The Psychology of Blind Dates
New research links burnout to expecting the worst in ambiguous situations.
Posted September 25, 2018
(Welcome back to the new academic year of my column. I hope you had a fun summer!)
How do blind dates go? Imagine you’re outside a café, waiting for a blind date. There’s a flower in a vase on the table inside with two people chatting over food, you see the waiter moving plates, the cracks in the flooring, you hear the noise of people jostling to get through an intersection, the squeak of doors. What do you think is likely to happen when your date arrives? Will they even arrive? Will it go well?
I think we know, anecdotally, that our personalities help fill in the gaps in such a situation. We know that thinking positively on a blind date can help it go better.
So, I love it when personality psychologists prove beyond anecdote that our intuitions are true. Thus, on coming back to work, I was smiling when I saw that there are not one but two papers on the interpretation of ambiguous situations in an upcoming issue of Personality And Individual Differences (PAID), one of which touches on blind dates.
In the first paper, your expectations for blind dates depends on how burnt out you are. In a recent study by Renzo Bianchi, from the University of Neuchatel, and others, people with differing levels of burnout were asked to imagine how unpleasant it would be to be in a number of ambiguous situations, one of which was actually waiting for someone to arrive for a blind date! Bianchi and co found that people with burnout were more likely to think the experience would be unpleasant.
“I am burned out, the last thing I’m going to enjoy is a blind date. What I need is some rest”. So true.
But the next question for me is: who is more realistic? Is the burned-out pessimist correct or is the non-burned out optimist correct? Just how successful are first dates anyway? Because, that’s a crucial part of knowing which attitude to take.
I couldn’t find easy data on first-date success rates but I do like watching First Dates Australia, about as psychologically raw as show as any you’ll ever see. From that, I’d put the success rate of blind dates at 1 out of every 3 or 4. So, it’s quite plausible that the people feeling burnt out may realistic in their assessment that the blind date won’t be pleasant. The date is probably unlikely to go well.
However, it’s also likely that the actual return on blind dates has little to do with the success rate and more to do with the prize. Even if three blind dates don’t go well, you only lose one evening each time. However, one fantastic blind date could more than make up for three lost evenings.
Who’s right? Are the burned out people simply realistic depressives? Are the non-burned out right? Hard to say at this point. What we can say is that the more burned out one is, the more likely one is to expect the worst from ambiguous situations.
I will always be endlessly fascinated by the way that our personalities help us fill in the blanks of the world around us. So, I hope, later this week, to write about pauses in conversation and hyper-sensitivity. Until then, all the best.
Bianchi, R., Laurent, E., Schonfeld, I. S., Verkuilen, J. & Berna, C. (2018). Interpretation bias toward ambiguous information in burnout and depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 135,216-221