Love at first sight? The science behind speed dating

What information do we use to quickly decide whether we find someone attractive? And what happens in the body when two people find each other attractive during a speed date?

This post is also available in Dutch.

Looking, smelling, and listening to find out whether you’re attracted to someone

During a date you can use many sources of information to determine whether you’re attracted to the other. You can see what they look like, you can smell them with your nose, and you can hear their voice. How important is the role of each of these senses? This is an interesting question, especially in the age of dating apps like Tinder where you’re mostly deciding based on a person’s photos.

Researchers from Leiden studied this question by setting up a speed dating experiment. Prior to the speed dates, the heterosexual participants first judged the face, smell, and voice of their future speed dating partners by answering: How attractive are they to you on a scale from 1 to 7? Before making their judgments, participants were shown portrait photos, had to smell worn T-shirts, and listened to a text fragment read aloud by the partner. They did this without knowing which pictures, smells, and voices belonged together. Then, the participants had 4-minute speed dates with each of the ten potential partners. After each speed date, they indicated their attraction to the other.

As it turned out, it was easy to predict how attracted people were to each other by looking at how attractive they rated each other’s pictures. The ratings of voices and smells, however, barely played any role. So maybe it’s a good thing that Tinder focusses on the physical aspects!

Synchronized heart beats = mutual attraction?

Whether you’re attracted to someone you just met mostly seems to depend on what they look like. But what happens in the bodies of the speed daters when they’re attracted to each other? Is attraction something that’s expressed as visible behavior like laughing, or rather as unconscious signals like the heart rate?

To study this, researchers ran another speed dating experiment. This time, speed daters saw each other for 3 seconds while a screen separating them was briefly lifted. Afterwards, they rated (among other things) how attracted they found the other on scale from 1 to 9. Afterwards, they had a non-verbal speed date of 2 minutes during which they were not allowed to talk to each other, and then a regular speed date of 2 minutes (or the other way around). After each interaction they rated each other again. At the end, they also indicated whether they would want to go on another date with the other or not.

The results showed that during a speed date, people started to imitate each other in visible behavior (smiling, laughing out loud, nodding, gesturing, looking at each other), but also in unconscious signals (heart rate and skin conductance – a measure of sweat on the skin indicating arousal). Synchronization of visible behavior did not predict people’s attraction towards the other, but the more two partners’ heart beats and skin conductance responses synchronized during the date, the more attractive they rated each other afterwards. The precise mechanism behind this is still unclear: the researchers speculate that a synchronized heart beat and skin conductance may help people connect on an emotional level. In any case, the study suggests that it’s always good to be on the same wavelength during a speed date!

This work also shows how people can go on dates for science, and science can do research for daters. I would say: it’s a match!


Author: Marlijn ter Bekke
Buddy: Judith Scholing
Editor: Brittany van Beek
Translator: Felix Klaassen
Editor translation: Rebecca Calcott

Image by Jisoo Kim via Unsplash

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