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When Are Pick Up Lines Most Effective? 

Have you ever been out at a bar or at a party and had someone try a pick-up line on you? These lines can be corny (“Hey, how much does a polar bear weigh? Enough to break the ice”) or straightforward, (“Do I know you from somewhere? You look really familiar”). Researchers refer to these types of pick-up lines as “opening gambits” or “relationship initiation strategies.” (Editor’s Note: If you use either of those terms in public, you probably won’t be picking up anyone). 

Scientists have studied how “ego-depletion” affects whether people will be receptive to pick-up lines.1 “Ego-depletion” happens when someone is tired after exercising a lot of self-control or discipline (imagine trying to restrain yourself from buying everything you see at the mall, or resisting the urge to go out drinking with your friends if you have a test to study for). Research has shown that when people are “depleted,” it’s difficult for them to make good decisions.2 Basically, if you have spent all day making decisions, tried to avoid eating the doughnuts in the break room or avoided the urge to yell at coworkers, you will experience depletion, which will make it harder for your to exercise self-control in other areas.  

To test the effect of ego-depletion on receptivity to pick-up lines, researchers at Monmouth University had 99 currently single participants engage in one of two tasks: (1) write a story about a recent trip you have taken to the store or New York City without using the letters A or N; (2) write the same story without any restrictions. As expected, participants in the first condition reported that the task was more difficult, which was likely due to controlling the impulse to write common letters.

Following the writing task, participants viewed three different pick-up lines, each in the context of what they would do if an attractive potential partner approached them and used the pick-up line. The three types of pick-up lines were:

  • direct (‘‘I don’t normally come up to people like this, but I couldn’t resist.’’);
  • innocuous (‘‘Hi, how are you? My name is_____.’’); and
  • cute (‘‘Excuse me what time is it? I just wanted to be able to remember the exact moment we met.’’).  

Following each type of pick-up line, participants indicated how receptive they would be in terms of how likely they would be to continue to talk to the initiator, view the initiator positively, and give the initiator their phone number. 

Ego-depleted individuals were more receptive to the “innocuous” pick-up lines, but also less receptive to “cute” opening lines. Across all participants, “cute” pick-up lines were least preferred, whereas “innocuous” and “direct” pick-up lines most favored. In essence, depletion accentuated people’s typical responses to these lines. Generally, men were more receptive to all types of pick-up lines than women. Women were more receptive to direct and innocuous lines than men, while men were more receptive to cute lines than women.

So, before you use a line like, “If a fat man puts you in a bag at night, don't worry...I told Santa I wanted you for Christmas.” you may want to be sure the other person isn’t depleted. But more generally, these findings suggest that in situations where individuals are naturally depleted (e.g., at the end of the work day or while consuming alcohol), feelings of depletion may play a real, but unconscious role in one’s receptiveness to pick-up lines.

Additional coverage of this study:

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1Lewandowski, G. W., Jr., Ciarocco, N. J., Pettenato, M., & Stephan, J. (2012). Pick me up: Ego depletion and receptivity to relationship initiation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. [Online First] doi: 10.1177/0265407512449401

2Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Muraven, M., & Tice, D. M. (1998). Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265.

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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