wisconsin Sen. William Proxmire bequeathed the first "Golden Fleece" award toElaine Walster (now Hatfield) and Ellen Berscheid, two prominent relationships scholars. Their non-achievement: "fleecing" taxpayers by accepting an $84,000 National Science Foundation grant for "frivolous" research."I believe that 200 million Americans want to leave some things in life a mystery, and right on top of the things we don't want to know is why a man falls in love with a woman," Proxmire said in one pressrelease.Although scientists rallied to the cause, a reader call-in poll conducted by the Chicago Daily Newsfound that the public supported Proxmire by a margin of 87.5 percent to 12.5 percent. The professorswere deluged with hate mail. Government funding dried up, and many shied away from such studies,with stalwarts like Hatfield turning to private funding sources. Stony Brook's Aron still excises theword "love" from government grant proposals.Other professors sought fertile ground by studying stable, established relationships. There, too, fundinghas played a role: Researchers must justify experiments by identifying potential applications. The factis, research into falling in love isn't likely to help sustain marriages or combat spousal abuse. Butstudies of married couples very well might.In January 2004, when Eastwick enrolled in Finkel's graduate seminar on close relationships, Finkelhad conducted little attraction research up to that point. Eastwick and Finkel had each arrived at Northwestern the previous fall, but hadn't talked much.During the first few class meetings, Eastwick began asking questions Finkel could not answer,wondering aloud how dynamics like trust and forgiveness applied when partners first met. Finkelresponded with, "We don't know," or referenced largely abandoned lines of research. Even basicquestions, such as what men and women want in mates, remained unsettled.
 Another student suggested that observing speed dates might provide insights, and Eastwick half- jokingly suggested a class outing. Finkel thought the idea had merit.So just before Valentine's Day that year, Finkel took his class to a speed-dating event at Cherry Red, anow-defunct club in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood. Then 28, he wasn't much older than theseminar's half-dozen students. The rookie professor had long hair (since trimmed) and earrings (sinceremoved), and casually dropped the word "dude" into sentences.Finkel hopped from table to table, four minutes at a time, searching for Miss Right, and thinking abouthow speed dating applied to his research. He and Eastwick sprinted through a round-robin of dates,with some class members observing from the bar. Later, they would choose "yes" (as in "I'm interestedin seeing this person again") or "no" (as in "I'm not") for each date.Eastwick recalls meeting a succession of female lawyers and talking with them about music andgrowing up outside Boston. Telling the women that he studied romance was often a killer opening line.Finkel tried a similar approach. Though only a handful of the women bought his love professor routine,a match made that evening would result in a torrid, monthlong affair.The duo came away amazed at how much information they could cull from four minutes of banter. Bythe end of each date, they had a solid sense of their romantic compatibility, or lack thereof, with eachwoman. Most conversations delved deeper than the "What do you do?" one might expect from brief interactions, and exhibited a range of emotions, from excitement to concern. They saw potential for anew research paradigm-speed dating as laboratory experiment. "We walked out of there thinking: 'Hey,we should really study this,' " Eastwick says.As they started designing speed-dating events and related experiments, Finkel and Eastwick becamesubject to a parallel phenomenon: male bonding. They often met for beers, coming together over sharedresearch interests and a love of guitar. The professor immersed himself in the grad student's bold pursuit of the field's deep questions, and Eastwick found a home in Finkel's nascent lab for much of hisresearch.Both saw an opportunity to fill a gaping hole in relationship research: the period between the initialspark of attraction and couplehood. Speed dating allowed them to ethically set people up with a seriesof random partners, and then record the first moments of dates that-though not exactly natural-wouldlikely be real enough."It's easy to do a study in the lab where you have people meet each other or read about someone or hear about someone and ask how attractive they are," says Aron. "And it's possible, after people have fallenin love, to find out what's gone on. But it's very hard to do a study in the lab where you make peoplefall in love."By tracking speed daters for months, Finkel and Eastwick hoped to learn how total strangers becometwosomes."That's like a blank canvas," says Finkel. "What is this magical period between the opening fewminutes of meeting and 'Now we're in a relationship'? Nobody knew."It's a bright afternoon in early April, and Finkel is hunched over his office desk, watching Eric and

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