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 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


September 17 • 10:00 AM

Pulling Punches: Why Sports Leagues Treat Most Offenders With Leniency

There’s a psychological explanation for the weak punishment given to Ray Rice before a video surfaced that made a re-evaluation unavoidable.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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