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Neuropsych

Speed-dating experiment reveals what makes a great first date

Credit: SHOTPRIME STUDIO / Adobe Stock
Key Takeaways
  • A recent study examined the extent to which “co-regulation during social interaction" predicts romantic attraction between people on first dates.
  • The term refers to people's tendency to “synchronize” or adapt to each other’s physiology and behavior.
  • The study found that when a heterosexual couple tunes their behavior to one another, they are more likely to be romantically and sexually attracted to each other. 

What’s one of the most reliable indicators that a first date is going well? The answer might lie in how closely the couple is matching each other’s behavior and physiology.

That’s one of the takeaways from a recent study, conducted by a team of researchers led by Dr. Shir Atzil of the Department of Psychology at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which found that people on first dates tend to be more attracted to each other when their bodies are “in sync” with each other.

Called “co-regulation during social interaction,” the term refers to the act of matching another person’s physiology or behavior, such as by showing mirrored language (crossed legs, open arms, leaning forward, etc.), synchronized heartbeats, nearly equal levels of sweat, and other indications of being attuned to each other. 

The researchers conducted a speed-dating experiment with 46 couples who were meeting each other for the first time. The participants’ behavior and physiological responses were monitored with a video camera and a wristband measuring electrodermal activity. Later, each participant was asked to rate how romantically and sexually attractive they found their date to be.

Published in Scientific Reports, the study found that when a heterosexual couple tunes their behavior to one another, they are more likely to be romantically and sexually attracted to each other.

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The results aligned with past findings from researchers at Leiden University in the Netherlands, who found that synchronized heartbeats and skin conductance can indicate attraction.

“If one person’s heart rate increased, then the other’s did too,” said psychologist Eliska Prochazkova, who led the research. “The attraction between dating couples seems to grow if they synchronize at this deeper level.”

Why does this happen?

Researchers and psychologists studying child development and romantic attraction find similarities between the two processes. There’s truth behind the saying we choose partners similar to our parents. This concept, now popularized as “attachment styles,” describes how we recreate the bond we had with our parents, now with our partners. 

The co-regulation that people experience with their caregivers during the infant-parent bonding stage helps deepen the relationship. Dr. Atzil’s team found that a similar thing occurs during romantic and sexual attraction. Being attuned to each other during the date shows mutual interest and deepens the connection, even if the couple is meeting for the first time just for a few minutes, like they did in this experiment. 

Men and women are attracted to each other differently 

Every study, especially those on mate selection, must consider gender differences in attraction. Dr. Atzil’s team found some, too. For both men and women, being in sync predicted attraction. However, the effect was stronger for women who were more sexually attracted to men who displayed a high level of synchrony. Such men, called “super-synchronizers” in the study, were considered highly desirable.

But the same level of effect was not found when genders were reversed. This difference shows classic evolutionary theories that equate sexual desire with reproduction tend to underestimate the role of social interaction in mate selection, the team noted. The findings suggest that sexual and romantic desire isn’t limited to fertility, and that it can serve the additional social purpose of bonding.

What if attraction causes co-regulation?

When looking at studies that show how synchronized bodies can indicate attraction, the obvious question is: What if it’s the mutual attraction that’s causing co-regulation? Scientists are still figuring it out. “It is possible that bio-behavioral synchrony increases attraction or that feeling attracted improves the ad-hoc motivation to synchronize,” the paper states. 


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