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The Cognitive Psychology of Pick-up Lines

How perception and cognition influences receptivity to pick-up lines.

Every relationship begins with that first step. Some people never get past that first step. First impressions matter, and our opening few lines can either energize the interaction, or cause the other person to look around for the nearest exit. Gratefully, psychologists have spent years of celibacy trying to understand the psychology behind pick-up lines for your own benefit.

In the '80s, Chris Kleinke and colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of 100 pick-up lines across a number of different settings, including bars, supermarkets, restaurants, laundromats, and beaches. They found three main categories of openers: direct gambits, which are honest and get right to the point (e.g, "I'm sort of shy, but I'd like to get to know you"), innocuous gambits, which hide a person's true intentions ("e.g., "What do you think of this band?"), and cute/flippant gambits, which involve humor, but often in a cheesy, canned way (e.g., "Do you have any raisins? No? Well then, how about a date?".)*

Both men and women agreed that cute/flippant pick-up lines were the least attractive. Women, however, preferred innocuous lines and had a greater aversion to cute/flippant lines than men, while men had a greater preference for direct opening gambits than women. This basic pattern has been found over and over again in a variety of settings, including singles bars. What's going on?

Trait perception plays a crucial role. We don't have direct access to a person's characteristics, so we infer underlying traits from overt behaviors. One study found that people perceive those who use innocuous lines as smarter and sexier than those who use cute/flippant lines. Another study found that while women perceived men who use silly pick-up lines as more sociable, confident, and funny, they also perceived them as less trustworthy and intelligent. While all these traits are certainly valued in a mate, research shows that low trustworthiness and low intelligence are deal breakers for a long-term relationship, overriding other "luxuries", such as humor and confidence.

Women are rightfully skeptical of cute/flippant pick-up lines: research shows that those with a long-term mating strategy tend to use supportive and honest pick-up strategies, whereas those with a short-term strategy tend to use manipulation and dishonesty. I should note that when a woman is looking for a short-term fling, it may be an entirely different story: one study conducted on college students found that women were willing to have a short-term fling with men they were attracted to, regardless of the content of his pick-up lines! More stable individual differences also play a role, with extraverts and those with a general orientation toward hook-ups vs. long-term committed relationships, more receptive to humor and sexually charged pick-up lines.

While all these findings are informative, they don't address moment-to-moment mental fluctuations. We're not machines, with a steady supply of cognitive resources on command. Receptivity to pick-up lines involves cognitive processing, which requires thought. A certain amount of mental energy is required to follow the conversation and cut through the bullhonkey to figure out a person's true intentions. But your mental state at any given moment is influenced by a number of factors, including how much stress you've experienced that day, or even just before the current conversation. If you've already been hit by a barrage of cute/flippant lines, your brain may feel a bit fatigued.

Cognitive fatigue matters. When your mind is taxed, it is much more difficult to process information and regulate your emotions, thoughts, and actions. Like a muscle, self-control is a limited resource: when fatigued, it's hard to flex it. This has important implications for interpersonal relationships: people in monogamous relationships whose brains are tired spend more time looking at attractive potential mates, are more likely to accept a coffee date from an attractive person, report more interest in an attractive person who is not their partner, and are more likely to actually cheat.

But how does this relate to receptivity to pick-up lines? Does a person's mental state affect how a pick-up line is perceived? In a recent study, Gary Lewandowski and colleagues gave 99 undergraduates a five-minute writing task in which they were asked to describe a recent trip. In the "ego-depletion" condition, students were told they couldn't use the letters A or N anywhere in the story, whereas in the "non-depletion" condition, they weren't given this cognitively taxing instruction. After the writing task, participants looked at a picture of an attractive opposite sex person and rated how they would respond if the person approached them, using one of three categories of openers: direct, innocuous, and cute/flippant. What did they find?

Those whose brains were cognitively taxed were less receptive to cute/flippant openers compared to those in the non-depletion condition. In the context of cute/flippant pick-up lines, those in the depleted group were more likely to "ask the initiator to leave them alone" and "ignore the initiator." In contrast, for innocuous gambits, the depleted students were less likely to ignore the person and ask the person to leave them alone. Receptivity to direct gambits was unaffected by being cognitively depleted. There were also gender effects consistent with the prior research I mentioned earlier. Men were more receptive to direct openers, and females were more receptive to innocuous openers. Also, women were least receptive to cute/flippant openers.

What explains these effects? The researchers argue that when it comes to cute/flippant openers, less mental effort is required to figure out the persons' intentions. Mix that in with the fact that a depleted, frazzled individual may have less tolerance for obvious pick-up attempts, and you have an enhanced aversion to cheesy lines. When it comes to innocuous pick-up lines, however, the person's intentions are much more ambiguous. This requires much more cognitive resources to decipher intent, sometimes too much. As the researchers note, it's less socially awkward for the brain depleted individual to continue the conversation until the person's intentions become more obvious.

There are obvious implications here. Pick-up lines are uttered in bars and clubs all across the globe, to people who probably aren't using their full cognitive resources. I think it's fair to say that if you want to accurately perceive a person's intentions, don't go overboard with the alcohol, or enter a pick-up-line-rich environment when you've had a cognitively taxing day. And what about the other side of the coin? Well, if you have difficulty chatting with people without using corny jokes riddled with blatant sexual intent, you may want to work on toning it down or work on being more witty and contextually appropriate* — or else you may just make an excellent pick-up line researcher!

For more on how the mind and mating are inextricably linked, be sure to check out the upcoming book Mating Intelligence Unleashed: The Role of the Mind in Sex, Dating and Love (Oxford University Press), co-authored by Glenn Geher and me, with a Foreword by Helen Fisher. The book is due out January, 2013, but you can pre-order it here!

© 2012 by Scott Barry Kaufman.

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* Note that there's a difference between cute/flippant lines that are canned, and witty humor that is contextually appropriate. Research shows that genuinely clever uses of humor and wit can in fact be incredibly sexy as an indicator of intelligence and creativity (see this study and here for a review).

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