Five Things Scientists Know About Romance

The bespectacled, lab-coat wearing geek isn’t most people’s idea of a hot date.  But, with nothing better to do on a Friday evening, and perhaps hoping to improve their chances, they’ve delved deep into the minds of more fortunate people to find out what causes them to fall in love.  They’ve found some surprising results with can help us all to find romantic success.

#1 Copy what your date is doing

We instinctively mimic other people all the time, picking up their turns of phrases, copying their posture and imitating their mannerisms.  But we rarely notice we’re doing it or that other people are doing it to us.  Mimicking is our brain’s way of having a sincere conversation with somebody else’s brain.  People who mimic more are better liked, and we even find we agree with their arguments more often.

Researchers in France (of course) have discovered that copying what a date is doing increases your chance of getting a second one.  They coached women taking part in a speed dating session to unobtrusively imitate their partner’s speech and body language.  So if the man they were talking to asked ‘You really do that?’ they replied ‘Yes, I really do that!’ instead of just ‘Yes’.  If he scratched his ear, they should scratch their own a few seconds later.  The training paid off: when the women mimicked they were rated as sexier by the men and received more offers of a follow up.

#2 Take them somewhere warm

We use metaphors all the time, and they’re generally consistent.  An icy demeanour, a frosty glare, a chilly reception or a wintry smile are all things to be avoided on a date.  So it’s useful to know that metaphors aren’t just literary oddities: we use them because they’re hard-wired into our brains.  Metaphors go beyond words and influence the way we sense the world.

Experiments have shown that after we get the cold shoulder, we actually perceive the temperature in the room to be lower than those who’ve received a warm reception.  It also works the other way round.  When researchers give a hot cup of coffee to someone they rank other people as being warmer than do people who have been given an iced cup to carry.  So if you’re after a hot date consider skipping the ice cream and turning the temperature up.

#3 Wear red

It’s not just verbal metaphors that influence our behaviour.  Red is the colour of love, whether it’s red roses or Valentine’s Day cards.  Scarlet women operate in red-light districts, and even respectable ladies wear red lipstick when they want to seduce their husbands.

The connection of red to romance is every bit as effective as the link between warmth and liking.  When experimenters doctor pictures of men so that they are surrounded by a red border or wearing a red shirt, women gave them an extra point on a 1-9 scale of attractiveness.  Similar results hold for men’s attraction to women.  So when choosing what to wear on the big date, forget the black dress or white shirt and go for something more daring.

#4 Meet them somewhere frightening

Being scared and being in love have many of the same symptoms.  A flushed face, sweaty palms, a rapidly beating heart.  But oddly, these signals aren’t just signs that we’re in love, they’re also one of the ways we work out we’re in love.  And it’s possible to be mistaken about what is causing them.

In one experiment, an attractive female researcher went to a park.  For a while, she stood near a high, wobbly, palpitation-inducing bridge; for the rest of her time, she stood near a wide, flat solidly built bridge.  Whenever a young, unaccompanied man crossed one of the bridges, she approached him, told him about a (different) experiment she was working on and, saying she was pressed for time, gave him her number so he could follow up on her results.  The men crossing the high, wobbly bridge misattributed their rapidly beating heart to attraction, and a larger proportion of them called her back.  So if you really want to cause thrills in your date, suggest a day skydiving rather than a trip to the ballet.

#5 Accept that you’ll never know why you love someone or why they love you

We imagine we know what we like in our partner, whether it’s their cute smile, their fun personality or their charming conversation.  But we’ve seen that the temperature of the room, where we meet, whether they mimic us and the colour of their clothes all have the potential to change how our attraction develops – and these aren’t on anyone’s ideal list for Mr or Miss Right.  So how is the mismatch possible?

Just as we infer from our rapidly beating heart that we are in love, so we infer the reasons we are attracted to someone from the fact that we are.  In one startling demonstration of this, experimenters showed men a pair of female faces and asked them to quickly choose which one they preferred.  The experimenters then switched the cards and handed a different one to the men, asking them why they chose that card.  Surprisingly, four times out of five the men didn’t notice the switch.  But they thought they could justify their choice nevertheless, and confidently explained what they liked about that particular girl.  We choose our partners for reasons neither we nor they understand and the explanations come afterwards.

References within Unthink