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Should Women Make the First Move in a Relationship?

Research shows how easy it is to overcome old assumptions about gender rules.

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The dating world is changing as more apps that help people connect come online, but the fundamental rules of courtship appear to remain constant. In the 1995 book The Rules, authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider argued:

“Women who played hard to get, either deliberately or by accident, were the ones who got the guys, while the women who asked guys out or were too available were the ones who got dumped.”

Twenty years later, the context may have shifted, but, Fein and Schneider maintain in their 2013 follow-up, Not Your Mother’s Rules, the same principle applies: Women should never initiate a relationship, they should play hard to get, and they should retain an air of mystery until they’ve landed their catch.

While the 18 years in between the pair's books was just barely enough to constitute a generation, it would seem that "your mother’s rules" should have changed quite a bit more than that by now. Surely, it’s OK for women to be more assertive in relationships, more honest and forthright about their feelings, and less in need of pretending not to be interested in someone they’d like to get to know better.

Highlighting this idea that the gender tables should be turning—or already have—the dating app Bumble runs on the premise that it’s men, not women, who should wait for prospective partners to contact them (in same-sex pairings on the app, either party can do the initiating). Whitney Wolfe, founder of the app, decided that it was long since time to give those tables a hefty spin. In addition to changing the gender dynamics of online dating sites, she decided to make Bumble a kinder and gentler dating app, rewarding users who play nice with perks known as “VIBee” status.

Why haven’t we seen such a development until now? And will it work?

If you’re a die-hard evolutionary type, you’ll say that men will hunt, women will be hunted, and such will always be the case because it’s just hard-wired into our hunter-gatherer DNA. Research suggests that it isn’t simply gender (or sex) per se that influences who does the asking, but psychological factors handed down through generations of socialization, and teaching both genders that sexy women defer to a man, allowing him to be in control.

Would giving women a greater sense of control give them greater power in initiating dating relationships?

Bumble is built on this idea, but there’s also science behind it: In 2011, the University of Waterloo's Jennifer MacGregor and Columbia University’s Justin Cavallo investigated whether they could break "the rules" by manipulating the sense of control a woman felt when initiating a relationship.

They noted that social expectations discouraged women from directly pursuing potential partners and “encouraged [women] to resort to passivity or indirect strategies to shape their relationship outcomes” (p. 851). Many women developed a kind of learned helplessness or feeling of futility about changing the status quo which, in turn, perpetuated conformity to societal expectations.

Using a sample of 92 single undergraduates (50 women, 42 men), MacGregor and Cavallo first established that there was a positive relationship between feelings of control over relationship initiation and the amount of effort a woman would put into initiating romantic relationships. Correlation does not equal causation, as every psychology student knows. It’s possible that initiators just tend to feel more in control about their lives in general, and this is reflected in their relationships and other aspects of their lives.

Phase two of the study involved a new sample of 98 single undergraduates (56 women, 42 men). The researchers manipulated the feeling of personal control by asking participants to recall a time in their lives when they either had control or did not. The event was supposed to be positive in nature, such as studying hard and doing well on an exam (high control) or lucking out by winning a $5 lottery ticket (low control).

Phase three involved presenting participants with pre-set scenarios and asking if they’d ever been involved in such situations. High personal control scenarios included getting stuck in traffic because you went the wrong way (it was your fault); in the low personal control condition, getting stuck in traffic was due to construction (it wasn't your fault).

The question of interest was whether participants would be more likely to initiate a relationship after being primed with high (vs. low) personal control conditions and whether men and women would differ in their response to this manipulation.

As the researchers expected, across the two manipulation conditions, it was the women whose intention to initiate a relationship peaked under high personal control conditions. In fact, under a high sense of personal control, men and women were equally likely to take charge in a dating situation.

What’s surprising about the results is that the manipulation of personal control was so slight: For a woman, simply recalling a time you had personal control seemed to be enough to counteract their otherwise socially acceptable passivity. As MacGregor and Cavallo conclude (p. 862), “Women who generally feel a lack of control over their romantic outcomes may be particularly sensitive to fluctuations in personal control in ways that men are not.”

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

The upshot of the study: Bumble, and whatever similar platforms may follow it, could in fact change the rules. By giving women “permission” to act first, all kinds of new relationships may emerge that would before have never materialized. And you don’t have to be hemmed in by society’s restrictions about who should ask and who should be asked. Find your own fulfillment in relationships by boosting your own sense of control, and you may be surprised by where it leads you.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.


MacGregor, J. D., & Cavallo, J. V. (2011). Breaking the rules: Personal control increases women's direct relationship initiation. Journal Of Social And Personal Relationships, 28(6), 848-867. doi:10.1177/0265407510397986

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015