The authors of the popular self-help book The Rules claim they can help women capture a perfect man and lure him into marriage. All you have to do is follow a list of relatively simple rules, which essentially equate to playing hard to get. For example, according to The Rules, you should always end telephone conversations first, never accept a Saturday night date invitation after Wednesday, and never date a man for more than two years without a marriage proposal (why waste your time, right?). The Rules was an overnight best-seller, and has since become something of a mantra for thousands of dating women – or “Rules Girls” – to live by. Clearly, this relationship advice is wildly popular. But, is it scientifically sound?
Although The Rules might sound like reasonable tactics, it turns out that many of them run contrary to established scientific findings about relationships. For example, one rule is to stay “mysterious” and not give away too much information about yourself. But we know that self-disclosure – one of the defining characteristics of intimacy – is really important for relationship satisfaction1 and relationship closeness.2 Similarly, although The Rules claims that you should avoid making eye contact when interested in someone, research on romantic attraction shows that eye contact facilitates interaction3 and liking4 between strangers.
With these contradictions in mind, Agnew and Gephart5 put The Rules to the empirical test. They recruited heterosexual couples, and then asked them about their relationship satisfaction, commitment, and Rules behavior back when the relationship was developing. This method allowed them to assess how the relationships of Rules Girls fared compared to the relationships of women who didn’t follow The Rules.
The results were not encouraging for Rules followers. Of the 20 rules tested, only two of them predicted higher levels of relationship commitment from the man (those two were “let the man pick up the woman on dates” and “limit first date physical contact to kissing or less”). Twelve of the rules had no association with the man’s commitment levels whatsoever. Women who said that they followed rules such as letting the man be the one to initiate phone calls, not keeping stuff at her boyfriend’s place, or not accepting dates on short notice were no more likely to have a committed partner than women who didn’t endorse these rules. Even more shocking, six of the rules correlated with the man’s commitment in the opposite direction! For example, the more that a woman said that she followed rules like, “Don’t see the man more than twice a week”, or “Don’t tell the man details of what occurs when you’re apart”, the less committed, on average, he was to the relationship.
Far from being the relationships cure-all that readers hope for, this study suggests that The Rules simply does not deliver what it promises. At best, the advice provided by this book appears to be ineffectual, and at worst, it may actually be damaging. So, if your goal is to wind up in a healthy, committed relationship… you’re probably better off breaking the rules.
For more, see Science of Relationships.
1. Hendrick, S. S. (1981). Self-disclosure and marital satisfaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40, 1150-1159.
2. Collins, N. L., & Miller, L. C. (1994). Self-disclosure and liking: A meta-analytic review. Psychological Bulletin, 116, 457-475.
3. Cary, M. S. (1978). The role of gaze in the initiation of conversation. Social Psychology, 41, 269-271.
4. Kellerman, J., Lewis, J., & Laird, J. D. (1989). Looking and loving: The effects of mutual gaze on feelings of love. Journal of Research in Personality, 23, 145-161.
5. Agnew, C. R., & Gephart, J. M. (2000). Testing The Rules of commitment enhancement: Separating fact from fiction. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 24, 41-47.