The Four-Minute Search for the Perfect Mate

Through the lens of dating, a marketing professor looks at how people make choices.

July 01, 2005

| by Alice LaPlante

Women get pickier about whom they date the more options they have. Moreover, although women say that they rate intelligence over attractiveness in their search for a mate, when they try “speed dating” physical attractiveness leads their list — outpacing intelligence, sincerity, and compatibility — to the same degree as it does for men.

“Marketers are interested in how people make choices, and one area in which we make an important choice is whom we want to date,” said Itamar Simonson, the Sebastian S. Kresge Professor of Marketing at Stanford GSB, who studied dating preferences along with co-researchers Raymond Fisman and Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University and Emir Kamenica of Harvard University.

The study examined how men and women responded to each other during speed dating trials — an increasingly popular option for meeting members of the opposite sex. Today there are eight companies devoted exclusively to this approach in the New York area alone, plus the many online match-making companies that offer speed dating as an adjunct to other services. The study was based on the format used by Hurry Date, the largest speed dating company in New York.

The premise is a simple one: Men and women are matched up for a date for a very short time, usually just a few minutes. Participants are asked to privately indicate whether or not they wish to go out on another date with the person they just met. If two people agree that they would like to see each other again, they are matched up for a second — real — date.

Simonson’s study took two forms: one a small group of 10 men and 10 women; the other had 20 men and 20 women, all graduate students at Columbia University. Seated across from each other at tables, the men and women spent four minutes on their date, after which they were given one minute to fill out a form that asked whether they wanted to go on another date with that person. After answering yes or no, they had a list of six attributes on which to rate their partner: attractiveness; sincerity; intelligence; fun; ambitiousness; and shared interests. Participants also were asked how much they liked each person overall and how probable it was that the other person would say yes to them. Then they were moved on to their next match until they had “dated” every member of the opposite sex in the room.

“There has been a great deal of research on mate selection, and by and large, men put a great emphasis on physical attractiveness. Women, particularly in long-term relationships, put more emphasis on such attributes as intelligence, earning potential, and sincerity,” said Simonson. He said study participants were asked ahead of time what they would prefer in a partner. Men — rather predictably — said attractiveness, while women listed intelligence and sincerity. “Indeed, this preliminary survey showed preferences for the traditional attributes that you would expect from men and women,” said Simonson.

However, when they moved through the speed dating process there was no appreciable difference between men and women. Both used attractiveness to make their decisions.

“In other words, there was a much higher correlation between what men said they wanted and what they actually did,” said Simonson. “Men say that appearance is important, and it is. Women do not say that appearance is particularly important to them, but it is, particularly in the context of speed dating.”

One reason for this could be that in speed dating you cannot really assess someone’s intelligence, earning potential, or sincerity. “So women end up putting a great deal of emphasis on physical appearance, an attribute that you can evaluate relatively easily,” said Simonson.

Another interesting finding was that women tended to be choosier the more options they had. In the smaller group (10 men and 10 women) both men and women said they would like to see any given person again approximately half the time. In the large dating group, men kept to the same proportion of yeses (10 out of 20 times). However, women only said yes 6.5 out of 20 times.

There are a number of possible explanations for this, including the fact that women might invest more emotional energy in each date and not want to solicit dates from too many potential partners. “You can also come up with all sorts of evolutionary psychology explanations — if you believe in that — as to why women do not want to commit to a large number of yeses, whereas men don’t have the same inhibitions,” said Simonson.

Also, during the last two dates of the session men were a lot more likely to say that they’d like to see someone again. “This corresponds to a saying that ‘women are prettier at closing time,’” said Simonson, referring to a study that asked men in a bar to rate the attractiveness of women at 9 p.m. and then at midnight (controlling for alcohol consumption). The women were deemed to be more attractive later in the evening. “You don’t find that spike in women saying yes at the very end of an evening,” said Simonson.

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