Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

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.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.