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Uncertainty Decreases Potential Partner’s Sexual Appeal

Uncertainty May Lessen Potential Partner’s Sex Appeal

New research has found that when you feel more certain a prospective romantic partner is also interested in you, you’ll put more effort into seeing that person again.

The study also found that people rate a possible date as more sexually attractive than they would if they were less certain about the prospective date’s romantic intentions.

Published in Computers in Human Behavior, the study by researchers from Israel-based Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and the University of Rochester in New York finds that uncertainty about potential partners’ romantic interest decreases their sexual appeal.

“People may protect themselves from the possibility of a painful rejection by distancing themselves from potentially rejecting partners,” said study co-author Dr. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at Rochester.

While some scientists argue that uncertainty spices up sexual desire, Reis says his team’s research results suggest the opposite holds true.

“People experience higher levels of sexual desire when they feel confident about a partner’s interest and acceptance,” he said.

The findings suggest that sexual desire may “serve as a gut-feeling indicator of mate suitability that motivates people to pursue romantic relationships with a reliable and valuable partner,” said lead author Dr. Gurit Birnbaum, a social psychologist and associate professor of psychology at the IDC Herzliya.

“Inhibiting desire may serve as a mechanism aimed at protecting the self from investing in a relationship in which the future is uncertain,” she added.

Over the course of six interrelated studies — some of them experimental and some daily diary entries — the researchers examined whether uncertainty about a partner’s romantic intentions would affect their partner’s sexual desirability.

In the first study, 51 women and 50 men from a university in central Israel who identified as single and heterosexual, ranging in age from 19 to 31 years, were led to believe they would be participating in an online chat with another person who was in a different room.

Next, participants had their picture taken and were told it would be shown to the other person, who was in fact an insider, working with the scientists.

Then the researchers showed the study participants a photograph of their purported chat partner. In reality, all participants were shown the same picture of an opposite-sex individual.

At the end of the chat via Instant Messenger, the scientists told the participants that they were allowed to send one last message to their “partner.”

Some participants were told that a message from their chat partner was waiting for them, creating certainty about the potential partner’s intentions. Others were told there was no message, creating uncertainty.

Afterwards, the researchers asked the participants to rate the insiders’ sexual desirability and their interest in future interactions with them.

Participants rated the sexual desirability of their potential “partner” on a 5-point scale ranging from 1 (not at all sexually desirable) to 5 (very much so).

The study’s findings show that study participants perceived the potential partner as more sexually attractive when there was certainty, with a mean of the insider’s sexual desirability of 3.15. When there was uncertainty, the sexual desirability dropped to 2.73.

The answer is clear, according to the researchers: Sexual desire thrives on reduced uncertainty.

While studies one through four examined the uncertainty effect on single adults, studies five and six explored whether the effect of uncertainty could be generalized to the everyday lives of long-term partners.

Here romantic interest was substituted with perceived partner regard. Again, the researchers found that feeling greater relationship certainty predicted greater desire for sex with one’s partner. This held true for both women and men in a committed romantic relationship, according to the study’s findings.

Of course, uncertainty is more typical of initial romantic encounters when little is known about the new partner, compared to more advanced relationship stages, when the certainty about a partner’s commitment and intentions is relatively high, the scientists note.

When uncertainty about a partner’s interest emerges in an established relationship, it clashes with the need for security that long-term relationships typically provide, they explain.

According to Birnbaum, uncertainty “may therefore be particularly threatening and devastating for personal and relationship well-being in established relationships, in which it is least expected.”

The studies build on the age-old debate as to whether knowing if a person is interested increases their sexual desirability — essentially answering the question of whether “playing hard to get” makes a person more successful in the dating arena.

Do the findings put the debate finally to rest?

“Well, they don’t put the final dagger in the heart of this idea, but our findings do indicate that this idea is on life support,” said Reis, who added that the uncertainty idea was “never supported by solid science, but folk wisdom at best.”

Source: University of Rochester

Photo: According to a new study, those who feel greater certainty that a prospective romantic partner reciprocates their interest will put more effort into seeing that person again. Credit: University of Rochester Communications/Michael Osadciw.

Uncertainty May Lessen Potential Partner’s Sex Appeal

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Uncertainty May Lessen Potential Partner’s Sex Appeal. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 10 Jun 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.