What science has to say about love

This Valentine’s day, love is not just in the air – scientists are now examining how to find it online too.

Two new studies released this week tackle the world of digital dating from opposite sides of the coin. The first looked at the online profiles that people prefer, while the second analysed how to best portray yourself to score that first date.

The researchers of the first study, which was conducted at the University of Iowa, wanted to see how people using online dating sites or mobile dating apps reacted to different ways people presented themselves in online profiles. So the team created four online dating profiles of men and four of women using a template from OKCupid, a free online dating service, in order to find out.

The profiles combined two communication perspectives in various ways. The first perspective is known as “selective self-presentation”, or SSP, in which a person focuses his or her profile only on the good or desirable qualities he or she possesses.

The second is called “warranting”, where profiles include details easily traced to a real person.  The eight constructed profiles were then shown to 317 adults (all of whom had used an online dating service) who were asked to judge which of the profiles they would contact. Of the participants, 150 were men and 167 were women, and the mean age was 40.

Researchers anticipated that the preferred profiles would be both high selective self-presentation and high warranting – in other words, someone who sounded perfect and also provided details that made them sound genuine.

The results surprised them. People were disenchanted by profiles that sounded too good to be true. It was the combination of the low SSP and high warranting perspectives – so those that were positive and successful, but authentic and humble – that proved most favourable for profiles.

They shared their findings at the annual meeting of the National Communication Association last November, and plan on submitting their paper for publication in some time this year.

The second study, an evidence-based systemic review published in the journal Evidence Based Medicine, looked at the other side of online dating: the person creating the profile, and the approaches people can take to turn online contact into a first date.

Much like the findings of the first study, the researchers at the Queen Mary University of London found that profiles that appear genuine are more likely to generate interest.

But genuine details such as academic achievement are still trumped by likeability, which is influenced by factors such as humour, wit and word choice. Cleverly written profiles are likely to be more successful than those that simply state someone is funny. However, the wit must be wielded carefully, as simple but catchy word choice, especially in headline messages, is favoured – complex language is a universal turn-off.

“If you can get the potential date to stop and think about your headline message, increasing the exposure to your primary photo, this will increase their liking of you,” says Professor Khalid Khan, lead researcher from the Queen Mary University of London. “And provide a 70:30 mix of who you are, and what you are looking for.”

Of course, the photos you include have an impact on your digital dating life as well. “It seems obvious to say an attractive photo is best, but try and include features such as a genuine smile that crinkles up the eyes, and possibly a tilt of the head,” says Professor Khan. And group photos convey friendliness, importance and status, especially if you are in the middle of the action and touching someone else – but only on the upper arm.

Based on the findings, pooled from 86 published studies on attraction and persuasion from various scientific fields, the team put together a list of do’s and don’ts of online dating:

Once interest has been piqued:

  • Do personalise any email invitations to correspond online
  • Do make it short and sweet
  • Don’t be afraid to use poetry, preferably rhyming with the potential date’s headline

Once contact has been made:

  • Do ask open questions
  • Do respond promptly: eagerness is not turn-off
  • Don’t write screeds, but enough to indicate generosity with time
  • Do introduce humour
  • Do disclose some personal information
  • Don’t sell yourself as a rare commodity that is worth having

If on a webcam:

  • Do smile
  • Do mimic body language
  • Don’t slouch
  • Do pay genuine compliments, but don’t flatter
  • Don’t portray yourself as perfect: it arouses suspicion
  • Do end every conversation on a positive note/with a positive revelation about yourself

When your online contact does finally land you that first date, keep an eye on your date’s eyes. A study published in Psychological Science last year showed that eye movement in both women and men can indicate whether they see a person as a potential mate for love – or lust. Participants in the study tended to fixate on the face when an image brought about romantic feelings, while images that elicited lust saw participants fixating on the rest of the body. The automatic eye patterns analysed during initial visual contact occurred in as a little as half a second for both feelings of romantic and sexual desire.

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