From Start to Finish, the Science of the Perfect First Date

By Garth Sundem, author of Brain Trust:93 Top Scientists Dish Lab-Tested Secrets for Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More!

From Start to Finish, the Science of the Perfect First Date

Your profiles match. You’ve moved slowly into a promising online friendship. And now it’s time to bring a book and rose to the coffee shop for your first official date. These five scientific tips from the book Brain Trust can help it go smoothly.

First, according to social psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick of Northwestern and Texas A&M universities, make sure you arrive before your date. They used speed dating to show that the sex that sits and waits is more liked than the sex that rotates from person to person.

It’s due to a concept called embodied cognition – a much-studied form of subconscious crossover between actions and thoughts. For example, a study found that people rate Chinese characters “more attractive” when they pull these characters towards themselves than they did when pushing the same characters away. In dating, it means you like things you approach – like someone already sitting at a coffee shop table.

Also from speed dating, Finkel and Eastwick showed that you needn’t like everyone. In fact, they recommend it. “In platonic situations, there’s a lot to be said for being a liker – if you treat people agreeably, they treat you likewise,” says Eastwick. “But there’s a wrinkle when it comes to initial romantic attraction,” says Finkel. “In dating, liking everyone can come off as desperate.”

Instead of doing backflips over every coffee date, reserve your “like” for the special few. That’s not saying you should tamp down the excitement you feel about a special someone – just that, unlike Meg Ryan, you shouldn’t fake it. The difference between your baseline “like” and this special “like” predicts how positively dates will rate you in return.

Now that you and your date are safely seated, it’s time to attend to your body language. You know about the neck-revealing hair adjustment and the one-eyebrow-raised smoldering smile. But, “we’ve learned to control our faces,” says David Givens, director of the Center for Nonverbal Studies, in Spokane, Washington. And so people have learned to take facial expressions with a grain of salt – we know they may or may not be honest signals.

However, your feet are less tutored. Givens says that pigeon toes means “come hither” and toes out – reminiscent of a soldier at rest – means “not today, maybe not ever.” Also on a spectrum from inviting to denying is head angle: forehead down, eyes up should make you recall Lauren Bacall’s famous come-hither to Humphrey Bogart. And on the flip side, chin up with eyes looking down is bad, bad news — a sure sign of disdain.

The thing is, you can use these signals not only to know your date’s intentions, but to create attraction. By broadcasting or withholding these subliminal signals, you can drive the evening in the direction of your choosing. (You might want to practice in the mirror first.)

Finally, there comes a point in every first date when you’ll actually need to talk. And just as your body language can drive attraction, so too can your voice. University of Albany evolutionary psychologist, Gordon Gallup, had undergrads count to ten in a tape recorder and then played back these recordings to their peers. Even without flirtatious or smoldering content, there was strong agreement on which voices were sexy and which were not. If you’ve seen any of the Toy Story movies, you know what makes a sexy male voice—Tim Allen as Buzz Lightyear is sexier than Tom Hanks as Woody. There’s very clear and definite evidence that a low male voice is sexier, and Gallup points out that this low voice may be the product of the same hit of testosterone during puberty that creates desirable shoulder-to-hip ratios.

But the female sexy voice is trickier and independent of high or low pitch. Instead, the strongest factor in the sexy female voice is breathiness. We have two vocal chords, with a slight gap between them – just as women tend to have breasts while men usually do not, women also tend to have a bigger vocal chord gap than men – it’s a predictor of femininity. It’s this gap that creates breathiness – the bigger the gap, presumably the more feminine the voice.

But here’s the important part: no matter actual body shape, Gallup found that people with sexy voices are rated as more physically attractive. Why bother with a month’s crash diet and/or agro iron pumping when you can get a bump in beauty simply by talking sexy?

Finally, now that you’ve mastered the approach, it’s time to land this first date – it’s time to converse. Don’t worry, science can help you here, too. Remember Finkel and Eastwick? Along with their colleague Seema Saigal, they gathered four-minute tapes of (independently rated) smooth and awkward first conversations between romantically inclined Northwestern University undergrads and then coded the behaviors they saw. As you’d expect, dates rated as “warm” and “other-focused” tended to create smoother conversations.

Interestingly, though, what mattered most beyond these obvious tools was not how Romeo and Juliet acted but how they reacted. When Romeo talked, how did Juliet respond? The best responses (in addition to being warm and other-focused) walked a tightrope between too passive and too active. On the too passive side, Romeo might accept and agree with whatever Juliet says, exerting as much direction on the conversation as a wet towel. On the too active side, Juliet might drop Romeo’s ball (as it were) and restart the conversation in an entirely new direction of her own choosing.

The trick to a smooth romantic conversation, according to Finkel, Eastwick and Saigal, is to avoid extremes in either direction. Accept your date’s pass, redirect it slightly, and then return the ball – all with warmth and genuine interest in his or her responses. This acceptance and redirection is the push and pull that creates smoothness.

Arrive first, let your true feelings show, attend to body language, speak sexy and nimbly dance the conversation tango – for a first date, this is the science of success.

Garth Sundem is a TED speaker, Wired GeekDad, Wipeout loser, and bestselling author of books including the brand new Brain Trust: 93 Top Scientists Dish Lab-Tested Secrets for Surfing, Dating, Dieting, Gambling, Growing Man-Eating Plants and More! Brain Trust is available everywhere March 6.

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