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Dating During the Pandemic

How does our need for affiliation compete with the risk of disease?

Source: 22 Images Studio/Shutterstock
Source: 22 Images Studio/Shutterstock

Various experts are already speculating as to what life might be like and how our behaviour might need to change post-pandemic. For example, will restaurant tables be appropriately socially distanced? Will you only be able to proceed one way down a supermarket aisle when shopping? Will face-to-face teaching give way to online instruction?

Furthermore, what will romantic liaisons and dating be like post-pandemic? Will the ways in which we meet prospective new partners need to change? Will the ways in which we engage in new romantic relationships differ from how this happens now?

To start to consider and answer these questions, we go back to 1966 and the work of psychologists John Garcia and Robert Koelling on conditioning in rats (Garcia and Koelling, 1966). These researchers used two groups of rats: One group was allowed to drink sweetened water normally, while a second group was exposed to radiation while drinking the sweetened water, which made the rats feel nauseous. On subsequent occasions, the first group continued to drink the sweetened water normally, while the rats previously exposed to radiation while drinking avoided the sweetened water.

What had happened was that the rats in the second group had learned an avoidance response to sweetened water—in other words, an association between drinking the water and the nauseous feeling they experienced. This conditioned taste aversion to the water which the rats had learned is an important adaptive and necessary survival response because, after all, rats don’t want to consume food or drink if it is potentially detrimental to their wellbeing.

Similarly, humans learn to avoid food or drink that made them feel ill or did them harm in the past. A common example is the avoidance of alcoholic drinks which have previously made us ill. This avoidance behaviour may be thought of as a kind of behavioural immune system (Schaller, 2011). Avoidance of noxious or dangerous foods or drinks reduces the risk of us becoming ill. However, not only do we avoid food or drink that we associate with feeling ill, but we also tend to avoid situations or even people with which we hold similar associations. This explains why, from an evolutionary viewpoint, we avoid being in contact with people who have infectious diseases, as becoming ill may limit day to day activities, and in extreme cases, may even threaten our survival.

What does this mean for romance and dating?

As outlined above, the threat of disease leads us to avoid contact with people who pose a risk of infection, especially when we know that they may display no obvious symptoms. Yet romantic behaviour is characterised by physical intimacy such as kissing or hugging. Therefore, in a time of potential infection, will romantic behaviour be avoided or only occur when we are absolutely certain that a potential partner is not contagious? Furthermore, will this have an effect on the way in which we may appraise and become attracted to potential partners we meet through online dating?

The good news

Humans are social beings and need to facilitate and maintain relationships with others. Indeed, we need to form close and intimate romantic relationships to produce offspring. In these times of lockdown, people may have resorted to online communication to maintain contact with romantic interests, but ultimately FaceTime sex or hot chat is clearly no long-term substitute for intimate physical contact.

In order to assess the competing demands of the need for affiliation against behaviour motivated to prevent succumbing to infectious disease, Natsumi Sawada and colleagues investigated activation of our behavioural immune systems and the need for affiliation across four different situations (Sawada, Auger & Lydon, 2018), which were:

  • A structured interaction
  • A speed dating event
  • An introductory video
  • An online dating scenario

In order to measure activation of the behavioural immune system, the researchers used the Perceived Vulnerability to Disease (PVD) scale (Duncan et al, 2009), which measures chronic disease concerns by looking at people’s responses to fifteen items such as:

  • I prefer to wash my hands pretty soon after shaking someone's hand.
  • I have a history of susceptibility to infectious diseases.
  • I don't like to write with a pencil someone else has obviously chewed on.

Structured interaction

In the first study, which involved a simple interaction with a confederate, the researchers found that the higher participants’ scores were on the perceived vulnerability to disease scale, then the lower their enjoyment of the interaction with the confederate of the researchers, and the less they were judged to have enjoyed the interaction. Quite simply, this illustrates that people who report a high level of PVD enjoy social interactions less.

Speed dating

The next study the researchers carried out involved a mock-up speed dating event. For this, they took measures of participants’ attraction to those they were speed dating, measures of selectivity to them (whether they would like to be put in touch with the other person with whom they had interacted), and affiliation (whether they were warm or friendly). Participants who scored higher on the PVD scale were less attracted to their speed dating partners and were generally choosier about them in their overall judgments. For this study, the researchers also took measures of personality type, attachment anxiety, or disgust sensitivity, although they found that these factors were unrelated to attraction or choosiness.

In terms of gender differences, males who scored higher on PVD scale were less affiliative in their interactions with their speed dating partners compared to males who scored lower on PVD. However, for females, there was little difference in affiliative behaviour between those who scored high and those who scored low on the PVD scale. Overall, females scored lower than males.

Video dating

In their third study, the researchers set up a video dating situation similar to speed dating, with participants viewing video recordings of potential partners about whom they were required to express their romantic interest. Participants were also told that they would make a video of themselves and, to prepare for this, they should watch a practice video. One group watched a practice video about "Top Ten Revolting Disease Facts" (a prime to activate the behavioural immune system), while a second group watched a neutral practice video entitled "Ten Words That Don’t Translate to English."

As expected, the group who gave the highest romantic interest ratings were those who watched the neutral video and who had a low PVD. Furthermore, those in the group who watched the video primed to activate their behavioural immune system reported lower romantic interest in the dating videos compared to the group who watched the neutral video, and this was regardless of their PVD scores. Overall, this indicates that priming people to be mindful of disease concerns along with them having high PVD score has an effect on their romantic interest in potential dates.

Online dating

In their final study, the researchers set up an online dating scenario in which participants judged pictures of prospective opposite sex dating partners on aspects of dateability.

The results indicated that overall, high PVD scores were associated with lower ratings of interest in prospective online dating partners, even when these potential dating partners were highly attractive. The results also indicated that participants were uninterested in unattractive or average looking prospective dates irrespective of their PVD scores. However, those reporting high PVD scores were choosier overall than those reporting low PVD scores.

Overall then, the four studies reported here indicate that if we have concerns about disease, then we are less likely to seek out or meet people we do not already know, and this extends to video and online situations also. So how will this relate to online dating in the current pandemic? It would seem that those of us who have a higher perception of vulnerability to disease (higher PVD) will currently be less likely to risk meeting new potential partners through online dating situations, and even less likely to meet up with them face-to-face, even when these people appear healthy and attractive. But conversely, people unbothered by the risk of infection from others will continue to date as normal.


Garcia, J. & Koelling, R. A. (1966). ‘Relation of cue to consequence in avoidance learning.’ Psychonomic Science, 4, 123-124.

Sawada, N., Auger, E. & Lydon, J. E. (2018). ‘Activation of the Behavioral Immune System: Putting the Brakes on Affiliation.’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 44(2) 224–237.

Schaller, M. (2011). ‘The behavioural immune system and the psychology of human sociality.’ Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366, 3418-3426.