The Perfect First Date

by Steve Carter, Ph.D.

The Perfect First Date

If finding love on the internet has changed forever the way our society meets, dates and marries, there is still one thing it hasn’t changed: The importance (and horror) of…. the First Date!

Never, fear, brave readers. A Google-search on the string “perfect first date” returns “about 64,000 entries”… so we can safely assume that there is enough expert (err..) advice on the subject to guarantee success for even the most socially challenged Romeo or Juliet. However, just in case you’re still wondering, the science of Social Psychology can offer some additional clues for success. Excited? Good. Here we go:

Early in the history of psychology, William James theorized that emotions are interpreted from physiological cues. In other words, your body experiences some stimulus and your autonomic nervous system (regulated by the Thalamus and Limbic system) has a physiological reaction, such as muscular tension, a rise in heart rate, perspiration, and dryness of the mouth. Feedback from these reactions are then received by your cortex, which interprets them to create emotion.

So, for example: You see a lion, your autonomic system starts to pump adrenaline which get’s your heart pumping and your muscles ready to run like hell, THEN your cortex get’s the news, interprets (“Holy CRAP!”) and tells your body to start RUNNING! Thus, emotions are feelings which come about as a result of physiological events, rather than being their cause. 

Researchers since James have shown that cognitive interpretation can both follow and precede physical reactions, so it is overly simplistic to say that all emotions arise from physical reaction. However, things that happen some of the time can be just as important as things that happen ALL of the time. As it turns out, several researchers have shown that physical arousal caused by roller-coasters, high-places, scary movies, etc. can lead to heightened feelings of sexual attraction. For example, Dutton and Aron (1974) found that men who were contacted on a wobbly suspension bridge that was suspended over 200 feet above a rocky river were more sexually attracted to a female researcher than men who were contacted on a solid wood bridge that was only 10 feet above a shallow rivulet.

Lest you think that men braving high bridges are simply more amorous, in 2003 Meston and Frohlich had men and women waiting at an amusement park rate the dating desireability of photographs. Consistent with the arousal = attraction connection, subjects who were contacted AFTER riding a roller-coaster gave pictures a significantly higher rating than subjects contacted BEFORE riding a roller coaster!

So, when your planning that first date, try including an activity that will get the blood pumping! Find out if your date has always had an unfulfilled desire to go sky-diving or parasailing. Or maybe scary movies is their thing? Group activities such as beach volleyball or a pickup game of flag football are a great way to combine a safe first date with a good dose of physical arousal. Although theories explaining why differ, psychologists have repeatedly shown that what makes the heart beat, can also make the heart melt.

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