Whether it is a long-anticipated meeting arranged online, a blind date set up by mutual friends, or an outing with an acquaintance designed to explore a mutual spark of attraction, first-date planning makes perfect. Thinking through the details beforehand will allow you to maximize the experience, which could lead to a great friendship or a long-term romantic match.
One of the primary goals of a first date is to make the other person feel important and valued — a goal best accomplished through selective attention.
Attraction Requires Attention
In a speed dating study, “Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire,” Eastwick et al. (2007)[i] demonstrated that perceived unique desire from a speed date prompted reciprocal unique desire. This study not only demonstrated the chemistry prompted by being made to feel special or unique, it also demonstrated that this need operates within the first few minutes of an encounter with a potential romantic partner.
These findings indicate that an ideal first date should afford partners a chance to focus on each other, instead of distractions. Movies, ball games, concerts, and other crowded events do not provide environments conducive to sparking unique chemistry. Even if you are a sports fan or movie buff, consider investing in a first date that offers a chance to bond within an environment of exclusivity, before hitting the theater or ballpark on a second or third.
Cultivate chemistry by choosing a setting that is more relaxed than formal, to avoid sending the wrong signal. Opt for coffee or a light dinner at an upbeat, brightly lit restaurant, not a five-course meal at a secluded, candlelit table. The best first dates take place in settings designed to facilitate comfort and conversation, not awkward, inappropriate intimacy. When in doubt, visit the restaurant first for an ambiance check. An environment that is casual but classy provides a non-threatening venue for focused conversation.
Regarding physical atmosphere, let there be light. Eye contact is an important part of first-date chemistry, so choosing a well-lit venue is essential. While novelty can be appealing, placing a priority on visual attention means avoiding, say, one of those trendy dining-in-the-dark restaurants[ii], where you not only cannot see what you are eating, but who you are dining with. (This would be the ultimate blind date, both literally and figuratively.)
By all means, avoid locations designed for swinging singles. Bars provide plenty of distraction — the opposite dynamic that the speed-dating studies show sparks unique chemistry.
Ditch Your Device
Research by Marisa Cohen (2016) of 390 predominantly heterosexual survey respondents shed light on the perception of behavior on a first date.[iii] Her findings indicated that women were more likely than men to use early behavior and verbal communication to gauge the level of perceived attraction from a date. (Men, on the other hand, did not view any behaviors as indicating their date was less attracted to them.)
Her study also cited prior research establishing the importance of synchronization on a first date. Often referred to as a “dance,” this can occur through conversation, as both parties focus on the same topic, as well as physically, in terms of head, eye, and body movements.
Your smartphone can be barrier to first-date synchronization. So when you sit down with a date, avoid setting electronics on the table between the two of you. Whether or not your device actually beeps or buzzes, this electronic “third wheel” creates distance and detracts from chemistry and bonding. Because early behavior creates a lasting impression, avoid even having your device visible, much less audible.
Managing Great Expectations
Sometimes, despite superficial indicators of compatibility, first dates fall flat. To prevent disappointment and make the best of every meeting, manage your expectations on the front end. Consider that even on dates where sparks are not flying, conversation may be flowing. Getting to know new people with whom you no doubt already share common ground (which is often why you agreed to the date in the first place) can expand your personal or professional network. Many great first dates do not end with fireworks, but with friendship.
Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House) (revision). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.
Find her at wendypatrickphd.com or @WendyPatrickPhD
[i] Paul W. Eastwick, Eli J. Finkel, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, “Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity Is Created Equal,” Psychological Science 18, no. 4 (2007): 317- 319.
[iii] Marisa T. Cohen, “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191.