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How "Only Having Eyes" for Your Date Creates Chemistry

Research reveals the unique seduction of selective attention.

Source: hedgehog94/Shutterstock

You have just arrived home from a first date. Maybe it was a long-anticipated offline meeting arranged online, a blind date set up through mutual friends, or an outing with an acquaintance designed to explore if there was a mutual spark of attraction. However your first date was planned, and whatever you did, you probably already know whether you desire a second.

Your impression of your first date will depend on several factors. Yet perhaps the most important one is how your date made you feel.

What First Daters Respond To

In anticipation of a first date, you might think you know exactly what you are looking for in a mate. Yet research reveals that many first daters misjudge the way they will respond to prospective partners.

Finkel and Eastwick (2008)[1] discuss the difference between what daters think they are looking for in a partner, and what they actually respond to. For example, research reveals that men reportedly prioritize a woman's physical attractiveness, and women place higher value on a man's earning capability. Yet those stated preferences do not always predict desire after an in-person meeting, suggesting that we cannot always predict what will attract us most.

One thing you are likely to respond to, however, is a healthy expression of interest in you ... and you alone.

I Only Have Eyes for You: The Seduction of Selectivity

In a world where most people view themselves as trees blending into the same forest, selective attention can make you feel like a snowflake—unique and special.

Finkel and Eastwick discuss one feature of romantic attraction as reciprocity of liking. Specifically, they note that research has distinguished generalized reciprocity, in which someone who generally desires others is desired in return, from dyadic reciprocity, in which a couple shares unique desire for each other.

They cite earlier research demonstrating that potential romantic partners are more interested in someone who is uniquely interested in them, as opposed to equally interested in everyone they meet.[2] They suggest that these findings show that unselective romantic desire is a turnoff, because it indicates desperation.

Bonding Through Reciprocal Unique Desire

The earlier research Finkel and Eastwick cite is a speed-dating study, “Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire,” in which Eastwick et al. (2007)[3] demonstrated that perceived unique desire from a speed date prompted reciprocal unique desire.

The study involved seven speed-dating sessions, in which each speed date was four minutes long. Afterward, participants indicated whether they would or would not be interested in meeting their date again, by answering “yes” or “no.” Unselectivity was measured by asking participants “To what percentage of the other people here today will this person say 'yes'?”

The study not only demonstrated the chemistry prompted by being made to feel special or unique, it demonstrated that this need operates within the first few minutes of an encounter with a potential romantic partner.

Conversation and Observation

Perceiving unique attraction occurs through all aspects of a first date, from conversation to observation. As opposed to several months into a relationship, where many partners have already traded their reading glasses for rose-colored glasses, first daters are at their most objective, which makes a first date the ideal forum to maximize first impressions.

In terms of conversation, research by Marisa T. Cohen (2016)[4] showed that successful dates occurred when the conversation was focused on the woman. Her study showed that both sexes reported establishing a connection when the woman talked about herself. Men can create a shared experience by commenting on what their date says.

Prior research by McFarland et al. (2013) studying romantic bonding through exploring interaction ritual theory within the context of heterosexual speed dating[5] revealed similar conclusions. They found that interpersonal chemistry was highest when the women were the subject of conversation, and the men demonstrated understanding of the women. The bonding occurred through reciprocal role coordination, in which the female was the focal point.

Regarding the ghost of relationships past, Cohen found that women viewed a partner discussing past relationships with them as a sign of disinterest — which further corroborates her finding that women prefer date conversation to be focused on themselves.

Before you place undue emphasis on the attention you receive from your partner, make sure he doesn't treat everyone this way. Pay attention to the way he treats your server, other patrons, and any other interaction you might observe to see if, in fact, he only has eyes for you.

Wendy Patrick, JD, Ph.D., is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert. She is the author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the New York Times-bestseller Reading People (Random House) (revision). She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention, safe cyber security, and threat assessment, and is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals Certified Threat Manager. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD


[1] Eli J. Finkel and Paul W. Eastwick, “Speed-Dating,” Current Directions in Psychological Science 17, no. 3, (2008): 193 – 197.

[2] Finkel and Eastwick, “Speed-Dating,”194 (citing Eastwick, Finkel, Mochon, & Ariely, 2007).

[3] Paul W. Eastwick, Eli J. Finkel, Daniel Mochon, and Dan Ariely, “Selective Versus Unselective Romantic Desire: Not All Reciprocity Is Created Equal,” Psychological Science 18, no. 4 (2007): 317- 319.

[4] Marisa T. Cohen, “It’s not you, it’s me…no, actually it’s you: Perceptions of what makes a first date successful or not,” Sexuality & Culture: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 20, no. 1 (2016): 173-191.

[5] Daniel A. McFarland, Dan Jurafsky, and Craig Rawlings, ”Making the Connection: Social Bonding in Courtship Situations,” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 6 (2013): 1596-1649.