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Uncertainty Heightens Romantic Attraction

• December 28, 2010 • 12:01 PM

Newly published research suggests keeping a potential romantic partner guessing can pique his or her interest.

With the ultimate date night fast approaching, men and women alike are attempting to decipher the seemingly random rules of romantic attraction. What combination of factors impels one person to think of another as potential mate material?

Newly published research suggests one potent element in the mix is mystery.

“Keeping people in the dark about how much we like them will increase how much they think about us and will pique their interest,” a research team reports in the journal Psychological Science.

University of Virginia psychologists Erin Witchurch and Timothy Wilson, and Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert provide evidence for this thesis in the form of a cleverly designed experiment. The participants, 47 female college students, were told the study was devised to evaluate the effectiveness of Facebook as a dating website.

The experimenter told them several male students from two other universities had viewed the Facebook profiles of 15 to 20  female students — including theirs — and had rated whether they thought they would get along with each woman. The women were then instructed to read the profiles of these men and report their emotional response and level of attraction.

One-third of the women were told they were looking at profiles of the four men who had given them the highest ratings — in other words, those most likely to be interested in them. One-third were told they were reading profiles of men who had given them average ratings.

The final third were told that “for reasons of experimental control,” neither they nor the experimenter knew the scores these particular four men had given them. (In reality, all the women looked at the same four profiles, which were entirely fictional.)

Not surprisingly, the women who looked at men they believed had already expressed interest in them were more excited about and interested in them, compared to those who were told the men didn’t respond to them strongly.  The prospect of reciprocal feelings heightened their interest.

But the highest levels of attraction were reported by those who had no idea where they stood with these potential partners. “Women were more attracted to men when there was only a 50 percent chance that the men liked them the best than when there was a 100 percent chance that the men liked them the best,” the researchers report.

So is this an example of the sort of self-destructive reflex that keeps people at home alone on New Year’s Eve? Perhaps, but Whitchurch, Wilson and Gilbert report it’s entirely understandable.

“Whereas people may be very pleased that someone likes them, once they are certain of this fact, they construct explanations as to why, and as a result, the news loses some of its force,” they write. “In contrast, when people are uncertain about an important outcome, they can hardly think about anything else. They think about such an event but do not yet adapt to it, because they do not know which outcome to make sense of and explain.”

In terms of romantic attraction, “Uncertainty causes people to think more about the person,” they write, and “people might interpret these thoughts as a sign of liking.” Backing up this thesis, they found the women in the experiment who were uncertain of the men’s interest reported thinking about them more than the women in the he-likes-me group.

So, if you feel an initial spark and want to pursue a potential relationship, there is something to be said for inscrutability. As the researchers conclude: “People who create uncertainty about how much they like someone can increase that person’s interest in them.”

When it comes to finding a romantic partner, ignorance may not be bliss, but it sure is intriguing.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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