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Monday
Nov182013

The Sadie Hawkins Effect: Gender Role-Reversals in Dating

Imagine that a guy and a girl are at a party, and one approaches the other and strikes up a conversation. Chances are that when you envisioned this scenario, you assumed it was the guy who approached the girl. That’s because we have what psychologists call behavioral scripts, or a sequence of events that we typically expect to occur in social situations. In most cultures, expectations or norms about male and female dating behaviors (e.g., guy approaches girl) are so entrenched that there are special days or dances where the script is flipped. On Sadie Hawkins Day (traditionally observed in early November) or at a Sadie Hawkins Dance, women have the opportunity to break social conventions by asking men out on a date or to a dance. To study dating behaviors like this, researchers have used the somewhat unique experience of speed dating.

First, a bit about speed-dating. Speed-dating is a structured way for daters to meet a lot of people quickly. The typical speed-dating event features women sitting at various locations around a room, often a coffee shop or bar, while men circulate and chat with each female for a few minutes. A signal will then indicate that time is up and the men should move along to the next woman. The process repeats until everyone at the event has “dated” each other. Afterward, the male and female participants let the event organizer know which partners they would like to see again. If the male and female indicate mutual interest, the organizer gives them each other’s contact information and the would-be couple takes it from there. If done efficiently, a speed dater could meet over a dozen potential dating partners in less than an hour.

As you can see, the typical speed-dating event relies heavily on the “male approaches female” norm. Consistent with norm expectations, speed-dating research reveals that, women are pickier than men when indicating interest in potential partners,1 with men indicating interest in roughly half of partners and women in indicating interest in roughly a third.2 However, other researchers wondered if this apparent gender difference was actually a gender difference, or if instead it was the result of the social situation.3 Specifically they were interested if the results were a byproduct of women sitting in one place, while men circulated around the room. To test this, the researchers had over 300 undergraduates participate in speed-dating events. In half of those events, participants engaged in the standard speed-dating procedure of men circulating while women stayed in one place. For the other events, men and women performed a Sadie Hawkins-like role reversal: men stayed in one place while women circulated around the room.

In the standard “men rotating” events, the researchers replicated previous findings (not to mention prevailing stereotypes) that women were pickier about who they liked relative to men. Importantly, in the non-standard “women rotating” events where men and women reversed roles, the researcher found the exact opposite pattern: men were picky whereas women were less selective. Said another way, there was a “Sadie Hawkins Effect,” such that when women were forced to go from man to man during the speed-dating event, those women acted like stereotypical men by stating that they had interest in more of the potential partners.

These findings show how a widely assumed sex difference—women are picky about who they date, men aren’t—could largely be an artifact of social situations. Men may be less picky not because they are men, but because societal norms require them to do the majority of the approaching in dating scenarios and that women’s selectivity derives from their ability to wait for potential suitors to come to them.  In other words, when you have the experience of lots of potential suitors approaching you, it’s a lot easier to be picky.

This brings up a much broader point: It is all too easy to assume that men and women are widely different because of inborn differences (see more about this idea here). However, we must be careful to not make these assumptions without first looking at other potential explanations.

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1 Todd, P. M., Penke, L., Fasolo, B., & Lenton, A. P. (2007). Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America, 104(38), 15011-15016. doi:10.1073/pnas.0705290104

2 Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 227-244. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012

3 Finkel, E. J., & Eastwick, P. W. (2009). Arbitrary social norms influence sex differences in romantic selectivity. Psychological Science, 20(10), 1290-1295. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02439.x

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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