MONDAY, Feb. 14 (HealthDay News) -- With Valentine's Day here, men who are looking to make a love connection on Internet dating sites should initially keep women guessing about just how interested they are, a new study suggests.
Researchers at the University of Virginia and Harvard found that when college women first viewed the Facebook profiles of four male undergrads, they were most attracted to the men when they weren't sure whether the men liked them a lot or just an average amount.
"The general assumption is that there is something about the challenge that increases attraction," said study author Erin Whitchurch, who conducted the research while she was a graduate student in the department of psychology at the University of Virginia. "However, I attribute the effect to increased thought about the person."
"Previous research has demonstrated that uncertainty increases thoughts about the uncertain situation," Whitchurch explained. "For example, think how hard it is not to think about results of a medical exam you are waiting for. In the case of attraction uncertainty though, people find themselves thinking about [someone], but rather than recognize it's because of the uncertainty, they assume it is because they must be attracted to the person," she said.
For the study, Whitchurch and her colleagues recruited 47 female University of Virginia undergraduates to take part in a study on the effectiveness of Facebook as an online dating Web site. Each participant was told that several male students from two collaborating universities had viewed her profile, along with those of about 20 other female college students, and had rated the degree to which they thought they would get along with each woman if they got to know her better.
After randomly dividing the participants into three groups, the researchers showed each woman four fictitious Facebook profiles that portrayed likeable, attractive male college students. The women in the first group were told that they were viewing the profiles of men who liked them the best. In the second group, each woman was told that the four men she was seeing had given her average ratings. The third group of women were told that they would be viewing the profiles of men who either liked them the best or who had given them average ratings.
To determine how attracted the women were to the men, the researchers asked the women to rate each man on several criteria, including how much they liked him, how much they wanted to work with him on a class project, and how much they would be interested in him as a potential boyfriend. They were also asked to rate how often thoughts of each man had "popped into their heads" during the previous 15 minutes.
As expected, the women in the first group were more attracted to the men than those in the second group, which confirms what social psychologists call the "reciprocity principle" -- in other words, people tend to like others who like them. But the women in the third group, who were kept in the dark about how much the men liked them, were still more attracted to those men. In addition, the women in the third group reported having thoughts about the men the most often, followed by those in the second group, and then the first group.
In the study, the authors were quick to point out that "there is no simple formula people can use to get someone to like them." Based on their research, however, they added that when people first meet, "it may be that popular dating advice is correct: Keeping people in the dark about how much we like them...will pique their interest."
Another expert, who was not involved in the study, was intrigued by the results.
"These findings provide an important caveat to the conclusion that we are romantically interested in others who are romantically interested in us," said Eli J. Finkel, associate professor of social psychology at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. "The results suggest that although this reciprocity effect is strong, the pull of delicious uncertainty might be even stronger."
Finkel said one key limitation of the study is that the authors only studied women. Whitchurch agreed, but added that the results in men would likely be the same because "the underlying process which increases attraction is increased thought about the target, and although people might assume men and women come at attraction and relationships from different angles, I do not believe their basic thought processes differ."
Whitchurch said she decided to study the effect of uncertainty on romantic attraction several years ago, after reading a woman's magazine article that claimed that men prefer women who are honest about their attraction. "I wondered if that was actually true or if there was a case for 'playing the game,' so to speak," she said.
The findings appear were published in the February issue of Psychological Science.
To learn about how romance can last even in long-term relationships, visit the archives of the American Psychological Association.
SOURCES: Erin Whitchurch, Ph.D., department of psychology, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; Eli J. Finkel, Ph.D., associate professor, social psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; February 2011 Psychological Science
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