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How to Decipher Your Date…with Science

Recently, an article featured on Psychology Today provided some very unscientific advice on “deciphering your date” (meaning, how to interpret signals in your date’s behavior and gauge his or her level of interest/enthusiasm). Giving misleading advice can be harmful in the dating world, so we thought we’d set the record straight. 

Below is a list of points in the article (read the full article here), followed by the real science:

1) Texting or emailing in response to your phone call is a bad sign – apparently, if your date repeatedly texts you in a response to your phone calls instead of calling you back, this is a sign that your date is “brushing off your needs.” There is no empirical evidence to support this idea—no study has ever shown that if your date prefers to consistently return your calls with text messages, that’s a warning sign that he/she isn’t really interested.

It is possible that you may believe that a text response shows lack of interest, and therefore treat the relationship as more casual, causing your date to do the same (this is called a self-fulfilling prophecy1). Although this may be possible, no study has clearly shown this either.

So what do we actually know about texting and dating? Well, according to Pew research,2 texting is the preferred method of communication for American youth, and 1 out of 3 teenagers will text 100 times a day (you read that correctly). Voice calling is still prominent, but it is much more commonly used to communicate with parents compared to peers. So perhaps the reason why some people prefer to text their dates is because different social norms exist for communicating with romantic partners compared to adult family members.

Personality traits can also predict texting behavior. In one study, researchers found that people who reported a preference for texting over voice calling tended to score higher on a measure of extroversion (meaning, they were more outgoing and sociable), and a measure of neuroticism (meaning, they were more emotionally unstable).3 Another study showed that those who preferred texting over voice calls scored lower on a measure of loneliness, whereas very lonely people preferred texting more as a “last resort” option.4

Texting may, in fact, help maintain communication and dialogue in a way that voice calls do not. According to a another study,5 texting allows for “perpetual communication” because often people find themselves in situations where talking aloud is taboo. For example, if people are in class or in a movie theater, they can send a discrete text to others without being as disruptive as they would be if they were talking aloud. Texting also allows for privacy—people cannot eavesdrop on your texting conversation the way they could with a voice call. People sometimes text each other private/inside jokes that they don’t want others in their midst to know about. It’s important to remember that texting is popular because people (of all ages) enjoy it! Here’s an excerpt from a research participant’s interview5:

One married man said, ‘‘If anything I would say that [text messaging has] made [our relationship] more fun.’’ His wife agreed that it ‘‘enriched’’ their relationship. An engaged woman said, ‘‘I think it’s just nice to get little like messages throughout the day . . . to let your significant other know that you care about them.’’

However, there may be dark sides to texting as well. For example, it is also true that people may use texting to increase personal autonomy and/or to disguise their true feelings; it may be more difficult to understand others without being able to see their faces or hear their voices. Thus, texting could be a method for avoiding intimacy.5 Future research should investigate this idea.

2) Postponing plans due to sickness or a busy schedule is a bad sign. Apparently, if your date claims to be sick or busy and wants to postpone plans to meet, this really means that (a) he or she is healthy and/or has lots of free time (liars!) and (b) prefers to be using this time to hook up with other partners (cheaters!). The author boldly claims that if someone postpones plans more than one time, he/she is definitely “brushing you off.”

Again, there is no empirical evidence to support this claim.

The big problem here is that people in the modern dating world may feel compelled to play “hard-to-get” with new romantic partners. They may not want to appear too desperate, or they may want to increase their attractiveness by appearing to be very important. There’s mixed evidence for whether or not this tactic actually works; some people are attracted to others who appear mysterious (see supporting evidence here and here), whereas others prefer a straightforward, no-nonsense approach (see evidence here and here). Regardless, people may believe that acting coy is a good strategy, so they may postpone plans once or twice to showcase their “mysterious” persona. People often believe silly “rules” about dating that aren’t based on factual evidence, which makes it very difficult to determine someone’s motivation when they postpone plans.

Or, they might just be telling the truth! Maybe they are really sick after all. My current girlfriend, for example, came down with a cold and then the flu when we first started dating a few months ago, and I was also busy with work conferences during that time (so we had to postpone a couple of dates). But our relationship is going strong now, and we’re both crazy about each other! Remember what we know about the benefits of having a “growth” mindset – relationships take effort and you need to develop a working chemistry with romantic partners over time. If you give up at the first bump in the road, you might be foolishly sacrificing something that could be great (or you might just be high in “destiny” beliefs).

3) Avoiding the possibility of you meeting their friends. For this point, the author simultaneously argues both sides of the issue regarding how soon your new romantic partner should meet your friends. The initial advice is that you shouldn’t introduce your date to your friends too early because your friends will be overly critical and scrutinize every last detail of your date, perhaps leaving your date feeling uncomfortable and you with a worse impression of your new partner than before.

First of all, there are no studies that support this claim. No research has scientifically examined the timing of when dates are introduced to friends and how that timing influences attraction/relationship outcomes.

Second, this begs the question, what kind of horrible friends are these??? (Certainly not anyone that I know.) Perhaps it would be best to keep your friends away from your dates if they’re going to behave this way—but why would you want to be friends with people like that in the first place? The problem may not be introducing your date to your friends too early, but maybe that you need to make some new friends who are warm and friendly.

Third, don’t forget that you may be blinded by positive illusions in your relationships (meaning, you may see your date as more awesome than they actually are,6 which is not necessarily a bad thing). By contrast, your friends (as observers) can see your relationships more objectively. That’s why it’s good to keep close friends at hand, to solicit their advice in your relationships—they can actually be better at predicting whether your relationship will succeed or end.7 Furthermore, having the approval of others in your social network (family, friends) is an important ingredient for the success of the relationship and your general health.

Finally, it may be good to keep friends close by during the initial dating process because of a phenomenon known as “cooperative courtship” (what we commonly refer to as being someone’s “wingman” or “wingwoman”).8 More specifically, women help each other more often by preventing romantic advances from undesirable men or by guiding each other away from those dudes, whereas men help each other by increasing access to women (helping to make it easier to attract potential romantic partners). 

4) Scheduling daytime or early evening dates. According to this gem, if your date is really interested, he/she will devote their “primetime” on Friday or Saturday night to hanging out with you.

Again, there is no scientific study to support this claim.

In general, for Westerners who structure their leisure time around the five-day work week schedule, this is typically the norm for dating. But what about people who work night jobs? What about people who have family obligations (perhaps taking care of a child/sibling/elderly parent) on nights and weekends? What about people who are “morning larks” and prefer daytime activities, like hiking and other outdoorsy stuff? For those folks, who are not night owls, their sacred time is in daylight, and the most romantic time of day may be the sunrise.

The point here is that there are substantial individual differences in how and when people prefer to date, based on their personalities (night owl, outdoor adventurer, etc.), financial constraints, and other variables. It would be false to assume that the “correct” way to date is during primetime on the weekend. There should never be a “one-size-fits-all” approach to dating. Instead, ask your date what they enjoy doing in their spare time (and when they tend to have spare time!), and then maybe you can find some mutual activities that you’d both enjoy while getting to know each other better. If you both really enjoy laser tag, but the nearest arena is only open during daylight hours, don’t think your partner is “brushing you off” by suggesting that you go out during the day. If it’s really important to you that you have a date during night hours, then you should make that suggestion. If your date says no, you should both keep in mind that relationships require accommodation in order to work, and you may each need to modify your behavior for the sake of a partner’s needs. Scientists call this “pro-relationship motivation.” 9

In a perfect relationship, both partners’ needs would be completely mutual and in sync with each other, so neither person would have to change or sacrifice. This is very unlikely to happen in the real world, so the realistic solution is to compromise and alternate doing activities that your partner enjoys with those that you enjoy (one week go to Comic Con, the next week go to the ballet). What can I say? As a dude, I never got my tutu-fix as a child, but my girlfriend in grad school was a dancer, so she took me to The Nutcracker and Romeo & Juliet, which I would have never otherwise gone to see—then we watched the episode of The Simpsons where Bart joins the ballet club.

If your date never wants to try out your favorite activities, it could be that they aren’t really that interested in you (giving you the “brush off”), or maybe this person has poor relationship skills in general, meaning it’s not you, it’s them (for real). Both explanations are equally plausible.

In conclusion, this Psych Today article contains a list of unscientific dating advice, perhaps based on anecdotal observations or experiences in the context of therapy (the author is a clinical psychologist). We hope that readers will critically examine this advice (and other advice like this that litters the Internet), because without the scientific method, it’s impossible to know with confidence what a date’s behavior really means. When people in the media make bold claims about behavior in relationships, your inclination should be to ask for supporting scientific evidence for those claims (“Where’s the data on that?”). If there is no evidence, perhaps those claims should be reconsidered, or perhaps you should seek advice elsewhere.

Interested in learning more about relationships? Click here for other topics on Science of Relationships. Like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to get our articles delivered directly to your NewsFeed. Learn more about our book and download it here.

1Darley, J. M., & Fazio, R. H. (1980). Expectancy confirmation processes arising in the social interaction sequence. American Psychologist, 35(10), 867-881.

2Lenhart, A. (2010). Teens, cell phones and texting. Pew Internet and American Life Project. Retrieved from http://pewresearch.org/pubs/1572/teens-cellphones-text-messages

3Ehrenberg, A., Juckes, S., White, K. M., & Walsh, S. P. (2008). Personality and self-esteem as predictors of young people's technology use. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 11(6), 739-741.

4Reid, D. J., & Reid, F. M. (2007). Text or talk? Social anxiety, loneliness, and divergent preferences for cell phone use. Cyberpsychology & Behavior, 10(3), 424-435.

5 Pettigrew, J. (2009). Text messaging and connectedness within close interpersonal relationships. Marriage & Family Review, 45(6-8), 697-716.

6Murray, S. L., Holmes, J. G., & Griffin, D. W. (1996). The benefits of positive illusions: Idealization and the construction of satisfaction in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 79-98.

7Agnew, C. R., Loving, T. J., & Drigotas, S. M. (2001). Substituting the forest for the trees: Social networks and the prediction of romantic relationship state and fate. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81, 1042-1057.

8Ackerman, J. M., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). Cooperative courtship: Helping friends raise and raze relationship barriers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1285-1300.

9Finkel, E. J., & Rusbult, C. E. (2008). Prorelationship motivation: An interdependence theory analysis of situations with conflicting interests. In J. Y. Shah, & W. L. Gardner (Eds.), Handbook of motivation science (pp. 547-560). New York: Guilford.

Dr. Dylan Selterman - Science of Relationships articles Website/CV
Dr. Selterman's research focuses on secure vs. insecure personality in relationships. He studies how people dream about their romantic partners and how nighttime dreams are associated with daytime behavior. In addition, Dylan studies issues related to morality and ethics in relationships, including infidelity, betrayal, and jealousy. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger... Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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