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Reporting back on the ‘Science of Pulling’ – making science work for you

September 20th, 2010

Dr Petra

Last Wednesday as part of the British Science Festival we put theory into action with a Science of Pulling evening where we heard about the evidence base around dating and relationships and applied this knowledge at the festival’s first speed dating event.

The event was sold out and fortunately all those who attended were willing to have fun, ask questions, share stories and most importantly speed date at the newly refurbished MAC.

For those of you who weren’t able to make it (and in the tradition of good science) here’s a report on what we did, what we discovered, and what we’ve still left to learn.

How do we study dating?

If you ask people how they think scientists study dating they usually respond with a joke answer – ‘they go on lots of dates!’. This isn’t true but would make research a lot more fun. Other ideas are observational research (scientists prowl around public spaces watching dates in progress), or vaguely ‘the internet’.

In fact most of our dating research is based around surveys, asking people to keep diaries, or analysing self help advice for singles. There is data from internet dating companies but this is often not easily accessible for external researchers (more on this later). We also often ask people to talk about their dating experiences through qualitative interviews – which can lead to wonderful narratives like this one:



What do we know about the ‘science’ of dating?

Social science does have a lot to teach us about relationships and dating, although it’s often not in quite the way the media or self help industry suggests. Indeed there’s only a limited amount of research specifically assessing dating behaviours. However, there is more useful information to be gleaned from anthropology, history, cultural studies and sociology around attraction, dating and mating rituals, the role of matchmakers and the concept of desire. Rather than there being a ‘science’ of dating it’s more a case of synthesising research and using particular methods to understand our relationship behaviours.

It is from these areas we learn that dating advice shifts across time and culture, that matchmakers have played different roles around connecting couples, that attraction differs cross culturally. So that in some parts of the world love at first sight and individual decisions in picking a partner are seen as ‘natural’, while in others the idea of an arranged marriage that fits within a wider family structure and where love or companionship may build over time is viewed as the norm. (Interestingly you can see both models tested out here).

What we have learned from social research on dating is helpful – not least because it often contradicts what single people are anxious about. Westerners can expect to spend 1/3 to 1/2 of their life single or looking for a relationship (see data from here and discussed more here). The average age for heterosexual marriage (in UK) is 34 for men and 29 for women (this report also highlights how many people are single for larger parts of their life than in the past). If you try internet dating you’ve a 1:10 chance of getting a date and going out with them more than once a month if use internet dating. You’re also equally likely to end up in a happy long term relationship regardless of whether it started as a one night stand or emerged through a period of dating.

This kind of data is very helpful when talking to people who are single as very often they feel stigmatised for ‘being alone’, worry they won’t ever meet someone, or are under pressure from friends or family members to ‘find someone’. Knowing it’s actually pretty normal to be single or dating, that marriage is happening at a later age than in the past and that it’s possible to ‘settle down’ at any age can be useful ammunition when faced with pressure to couple up. Moreover learning that many relationship rules we absorb are culturally constructed (for example that you shouldn’t sleep with someone on a first date) can liberate people, enabling them to realise they can shape a dating pathway to suit their needs. Unlike much self help advice on dating this research doesn’t tell people there’s a way they ought to behave, instead it sets out there’s a range of behaviours when it comes to dating, relationships and for singles.

Does ‘the one’ exist?

Telling people about dating behaviour is only part of tackling this topic however. Most people have their own questions about dating and science. And the one I’m most commonly asked is ‘does ‘the one’ exist?’. The answer is statistically, no. Given how many people there will be in your town, region, country or the world there will be hundreds or thousands of people who potentially could be a potentially suitable ‘match’ for you. The concept of ‘one’ person is very much tied within romantic ideals. While we know we’re attracted to someone very quickly, knowing if they’re ‘right’ within a long term relationship is often only discovered once a relationship is firmly established. At which point it’s pretty easy to look back retrospectively and describe someone as ‘the one’ or say you always knew they were right for you.

Indeed searching for ‘the one’ or a ‘perfect partner’ may not be a useful approach in dating. It can result in you being so anxious about whether someone fits a particular set of predetermined criteria you’ve created you fail to spot if you’re enjoying being with them in the present.

What about dating websites – they’ve got loads of data surely?

It’s true dating websites do have lots of information about how couples meet, connect and possibly stay together. The data websites collect varies depending on their business model. Some go for psychometric methods of dating, others for more qualitative approaches, others a mix of these (and each site will claim their approach is ‘better’ and more likely to get you the perfect partner). Some charge for ‘enhanced services’ and it seems that paying for dating sites does increase your chance of meeting someone and going on a date – most likely because you expect a return after a financial outlay.

Sites like OK Cupid have particularly made a promotional feature over the data they collect on clients with OK Trends Dating Research. While Chemistry.com employs scientist Helen Fisher to produce their profiling procedures and dating analytics. The use of psychologists, social scientists and mathematicians within dating sites is standard for both the practical aspects of matching and the promotional angle of seeming more ‘scientific’ (and therefore more likely to get you a date).

Dating sites undoubtedly contain a rich source of data on our modern relationship lives but unfortunately for social research they are usually closed to external researchers. Because they operate on a business model their analytics are used to promote their products and compete with other similar sites. Making it very difficult to access data, compare different websites, or analyse independently.

This has raised some ethical concerns among relationships researchers who feel it data should be made more accessible, and do not wish to have to be tied into a brand within a commercial contract in order to access dating information. Indeed some psychologists associated with such sites have begun speaking out against them for this reason (and the fact they may not be as effective as they claim). For example psychologist Mark Thompson (formerly of Match.com) recently claimed the sites ought to come with a ‘results are not typical’ disclaimer to indicate the chance of meeting, dating and forming a relationship with someone you meet via a website is unusual. [It’s worth noting Thompson has his own dating advice manual to promote so there could be a slight conflict of interest in his criticism of dating sites, although I happen to agree with many of the conclusions he draws].

Despite the limits to online dating there is no reason to dismiss it so long as one approaches it realistically. Indeed it can be used alongside other means of dating, and has certainly undergone a major cultural reappraisal in the past decade. Shifting from a furtive activity most were ashamed of to a standard approach to meeting a partner for many.

As a note of caution those who go for Internet dating seem to have an increased risk of getting an STI (particularly in the case of gay men). This has been explained as partly due to the ease of picking someone up, or equally that developing a relationship online can lead to people feeling already connected and that they know someone well so they do not make the connection condoms are needed. The take home message is however we are dating it’s always a good idea to have condoms with you and keep them at home so you are prepared if you do get lucky.

‘Scientific’ dating advice – do any of these work?

We often see dating advice given in self help books and relationships features in magazines, but do any of the following tips have any basis in science?

“Be yourself”

This message is often presented as a ‘dating fact’ yet is hard to track down with any origins in research. Indeed it only works if you feel confident and like yourself – or like the person you are when you are attempting to meet and date other people. A more accurate message may be ‘be comfortable with yourself before you begin dating’. It’s worth being very sceptical of dating advice that simply tells you to ‘be yourself’ as it often is not based on any sound science and is overly simplistic, telling you what to do but not how to do it. (For fun you could run an n of 1 trial and go on dates as you and on dates as an alter ego and see who has the most success)

Self affirmations

Repeating messages about how wonderful you are is often recommended to boost self confidence and assumed to work to get you onto the dating scene as a confident person. However scientists disagree over whether (and how) this approach works. Critics of self affirmation, see them as frequently used by people with low self esteem who are trapped by their lack of confidence and cannot believe the affirmations they are repeating. Others argue they can work if used realistically and as a means of boosting confidence – or if requested as genuine feedback from friends or family.

Internet dating
– can work but not if you expect to find ‘the one’ (see above). It can help you build confidence, practice talking to people and get used to meeting, chatting and being rejected.

Getting used to being let down
– based on behavioural method of ‘exposure therapy’ or ‘flooding’ approach the idea you expose yourself to rejection is often suggested by self help gurus (although whether they actually know what their advice is based on remains questionable). In theory it can work if done appropriately. If you put a lot of emphasis on being accepted and are fearful if one person rejects you that it’s a sign you’re unlovable then facing rejection over and over can prove to you it’s something you can cope with. The theory is you can then get out and meet more people because the fear of rejection diminishes. Unfortunately if you are struggling with low self esteem and don’t tackle that aspect of your life it’s likely this dramatic approach could do more harm. So it may be worth doing your dating homework and even seeking professional support before going out and dating if being rejected is something you cannot currently cope with.

Widen your friendship group – this one does seem to make sense. The more people you mix and socialise with the more chances you have to meet and get to know different people which in turn can build your confidence and allow you to enjoy socialising. It won’t work if your entire motivation is based on finding ‘the one’ and if you only widen your circle each time you feel rejected or a date doesn’t work. [Although not specifically about this topic Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s book ‘Connected: the surprising power of social networks' has some fascinating insights into how we interact in real life and online]

Confidence/assertiveness courses
– these can work, particularly if you are struggling with self esteem issues. However what we don’t know is whether it’s the action of attending a course, setting aside time to do it and paying for a course that makes a difference – or the contents of the course itself. We also don’t know whether simply reading a self help book could be enough. More research is needed to identify how confidence courses compare with other forms of dating advice.

Dating agencies/singles nights/speed dating
– do seem to work but (as mentioned above) is unclear exactly how since independent evaluation and long term follow up pretty much impossible with commercial enterprises.

Check/change your appearance – the idea that you get more people interested in you if you have a ‘makeover’ or revamp your wardrobe is pretty core to a lot of advice for would be daters. Intuitively it makes sense that checking your appearance, personal hygiene and looking like you’ve made an effort when meeting other people is important. However, this can often be misinterpreted by daters (particularly those on a low income) that you have to have a budget to buy a new wardrobe before you can even enter the dating scene. Certainly my experience of doing dating classes with mental health service users indicates the fear of not ‘looking right’ or not having enough money to buy a new wardrobe (or pay for dates) is a major barrier in considering dating others.

The take home message here is a lot of advice is given about how to date, presented as ‘fact’ but often with little or no basis in science. It’s particularly telling how much dating information is presented as being for everyone and yet tends to really be speaking for younger, affluent, heterosexual and able bodied audiences. This is evidently a major barrier for many people seeking dating advice who don’t fit into this narrow category. [It’s also a clue that much advice presented as ‘factual’ is nothing but since it excludes more people than it talks about]

A way around all this comes in the form of the self help industry, which is an area that relies heavily on the language of science, but research indicates is often not scientific at all.

Debunking the Self Help Industry

The self help industry has a lot to say about dating and relationships. Indeed there are numerous books, franchises, workshops and even television series that all proclaim to have the key to our dating problems. They utilise concepts like Neuro Linguistic Programming (which doesn’t have a proven evidence base), evolutionary theory, Social Psychology, behaviourism, and body language, all of which are described as ‘factual’ or ‘scientific’. Tellingly self help books rarely reference the science they’re supposedly based on and in most cases ‘evidence’ appears to be drawn from women’s magazine features, google searches, people’s opinions and possible the abstracts of research articles. If research is consulted it appears not to be synthesised or critically appraised, but picked to stack up a particular angle.

The format for much self help in dating is for an ‘expert’ to tell you their strategy to find love. Written from a first person perspective it’s usually a tale of adversity, discussing how they struggled with singledom until they hit upon their particular dating strategy. Their audience is informed they too can find love/get sex if they follow their guidance – and pay for their instruction (this is a commercial enterprise after all).

The majority of said guides are heteronormative and highly gendered. So women are instructed to play hard to get, to avoid contact and to make a man chase them. Men are encouraged to take on the role of alpha male, to be predatory and to pursue women. They focus more on reading signals, body language and guesswork rather than straightforward communication advice. So they don’t work for people who can’t perform or read ‘body language’ (see p.10 of Inside magazine for review of standard dating tips had to be rethought when working with men who are neuro diverse and/or wheelchair users).

Guides for women and (straight) couples have been found to be highly problematic with guides shown to maintain gender inequality and reduce communication while blaming people for being in abusive relationships if they don’t follow dating advice. Leading some academics (myself included) to call them ‘self harm’ books. Meanwhile the ‘pick up artist’ movement (aimed at heterosexual men) is growing and yet has not been evaluated nor shown to work effectively. The same applies for the growing number of ‘dating coaches’ who advise on relationships. Some charging thousands of pounds for therapies or approaches that have not been proven effective and are often based on unsound science (such as the identification of ‘dating toxins’).

So is all dating advice wrong then? Putting theory to practice
Analysis of self help advice on dating allows us to see problems within the approach, but with the absence of independent analysis of how dating coaches and pick up artists work – and a long term follow up of their clients – it’s impossible to conclude all approaches are ineffective. Indeed it’s in the interests of individuals and organisations offering dating advice/matchmaking services to be reviewed to indicate if they are providing a useful service. (Although of course with this comes the risk they may be found ineffective which is why probably most commercial operators avoid this).

In the absence of such research you can utilise research skills by asking critical questions of people offering dating advice about their qualifications, the methods they use, the science they cite. You can chase up the arguments they make through the literature (using www.scholar.google.com) and compare this with other research. You can critically appraise books or other products.

There are practitioners who are trying to carry out critical and evidence based dating and relationships advice programmes. For example Jean Smith is a cultural anthropologist who applies research on dating to her approach on encouraging communication and boosting confidence, while Dr Gary Wood combines Social Psychology and Coaching with evidence based self help. What’s interesting about these practitioners is they’re open to questioning, share the science behind their advice, and are critical thinkers around theories relating to relationships advice.

How you can use science methods to sort your own dating situation

Part of the problem with this area is the suggestion there are ‘dating experts’ or coaches who are the only ones with an answer to your relationship situation. This is disempowering and disingenuous. Learning about one person’s experience is not necessarily going to be useful to you – even if they promise you following their method is guaranteed. One great advantage of using research evidence is you hear from lots of people and can apply their experiences. So ask friends and family what their dating experiences have been. Experiment with dating websites, different methods of dating, your profile picture or how you consider presenting yourself. Get feedback from others about the impression you’d like to give.

Seek professional help if you feel you need it but remember there are many confidence courses run via health services and local community groups which are low cost or even free. Read up on body language, attraction, dating patterns, chat up lines or self help books but do so with a critical lens. Ask yourself do the ideas presented apply to everyone universally? Who might they exclude? Could there be other ways of looking at dating issues? What might happen if you did the opposite of the advice suggested? Is the advice presented dependent on you paying money or seeking additional products or services? If you were offering advice to a friend in your situation what might you counsel?

What has science left to learn about dating?

A whole lot really. There’s the minefield of dubious dating advice and coaching still requiring appraisal. While using social networks (particularly Facebook) to arrange hook ups is established research on this topic is still in its infancy. We lack longitudinal studies to track relationships over their particular lifespans and have very little information on dating for diverse communities (particularly for bi and trans people, those interested in polyamory or other alternative relationships and those seeking relationships who are neuro diverse or have other disabilities or learning difficulties). In particular we don’t have information on core dating issues like how to attract a partner, how to get from dating to a relationship, and what happens if you get stuck in the dreaded ‘friendship zone’ or keep ending up with fuck buddies when you want long term romance.

Why this area is under studied?

There’s no doubt people are interested in relationships and research on dating. My experience of running workshops, science events, dating classes or discussion groups for healthcare staff, educators or journalists indicates there’s no shortage of questions people want answering. Unfortunately we can tell them more about what we don’t know and the problems with dating than what is actually going on in relationships and how to enjoy positive dating experiences.

The reason for this is pretty simple. Sex research is traditionally the ‘Cinderella Subject’ of the social and health sciences. Sneered at by other scientists it’s often put down as not proper research or unworthy of further enquiry. Academics often dismiss it as ‘journalism’ (and they don’t mean that kindly). Unsurprisingly sex researchers have steered away from areas such as dating or attraction, fearful of rebuke from colleagues or often the media (for an example of this in practice witness the sneering response to the recent research on booty calls).

Given the problems we have with relationships – from violence, to STIs, to unplanned pregnancy and relationship breakdown there is understandable pressure to focus on the more worrying issues that need investigation. The influence of pharmaceutical funding towards psychosexual research has also influenced a shift towards more lucrative but largely sex negative approaches. Large scale surveys of human relationships have been carried out in different countries although most with a focus on sexual attitudes and behaviour and far less attention paid to getting a date and forming a relationship – or how to end relationships.

Independent funding for research on dating and relationships is more difficult to obtain, which explains why studies in this area tend to be commercially funded but largely restricted to dating organisations, or are based on small scale samples of unrepresentative college students.

While we remain in a position of academia, the media and to an extent the public seeing dating research as unscientific, unworthy or frivolous it is unlikely quality investigations will be funded to answer our questions about our dating habits. And unfortunately the space where evidence needs to be will continue to be filled by bad science and general bunkum. This in turn reinforces the idea this is not a reputable area to be associated with.

None of which is good news for science or the public generally. Indeed a focus on what works within dating and positive relationships advice could in turn reduce some of the problems we see in coercion, abuse, communication problems, relationship inequalities, STIs and unhappy relationships.

So where next?

Our Science of Pulling event was an experiment. We wanted to see if people would be interested in learning about the science of dating along with trying a speed dating event. It seemed both were popular although we will be following up the delegates of our activity to find out what they enjoyed, and where they felt we could have done better. We hope to expand on this event with more science, evaluations and tests in the future. I’ll keep you posted about what happens next and following requests from people at the Science of Pulling event I’ll be writing future posts on pick up artistry, debunking relationships advice for women, dating advice for mental health service users, and avoiding the friendship zone.

I’ll leave you with my summary of the event. Looking forward to the next one!

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