Researchers have identified two regions of the brain whose behavior predicts the outcome of speed dating.
Unsurprisingly, the first factor in determining whether someone gets a lot of date requests is physical attractiveness, according to researchers at the California Institute of Technology.
The second factor involves people’s own individual preferences, such as how compatible they believe a potential partner may be.
These decisions are made based on a combination of two different factors related to activity in two distinct parts of the brain, the researchers said.
“Psychologists have known for some time that people can often make very rapid judgments about others based on limited information, such as appearance,” said John O’Doherty, Ph.D., professor of psychology and one of the paper’s coauthors.
“However, very little has been known about how this might work in real social interactions with real consequences, such as when making decisions about whether to date someone or not. And almost nothing is known about how this type of rapid judgment is made by the brain.”
For the study, 39 heterosexual male and female volunteers were placed in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and then shown pictures of potential dates of the opposite sex. They were given four seconds to rate, on a scale from 1 to 4, how much they would want to date that person.
After cycling through as many as 90 faces, the participants then rated the faces again — outside the fMRI machine — on attractiveness and likeability on a scale from 1 to 9.
Later, the volunteers participated in a real speed-dating event, in which they spent five minutes talking to some of the potential dates they had rated in the fMRI machine. The participants listed those they wanted to see again. If there were any matches, each person in the pair was given the other’s contact information.
To no one’s surprise, the researchers found that the people who were rated as most attractive were the ones who got the most date requests. Seeing someone who was deemed attractive was associated with activity in a region of the brain called the paracingulate cortex, a part of the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (DMPFC), an important area for cognitive control and decision-making, the researchers note. The paracingulate cortex, in particular, has been shown to be active when the brain is comparing options.
This phenomenon was fairly consistent across all participants, said Jeff Cooper, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral scholar in O’Doherty’s lab and first author of the paper. Nearly everyone considers physical attraction when judging a potential romantic partner, and that judgment is correlated with activity in the paracingulate cortex, he explained.
“But that’s not the only thing that’s happening,” Cooper said.
When some participants saw a person they wanted to date who was not rated as very desirable by everyone else they showed more activation in the rostromedial prefrontal cortex (RMPFC), which is also a part of the DMPFC, but sits farther in front than the paracingulate cortex.
The RMPFC has been associated with consideration of other people’s thoughts, comparisons of oneself to others, and, in particular, perceptions of similarities with others. This suggests that in addition to physical attractiveness, people consider individual compatibility, according to the researchers.
“Our work shows for the first time that activity in two parts of the DMPFC may be very important for driving the snapshot judgments that we make all the time about other people,” O’Doherty said.
The study is published in the Journal of Neuroscience.