The “true confessions” of pickup artists that emerge from time to time in the media present stories of seduction from the mundane to the almost unbelievable. Pickup artists come in all shapes and sizes, as do their routines. You might think that you could never fall prey to such individuals' sleazy persuasion
tactics because they seem so blatantly false. As a result, you feel confident that you’ll know to resist the next one you might encounter.
A pickup artist is generally interested in having sex in one-night stands or hookups. Researchers who study these short-term pairings tend to focus on their consequences for longer-term mental health (Bersamin, et al., 2014). Those who conduct this research assume that both partners are interested in keeping the relationship as short and as sweet as possible. For example, in the Bersamin, et al. study of casual sex, the research team (of which I was a part) simply asked participants to report on the frequency of their involvement in casual sex. We then correlated these scores with indices of mental health, revealing that casual sex was indeed linked with lower mental health.
Far less frequently studied empirically are the tactics that people use to convince potential partners into getting involved in a hookup —although such strategies feature in countless pickup artists' tell-alls. What makes the pickup artist distinct from other people who might seek casual sex is that the pickup artist tries to manipulate potential partners who themselves actually wish to have more enduring relationships.
In some ways, pickup artists use traditional tactics that fall into the category of persuasion. Whether it’s yourself or a product you’re trying to sell, you rely on methods of persuasion any time you attempt to influence someone else's attitudes. You’re hoping that by influencing someone’s positive attitudes toward the item or person you’re promoting, you’ll change that person’s behavior.
Pickup artists have to influence people who have never met them to like them almost immediately. They rely on general strategies that others use to make a good impression, such as seeming attractive, charming, or successful. Unlike a person truly interested in getting involved in a romantic relationship, though, the pickup artist needs merely to look like someone who’s looking for love. These qualities—being manipulative, self-centered, and insincere—are exactly those that show up in the personality constellation known as the “dark triad” of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism.
University of Western Sydney psychologist Peter Jonason and University of Texas psychologist David Buss (2012) examined the properties of what they called the “short-term mating strategies” that pickup artists employ. They defined these strategies as ones that attempt to engage the other person in sex but to avoid any kind of long-term commitment. To do so, Jonason and Buss point out, the instigator needs to keep a relationship in the “sex zone” and out of the “commitment zone.”
Based on the idea that dark triad traits are especially prominent in pickup artists, Jonason and Buss took a two-stage approach to identifying these individuals' behaviors and personalities. Interestingly, they went into the research assuming that, despite the stereotype, women as well as men could fit the criteria—and in fact, the study included plenty of female pickup artists based on the self-reports the team collected.
In the pilot study that began the project, Jonason and Buss asked 102 participants—all undergraduate students and two-thirds of them female—to describe their experiences with people who had “pursued short-term sexual encounters.” The 71 acts the participants described ranged from abuse (verbal or physical) to avoidance (not returning emails or phone calls). Between these extremes, those who sought to keep their interactions as uninvolved as possible engaged in behaviors such as avoiding non-sexual intimacy (such as hugging), keeping conversations superficial, failing to introduce partners to family and friends, and seeming promiscuous or blatantly announcing that they were only seeking short-term sex.
The short-term mating strategies that the researchers identified in this first phase then became the basis for a rating scale that another group of participants completed in a second study. This time, the sample of nearly 300 students had an almost 50-50 gender split. Participants reported on their own tendency to commit the acts consistent with pickup artists, and answered questions about their attitudes toward casual sex and their self-ratings of how good a mate they believed themselves to be. They also rated themselves on overall personality, as well as the 12-item dark triad (“Dirty Dozen”) scale.
Because subjects rated themselves, it’s possible they tried to present as positive a picture of themselves as possible. Without independent observers rating them as well, we don’t know just how down and dirty they may have actually been. However, a strength of this study was the fact that men and women both provided data. Female pickup artists, it emerged, may be just as intriguing as their male counterparts. Based on the findings, it also appeared that people are not especially shy about admitting to their own pickup artist behaviors.
The 71 acts designed to keep relationships at the short-term, superficial level fell into 2 broad groups:
- Minimizing the relationship’s escalating to the long-term level.
- Keeping the relationship sexual rather than emotional.
To keep the relationship short-term, participants acted in ways to avoid contact, intimacy, and integration with the rest of their lives (i.e. keeping the partner from meeting family and friends). They also occasionally behaved in abusive ways toward the partner, either physical or verbal. To keep the relationship sexual rather than emotional in nature, those who used short-term mating strategies relied on alcohol as an excuse, let their partner know the relationship was strictly sexual, and behaved in ways that let the partner know they had, and would continue to have, interest in other sexual partners.
Male and female pickup artists were equally likely to use the tactics that would keep the relationship from evolving into a one of longer-term intimacy, as well as to seek ways to keep the relationship sexual. However, there were some gender differences: Men were more likely to use violence directed toward their partners, while women were more likely to let a partner know that they were only in the relationship for the sex.
In the all-important personality domain, pickup artists showed specific traits, including antisocial tendencies. As predicted, they were also more likely to be narcissistic. Again, though, male and female pickup artists differed in some aspects of their personality profiles: Women who acted openly promiscuous, for example, were higher in psychopathy. Men high in Machiavellianism were more likely to adopt the tactic of not integrating partners into their lives.
Overall emotional stability also played an important role, but one that differed for men and women: Women who were most likely to engage in keeping the relationship from becoming intimate were also the least emotionally stable. And for women, but not men, self-rated promiscuity was also related to conscientiousness scores.
These results suggest that there are plenty of pickup-artist strategies around, and they’re likely to be used by people with certain personality traits in particular.
To detect the pickup artists in your travels, these checklists based on the research can provide a start:
Telltale behavioral signs
- Engaging in unkind acts such as verbal or physical abuse intended to drive you away.
- Avoiding physical intimacy other than sexual.
- Being unwilling to introduce you to the important people in their lives.
- Openly flirting with others in front of you.
- Being unavailable and nonresponsive to attempts to maintain or establish contact.
Telltale psychological signs
- (for men) Seeming to care only about what you can do for them, not how they can help you.
- (for women) Being late, sloppy, careless, and unconcerned about meeting other people’s expectations.
- (for women) Seeming unstable, worried, anxious, and insecure.
- (for both) Being highly preoccupied with their own appearance, showing undue self-centeredness, and expressing feelings of entitlement.
- (for both) Showing lack of regard for other people’s feelings, not just yours, and expressing lack of remorse for actions in which they caused harm or pain to others.
This list might not capture all facets of every pickup artist’s personality. But the research provides a start in understanding this all-too-common and hurtful approach to close relationships. With this information in hand, you’ll know a bit more about how to be on the lookout for individuals who have their own, and not your, best interests in mind.
Feel free to tweet to me — @swhitbo — or contact me through my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age."
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2014
- Bersamin, M., Zamboanga, B. L, Schwartz, S. J., Donnellan, M. B., Hudson, M., Weisskirch, R. S., Kim, S. Y., Agocha, V. B., Whitbourne, S. K., & Caraway, S. J. (2014). Risky business: Is there an association between casual sex and mental health among young emerging adults? Journal of Sex Research, 51(1):43-51. doi: 10.1080/00224499.2013.772088.
- Jonason, P. K., & Buss, D. M. (2012). Avoiding entangling commitments: Tactics for implementing a short-term mating strategy. Personality And Individual Differences, 52(5), 606-610. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.12.015