Beautiful Minds

Musings on the many paths to greatness.

The Most Powerful Law of Attraction

A study uncovers the best way to get someone interested.

"An elusive, enigmatic aura will make people want to know more, drawing them into your circle...The moment people feel they know what to expect from you, your spell on them is broken." --Robert Greene, The Art of Seduction

People like people who like them. This is one of the most replicated findings in all of social psychology. But people also like people who might like them. This is one of the most well-known principles of seduction.

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When receiving clear signals of interest from another person, a person is momentarily pleased, adapts quickly, and the case is closed. But when interest is uncertain, a person can think of little else; they are constantly in search of an explanation. Eventually the person interprets these thoughts as a sign of liking and think, "Gee, I must really like this person if I can't stop thinking about him!" (Whitchurch, Wilson, & Gilbert, in press). Every petal peeled off the rose while saying, "He loves me, he loves me not..." is a step closer to attraction.

But which is a more potent force for seduction: the well-known reciprocity principle of social psychology (people like people who like them) or the uncertainty principle from the literature on seduction (people like people who might like them)?

Erin Whitchurch and her colleagues conducted a study of 47 female undergraduates to find out. Each woman was told that several male students had viewed her Facebook profile and rated how much he'd like to get to know her.

One group was told that they would be seeing the four men who had given them the highest ratings (the "liked-most" condition). Another group of women were told that they would be seeing four men who had given them average ratings (the "liked-average" condition). Finally, another group of women (the "uncertain" condition) were told that it was unknown how much each guy liked her. The women then viewed four fictitious Facebook profiles of attractive male college students.

After they viewed those profiles, they reported their mood and rated multiple aspects of their attraction to the male students (e.g., "someone I would hook up with"). The participants then rated their mood again, and also reported the extent to which thoughts about the men had "popped into their head" during the prior 15 minutes.

The researchers found evidence of the reciprocity principle: Women liked the men more when they were led to believe that the men liked them a lot, compared to when they thought the men liked them an average amount.

Women in the uncertain condition, however, were the most attracted to the men. Women also reported thinking about the men the most in the uncertain condition, and there was tentative evidence that the effect of uncertainty on attraction was explained by the frequency of their thoughts. In other words, it wasn't the uncertainty per se that made the men attractive, but the thoughts it induced.

Women in the liked-best condition reported a more positive mood than women in the liked-average condition, but there was no difference in mood between the women in the uncertain condition and those in the liked-best condition. Women felt just as positive under uncertainty as they did knowing for sure the guys liked them.

This study is important as it's the first to manipulate different degrees of certainty. It also puts a new spin on "playing hard to get": It seems that being unavailable isn't attractive, but being mysterious is. According to the researchers, "People who create uncertainty about how much they like someone can increase that person's interest in them."

Of course, the study has limitations: To begin with, it involved only females. It would be interesting to see if males are just as effected by uncertainty. Also, only initial attraction was measured. Once the women get to know the mysterious men better, the seductive spell may well have worn off. But as the researchers point out, the study still has real-world implications. Many people meet potential mates online and receive just as much information as the women did in this study.

When it comes to seduction, it seems one of the most potent forces is the allure of the unknown.

 

© 2011 by Scott Barry Kaufman

References

Whitchurch, E.R., Wilson, T.D., & Gilbert, D.T. (in press). "He loves me, he loves me not...": Uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological Science.

Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D. is a cognitive psychologist at NYU interested in intelligence and creativity development. He is the author of forthcoming Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined.

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