Newly published research about romantic attraction confirms what mothers have been saying for generations: don't give it all away. “Keeping people in the dark about how much we like them will increase how much they think about us and will pique their interest,” claims a new report in the journal Psychological Science.
A research team made up of Erin Witchurch and Timothy Wilson, two University of Virginia psychologists, and Daniel Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard (and the author of the very good "Stumbling on Happiness"), conducted an experiment on 47 female undergraduates. The women were told to rate their level of attraction to four male students upon seeing their Facebook profiles. In some cases the women were told the men had expressed an interest in their own Facebook profiles; in other cases they were told the men considered their profiles only semi-appealing. In the final case, they were told they couldn't know what the men thought. The study found that women were drawn to the men who found them attractive, but they were particularly intrigued by the men whose interest was unknown to them. (I believe this is something Neil Strauss wrote about in "The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists".)
“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 (via Miller-McCune). “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.”
Initially I wanted to write about this study because it seemed like a fine example of time, energy, grant money and institutional resources all being applied to confirm conventional wisdom, albeit for a titillating subject. At first glance, it would seem we could be a bit more creative with our psychological research. (Speaking of: who wants to fund my own study into whether wearing all black is indeed slimming? Also, do good fences really make good neighbours? I'd love to train my beady eyes on the question.)
But this study does reveal something unexpected. Sure, romantic uncertainty is alluring; the challenge of a possible conquest is often more exciting than the charm of someone's crush. But it's a temporary balance. The uncertainty is only effective for as long as it's distracting. The moment real feelings enter the equation, the gig is up and the nasty business of assessing compatibility must begin. From this we can draw two conclusions: playing hard to get enhances one's appeal at first, but beyond enhancing a relationship's origination myth (eg, "She wouldn't even look at me for weeks!"), it doesn't do anything to sustain one's appeal once the stakes are raised. It's a crafty opening gambit, but hardly an essential one.
So, who wants to fund my research into whether being able to amicably share the remote-control enables a more loving marriage?
Picture credit: Kyknoord (via Flickr)