Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Dating Game

I got to the last two chapters of book 4 and realized that these chapters depend on all that other stuff I'm going to be going back and weaving into the rest of the book, so now it's time for some serious brainstorming to figure out how things will go. Ack! All that thinking!!! Good thing I've got a road trip later this week. That always helps me think.

Because of my sadly perpetual single status and because I write chick lit, which focuses on the dating part of relationships, I'm a sucker for information about dating and relationships. Last night, I stumbled across a British show on PBS about scientific research into dating and relationships. I missed the first part of it, so I didn't get to see all of the set-up, but from what I gathered, a group of researchers who are studying attraction and relationships set up a dating service in London to try to apply science to dating, and to use the dating service members as part of their research.

One thing they were talking about was the things that people really believe are important to attraction vs. what they say they think is important. In their dating service interviews, almost all the women said that money and status wasn't important to them (as long as the guy actually had a job), and that guys who were too into money and status were a big turn-off. But when they showed these women the same guy dressed either in really casual clothes or in expensive "big shot" clothes, the women all rated him as more attractive in the nice clothes. The researchers concluded that even women who say they aren't into money can't help but choose a guy based on his perceived earning potential.

I'm not sure I agree with their conclusion (though the set-up for that experiment was in the part I missed). I would have chosen the guy in the nicer clothes over the more sloppy guy for a couple of reasons that don't have to do with money. For one thing, a thirty-something man who's dressing like a college student gives me the impression of immaturity, like he's desperately clinging to his youth and trying to avoid adult responsibility. He seems like a Peter Pan type (like the heroes of most of the romantic comedy movies these days). Meanwhile, dressing neatly and nicely is a sign of both self-respect and respect for others. One of my co-workers (who was also my college roommate -- small world) once set me up with a friend of hers, a lawyer who went to Harvard. For the initial set-up, she and her husband invited this guy and me out to dinner. It was after work on a Friday, and he showed up in the casual Friday uniform of khakis and a polo shirt, and he looked really nice. When he took me out for our first "real" one-on-one date, he showed up in baggy shorts, a polo shirt that looked like he'd picked it up off the bedroom floor, and grubby, no-longer-white unlaced sneakers that gave him the shuffle-clomp walk. We weren't exactly dining out at the Ritz, just at a moderate neighborhood Italian place, but they did have tablecloths and cloth napkins, and waiters instead of counter service. I wore a denim skirt, ballerina flats and a lace-trimmed knit top, so I figured I was appropriate for the venue. I was totally turned off when he showed up looking like he'd just jumped in the car after mowing the lawn, and I knew he had a high-status, high-earning job (the bag of Red Man in the car and the fact that he Would. Not. Talk. on the date didn't help -- you may recognize this guy from early in Enchanted, Inc.). Of course, the context does matter. I wouldn't be turned off by a guy wearing the grubby clothes while walking his dog on a Saturday morning, for instance, but in general, I'd probably rate a man as more attractive when he was well-dressed than when he was grubby -- even if the neat clothes were nothing more than good jeans and a plain white (ironed) shirt (yum!) and the grubby clothes were designer.

The researchers went on to use computer modeling to gauge people's preferences, letting both the men and women design the ideal body for a significant other. A few of the men basically designed Barbie dolls with anatomically impossible bodies, but when they averaged it out, the factor that seemed most important wasn't the enormous breasts. It was the waist-to-hip ratio -- the old hourglass figure with bigger hips and a comparatively small waist. In a way, that's good for me because that is the way my figure is, but my problem is that I can't get clothes that accentuate that, as they were showing one of their test subjects how to do. I'm long-waisted, so any dress with a built-in waistline or belt hits me in the wrong place, around my ribs instead of around my waist. It's been hard lately to find skirts or pants that come to the waist instead of sitting around the hips. Hmm, maybe that's why I'm still single. I can't show off my single most important asset.

Then they sent all their subjects into a speed dating situation to see what happened. One researcher had a theory that people are drawn to people whose faces are most similar to their own, so they'd done computer analysis on the photos to find the best matches there. They'd also had everyone do a survey to determine their compatibility. The survey was developed based on successful, long-term married couples. First they measured initial impressions. They just had to sit across from each other without speaking for 30 seconds, and then rate each other on appearance. After that, they did the talk for three minutes thing. As a wild card, they'd invited three guys who were members of the "London Seduction Society" who considered themselves masters of seduction and who gave seminars on picking up women.

The results were almost nothing like what the scientists had predicted. The men were more likely to rate attractive and ultimately choose women with hourglass figures, but the "ideal" body type chosen by women turned out to have nothing to do with what women chose. There, the key factor seemed to be height. The first impression was one of the strongest deciding factors. The compatibility scores and the facial similarity meant almost nothing. Only one guy from the seduction society got picked for a date, and he was only picked by one girl who basically had said she'd date almost any of them (so those other two seduction society guys must have been really awful). After the researchers passed out the matches from the speed dating to the separated groups of men and women, they brought all the men and women together for a more casual mixer, and then they let the various people know which ones the scientific theories had said they were most suited for. There was one couple that every single factor said was absolutely perfect for each other. She'd rejected him in the speed dating, thinking he was a bit of a jerk, but once they started talking in the more relaxed setting, they hit it off and decided to try going out. They had a great first date and a great second date, and then he told her that he didn't want to pursue a relationship. In individual interviews, he said that she reminded him too much of a relative he'd known as a child, and he couldn't get over that, then she said that after he told her the relationship wouldn't go anywhere, he'd made it clear that he was, however, still open to her coming back to his place with him for sex. (I guess her first impression of him was right.)

So, it seems that human beings (or at least the ones participating in this) are basically shallow, and there's no scientific way to predict who will and who won't be attracted to each other. I'm not sure speed dating was the ideal setting for that kind of experiment because it is hard to be yourself and show the kinds of things that prove compatibility in such a short time. Plus, maybe it's a cultural difference thing, but I wouldn't have wanted any man in that group. Only a couple were what I'd consider remotely attractive, but they weren't really the kind I'm drawn to, and they were total jerks. Even the not-so-cute guys were jerks. Most of the women seemed to be either really uptight and kind of bitchy, or else they were rather cheap and trampy. Nobody in the entire group struck me as having much class.

They're supposed to be repeating this show late night tomorrow, so I may tape it for further study and to see what the set-up was. I believe it was called "The Matchmakers," in case you want to look for it on your local PBS station. Not that the insight will do me much good, but it does kind of explain the pathetic dating results I've had.

So, that's been your fun with behavioral science moment for the day!

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