An interesting speed dating study

post by CronoDAS · 2009-07-07T07:09:42.080Z · score: 15 (24 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 12 comments

I recently found an article in the New York Times that talks about a speed dating study that is going to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science. Given the usual state of science journalism, the fact that the article includes links that let me find a press release about the upcoming paper and a 20-page PDF file containing the paper itself was very helpful.

According to most studies and in accordance with popular stereotypes, men are normally less selective than women when it comes to evaluating potential romantic partners - in general, it appears that men are more likely to want to date any given woman than women are to want to date any given man. In a typical speed dating experiment, men and women rate potential partners as either a "yes" or a "no" depending on whether or not they want to see that person again. Men almost always rate a larger percentage of women as a "yes" than women do men, and, according to this paper, this is a fairly robust finding that generalizes over many different contexts. The usual explanation of this phenomena is based on evolutionary psychology: a female has a lot more to lose from a bad mate choice than a male does. If there were a biological, genetic basis for this tendency, it should be difficult to come up with an experimental setup in which women are less selective and men are more selective.

However, that's not the case at all. This study demonstrates that a small, seemingly trivial change in the speed dating ritual results in a (partial) reversal of the normal results. You see, in practically every speed dating setup, when it is time to interact with a new partner, men physically leave their seat and move to the table where the next woman is sitting, while the women remain seated and wait for the men to approach them. The authors of this study had the men remain still and had the women change seats, and found that this was all it took to wipe away the usual pattern: when the women were required to physically approach while the men remained still, the women became less selective then the men, reporting greater romantic interest and "yes"ing partners at a higher rate. "Rotaters" also reported greater self-confidence than "sitters", regardless of gender.

I suggest that you go read the paper, or at least the press release, yourself; my summary doesn't really do it justice, and I'm leaving the implications for the evolutionary psychology-based analysis of gender as an exercise for the reader.

EDIT: Having had some more time to look over the study, I think I should point out that it wasn't a complete reversal of the usual gender behavior: female rotators were only moderately less selective than male sitters, while male rotators were significantly less selective than female sitters. (Sitters of both genders were equally selective.)

12 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Paul Crowley (ciphergoth) · 2009-07-07T08:08:32.292Z · score: 14 (16 votes) · LW · GW

It doesn't result in a reversal of the normal results, exactly. Male sitters appear to be about as selective as female sitters, but male rotaters are much less selective than female rotaters.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-07-07T10:01:49.661Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Wow, this stuff is pretty awful. I just read the paper to verify your claim, and the paper turned out to be not any better than the NYT article: mostly composed of PC fluff about "social construction" and how "Western civilization" is this and that. The only informative part is the figure on the last page of the PDF (buried after the references, no less!) which confirms your conclusion completely, but the text doesn't even hint at it anywhere.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2009-07-07T14:35:40.188Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Lucky bad analysis doesn't destroy the data.

comment by cousin_it · 2009-07-07T14:47:08.839Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Yes. But woe to those people who only read the NYT article. Or who went so far as to download the PDF, but didn't page-down obsessively past the bibliography... like I probably would have, if not for ciphergoth. Unsettling thought.

comment by MichaelBishop · 2009-07-07T17:10:24.192Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

This is important enough that CronoDAS should amend his post to point this out. Its still an interesting result though.

comment by CronoDAS · 2009-07-08T02:20:20.701Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Done. (Did I do it right?)

comment by Joe · 2009-07-07T20:57:27.664Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Late to the party, I thought I'd just throw in the following observations. I have actually participated in speed dating a few times; I found it fascinating and educational.

The speed dating events I attended allowed about 3 minutes per interview (or "date") before proceeding to the next pairing. Each attendee is provided with a notepad, complete with numbers corresponding to the number on a nametag worn by each participant. (Names are also on the nametags, but there are often duplicates so numbers are required to avoid ambiguity). This way you can make notes so that you'll remember something about people you are (maybe) interested in. You are also given a card with a box to check for each number if you would like to see that person again. The notes are for you to take home, the card you submit to the organizers. The notes can be useful when filling out the card, if you want to deliberate a bit on your choices at the end instead of making a snap judgment after each meeting.

One thing I noticed is that, as the man, I did not really have much time to make notes in a non-awkward way. My options were to a) writing down things about the person I had just spoken with before continuing to the next table b) writing down something about the previous date when I arrive at a new table or c) writing in transit between tables. All of these are physically or socially awkward, or both, as well as time-pressured. Meanwhile, the women who remain seated can use the time between one man leaving and another arriving to write notes; even if the next man arrives before she has finished, it is much less awkward than showing up to a new table, introducing yourself, and immediately scribbling notes about someone else.

This is just one subtle but, at least for me, significant asymmetry between the seated and rotating groups. It is overall much less awkward to remain seated, I would suppose, and it is thus probably easier to make considered, discriminating judgements. In my own case I know that I probably checked off a few more numbers than I would otherwise at the end of the evening, simply because it was hard to remember enough of my impressions to make choices. As a man, I expect to be making the initial contact with my matches (and apparently the women generally shared this assumption about roles) so there was little risk of awkwardness in getting matched with someone who on further reflection I didn't really want to see -- I could simply not follow up.

comment by Psychohistorian · 2009-07-07T20:29:14.871Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

It seems easy to overvalue these results. Speed dating call backs are cheap and shallow, so while the differences are interesting, I don't think they generalize well.

First, they should have had a scenario where both groups rotate, or alternate moving. It's not unthinkable that the mere act of getting up and moving around changes how one feels vs. sitting in the same chair for an hour or so. This would explain some of the results without any recourse to the theories proposed by the authors; interestingly, they do not make a serious effort at providing alternative explanations (or even explaining why, say, male interest fell when men sat - they just kind of assume it's naturally approaching the female average).

It's also significant that participants were all undergrads at a good school; this may make men more comfortable with being approached and women more comfortable with approaching, or it may just make them more conscious of this fact. It may be representative, it may even understate the effect, or it may not be representative at all.

Most significantly, speed dating really doesn't approximate reality that well, even if it is convenient for experiments. Who approaches whom can (and, in my experience, does) send important signals about personality and desirability, and these carry on much further than whether someone is willing to exchange contact info. So it's unclear how useful this data is for anyone who doesn't organize speed dating events, at least without further research.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2009-07-07T14:59:26.993Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

A very interesting result. Here's my initial thoughts on how this might have resulted.

It's already clear that in terms of reproductive strategies women have more to gain from increased selectivity than men. Not that men are not selective at all, but men can father children by both more and less desirable women simultaneously, whereas women can only have a single child in any 10-month period, so naturally we should expect women to be more selective.

The question then is, what is going on in the brain that causes women to become less selective when they approach men rather than vice verse. My take is this: When women approach men, it suggests that there are so few men interested in mating that a woman must actively seek out a mate. Given this lack of interest, she must be willing to accept lower quality mates, since a low quality mate is better than no mate in terms of propagating genes. Similarly, if men are being approached by women, then the woman must have some property that makes her insufficiently desirable to most men, and so a man in this situation must similarly consider if she is really worth fathering a child to, since it may have social or other consequences that will ultimately hurt him.

The speed dating result, then, ends up with seemingly abnormal results because it's an abnormal situation forced onto the participants, activating behaviors that are normally reserved for a rare situation in which a woman has to proposition a man for mating purposes.

Even if I'm wrong about all the details above, reversed speed dating is still an abnormal situation that has no clear analogue in the ancestral environment, so we should expect to see that the result is explained by finding something in human psychology that is activated by reversed speed dating but evolved as a result of another situation or environment.

comment by MineCanary · 2009-07-07T19:25:16.234Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

Umm, why do we think the psychological effect of the abnormal situation is rooted in EVOLUTIONARY psychology? It could be quite simply that the women get a sort of high/thrill/adrenaline rush from being in the unusual situation of more physical and psychological activity (the anticipation as you approach someone), whereas sitting in the same chair for a long time as person after person comes by is going to dampen anyone's spirits and make them a bit more grouchy when it comes to evaluating others.

To me your evolutionary explanation seems like it might be a bit too specific. Is there any reason to think natural selection has resulted in a distinct "hardwired" pattern of reactions for this situation? Or even that women are less likely, culture aside, to proposition a man when they're attracted to him than men are to proposition women? Especially since the female has more incentive to be choosy, it seems like she would benefit from making sure she "catches" one of the relatively few men who meet her standards, whereas since more women would meet his standards, if you're assuming anything but unlimited polygyny, I could definitely explain why natural selection would result in an advantage for "forward" women.

comment by G Gordon Worley III (gworley) · 2009-07-09T19:14:48.149Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good point and evidence that I wasn't considering. I think you're right that some of my explanation gets the details wrong given what you've reminded me of here.

comment by MorganHouse · 2009-07-07T20:21:22.356Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

When women approach men, it suggests that there are so few men interested in mating that a woman must actively seek out a mate.

I would say this boils down to who is approaching who. The person doing the approach communicates slightly lower value. Examples:

  • Men approaching the most attractive women in the room.
  • Women lingering inconspicuously near the most attractive men.