Thursday, December 23, 2010

Uncertainty and Romantic Attraction

It is almost taken for granted in social psychology that attraction entails an element of reciprocity: In a "much-ado-about-nothing" way, learning that someone is attracted to us, makes us feel more attracted to them. Coming to know that a person likes us, increases our liking for them. And finding somebody to be interested in us, makes them more interesting to us also.

But this simplistic rule doesn't always hold that strictly. For example there is the familiar issue of "playing hard-to-get", which academic and anecdotal evidence suggests increases people's attractiveness to others. More subtle still: studies from the early 70s suppose that men in particular express preference for women who are selectively hard-to-get; meaning that rather than just falling for women who signal being "universally unavailable", men tend to go for women who express attraction to them, while signaling disinterest to other men.

By investigating the effect of uncertainty on romantic attraction, Erin Whitchurch and Timothy Wilson from Virginia University, together with Dan Gilbert from Harvard University, offer an attempt to explain an additional exception to the reciprocity principle:

As a prefix to their study, the researchers told 47 female undergraduate participants that
"several male students from two collaborating universities had viewed the Facebook profiles of approximately 15 to 20 female college student, including the participant's, and had rated the degree to which they thought they would get along with each women if they got to know her better".
Each participant was then randomly assigned to a treatment in which they would rate Facebook profiles for 4 men, under the following experimental conditions: 

In condition 1) female participants were told that they were viewing pictures of males who had rated the participant's own Facebook profile and had liked it the most. In condition 2) female participants were told that they would be viewing pictures of males who had rated the participant's own Facebook profile as average. And in condition 3) participants were instructed that

"For reasons of experimental control neither you nor the experimenter knows the condition you have been randomly assigned to. The profiles you wil see might be the participants who saw your profile and liked you the most. Or, the profiles you see might be the participants who saw your profile and gave you an average rating".
; meaning that one third of participants were provided with uncertain information on whether they were being liked only modestly or above average.

In each condition, the female participants were then asked to rate the four Facebook profiles for a number of "liking"-measures (such as how much do you like this person? How interested would you be in meeting this person? Etc.).

The graph below, summarizes the mean attraction to the men for the three different conditions.

As can be seen from the graph, the study confirms the reciprocity principle in the sense that participants gave more favorable liking ratings, when they believed that they were rating men who had previously expressed strong liking for the participants themselves.

In addition, however, the most favorable ratings appeared in the uncertain condition, indicating that

"women were more attracted to men when there was only a 50% chance that the men liked them the best than when there was a 100% chance that the men liked them the best."
Keeping in mind, that rating a Facebook profile is not identical to forming an impression through actual interaction, yet also admitting to the popularity of online portals to meet new people, the studies authors conclude that
"Clearly, the determinants of interpersonal attraction are complex, and there is no simple formula people can use to get someone to like them. When people first meet, however, it may be that popular dating advice is correct: Keeping people in the dark about how much we like them will increase how much they think about us and will pique their interest."
The study, which will appear in the upcoming edition of Psychological Science, also investigates the role of mood and the mediating effect of increased consideration (thinking about the uncertain prospect) in causing this effect.

Main Citation:
Whitchurch, E. ; Wilson, T. ; Gilbert, D. (2010). ''He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not . . . '' : Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction Psychological Science : 10.1177/0956797610393745

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