You arrive at the coffee shop early to meet your date. Positioned where you can see the front door, you spot him as soon as he walks in. You knew what he would look like, because you gave him the benefit of the doubt that he was not using his college photo in his online profile. Now comes the real test: The two of you are about to trade first impressions — which research shows will immediately define the course of your relationship.
We are all familiar with the power of first impressions and how hard they are to change. Research corroborates this reality, demonstrating how quickly impressions are made, and how we use our perception to separate the dangerous from the desirable. While photos are important, a first date is your opportunity to both look and listen, because one of the most alluring traits you can display on a first meeting is emotional responsiveness.
The Seduction of Sensitivity
When daters meet in person for the first time, they both strive to put their best foot forward — which often involves expressing positive emotion. Yet ironically, research indicates it is the way you respond when a prospective partner shares negative emotion that can make you especially appealing.
A study by Birnbaum and Reis (2012) showed that responsiveness can heighten sexual attraction.[i] They had participants discuss a negative experience with an unfamiliar, opposite-sex partner, then rated the partner's responsiveness, as well as their sexual desire for the partner. They found that responsive partners were viewed as more sexually desirable, primarily among individuals who are less avoidant. (Avoidance was described as discomfort associated with the closeness involved in sexual intimacy, which can result in separating sexual behavior from psychological intimacy.)
How exactly does responsiveness enhance allure? More recent research may provide some clues. In a study entitled “Why Do Men Prefer Nice Women?” Birnbaum et al. (2014) found that responsiveness may increase sexual interest in a target through signaling concern for one's welfare.[ii] Yet there may be gender differences: The researchers found this phenomenon to be true for men, but not for women. The study found that men viewed a responsive stranger as more gender-typical (whether masculine or feminine), and therefore more attractive. One of their studies specifically found that responsive women were viewed by men as more feminine, which made them more sexually appealing, increasing their attractiveness and perceived suitability for a long-term relationship.
The Value of Physical Face Time
Unlike the smartphone calling feature of the same name, research seems to indicate that real face time cultivates chemistry more quickly. In a world where many people would rather text than talk, and relationships begin “in the cloud” rather than on the ground, attraction is still most effectively sparked in person.
Think about it in practical terms: Emotional responsiveness is harder to convey over email or the phone, where communication is devoid of visual cues. In person, eye contact and expressions of concern or understanding enhance active listening skills, which in turn enhance desirability. Because first dates capitalize on the power of personal perception, the quality of one's face time remains the best way to make sure a great first date leads to a second.
[i] Gurit E. Birnbaum and Harry T. Reis, “When Does Responsiveness Pique Sexual Interest? Attachment and Sexual Desire in Initial Acquaintanceships,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 38, no. 7 (2012): 946 – 958.
[ii] Gurit E. Birnbaum, Tsachi Ein-Dor, Harry T. Reis, and Noam Segal, ”Why Do Men Prefer Nice Women? Gender Typicality Mediates the Effect of Responsiveness on Perceived Attractiveness in Initial Acquaintanceships,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40, no. 10 (2014): 1341-1353.