Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 2 • 4:00 PM

Professors’ Pet Peeves

Ten things to avoid in your classrooms this year.


September 2 • 2:00 PM

Music Lessons Enhance Brain Function in Disadvantaged Kids

Children from poor neighborhoods in Los Angeles who took regular music lessons for two years were able to distinguish similar speech sounds faster than their peers.


September 2 • 12:00 PM

California Passes a Bill to Protect Workers in the Rapidly Growing Temp Staffing Industry

The bill will hold companies accountable for labor abuses by temp agencies and subcontractors they use.


September 2 • 10:00 AM

SWAT Pranks and SWAT Mistakes

The proliferation of risky police raids over the decades.


September 2 • 9:12 AM

Conference Call: The Graphic Novel


September 2 • 8:00 AM

Why We’re Not Holding State Legislators Accountable

The way we vote means that the political fortunes of state legislators hinge on events outside of their state and their control.


September 2 • 7:00 AM

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.


September 2 • 6:00 AM

The Rise of Biblical Counseling

For millions of Christians, biblical counselors have replaced psychologists. Some think it’s time to reverse course.


September 2 • 5:12 AM

No Innovation Without Migration

People bring their ideas with them when they move from place to place.


September 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Middle School Doesn’t Have to Suck

Some people suspect the troubles of middle school are a matter of age. Middle schoolers, they think, are simply too moody, pimply, and cliquish to be easily educable. But these five studies might convince you otherwise.


September 2 • 3:13 AM

Coming Soon: When Robots Lie


September 2 • 2:00 AM

Introducing the New Issue of ‘Pacific Standard’

The science of self-control, the rise of biblical counseling, why middle school doesn’t have to suck, and more in our September/October 2014 print issue.


September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

When Men Who Abstain From Premarital Sex Get Married

Young men who take abstinence pledges have trouble adjusting to sexual norms when they become husbands.

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

The Big One

One third of the United States federal budget for fighting wildfires goes toward one percent of such fires. September/October 2014 big-one-fires-final

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