We’ve long been told that women are more selective when it comes to the men they choose to date.
But what if at least a part of that selectivity is due simply to environmental factors and social norms — factors that could be easily manipulated? For instance, might approaching — rather than being approached — in a dating situation make individuals less selective?
Finkel & Eastwick (2009) set about to answer just that question with an experiment designed to test whether a potential partner’s “choosiness” was due in part to whether they were the ones doing the choosing or not. They corralled 350 college students into 15 speed dating events for their study. Participants went on 4 minute “speed dates” with approximately 12 opposite-sex individuals during each event. After each date, participants rated their romantic desire and romantic chemistry for that partner, as well as how much self-confidence they felt that had on that particular “date.”
The researchers found that the speed daters who approached their partners relative to those who stayed sitting would experience a greater romantic desire and chemistry toward their partners, and were more likely to respond “Yes, I would see this person again” to their partners. In other words, the people who rotated from person to person were less selective than those sitting, regardless of which gender was doing the rotating.
When men rotated, women (the ones sitting) were more selective. But when women did the rotating, men (the ones sitting) were more selective. Nothing else changed in the experiment, so it was the act of doing the approaching (or being approached) that helped determine a person’s selectivity toward their partner.
The researchers noted,
Although Western civilization has become increasingly egalitarian over the past century, certain social institutions remain gendered, some in subtle, almost invisible, ways. The present research identified powerful consequences of a particularly subtle gender bias: the near-universal tendency to have men rotate and women sit at heterosexual speed-dating events.
At first blush, this rotational scheme feels like an arbitrary, trivial solution to the logistical problem of ensuring that all of the women speed-date all of the men and vice versa. Executives from a popular speed-dating company confided in us that they have men rotate because (a) women often have more accessories with them at events (e.g., purses), (b) men never seem to mind rotating, and (c) it just seems more chivalrous that way.
Speed-dating scholars have appropriately adopted many procedures from professional speed-dating companies, so it is not surprising that this gendered norm has largely persisted, even for events organized and hosted by scholars. The present results, however, present a cautionary note: Even subtle gender norms can have important consequences for romantic dynamics.
Indeed, when researchers adopt a procedure without controlling for it, they risk missing a component of what they study. In this case, researchers just assumed that since men rotate in real-life, they should do so in speed-dating experiments. This may have skewed the results of past studies that used this speed-dating procedure, especially those that examined women’s “selectivity” — selectivity that may have been a result of the procedure itself, not the women.
Does this make nullify all previous research on women’s dating selectivity? The researchers draw mixed conclusions:
What implications do the present findings have for the extensive literature demonstrating that women are more selective than men when choosing mates? On the one hand, this sex difference did not significantly reverse at events where women rotated, so on average there was at least an overall trend in the present data for men to experience greater romantic approach (i.e., to be less selective) than women.
On the other hand, the gendered norm we manipulated in the present study is just one of a universe of possible norms that could in principle affect romantic attraction, and our participants almost certainly had a lifelong history of navigating such norms that no subtle laboratory manipulation could readily erase. Given that men are generally expected, if not required (as at professional speed-dating events), to approach in romantic contexts, perhaps this factor alone could be sufficient to explain why women tend to be more selective than men. The present results are at least partially consistent with this possibility.
At the end of the day, more research is now needed to determine how much more selective women may be than men in dating situations. The current research calls into question the design of much of the past research in this area, so the answer has suddenly become a lot less clear.
Finkel, E.K. & Eastwick, P.W. (2009). Arbitrary Social Norms Influence Sex Differences in Romantic Selectivity. Psychological Science. DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02439.x