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Looking for romance? What really matters may surprise you, study finds

[Nov 7, 2022: Karen Nikos, University of California - Davis]

New research from UC Davis assessed couples' first impressions of each other on a speed date. (Credit: Getty Images)

A new University of California, Davis, study analyzing romantic first impressions shows that compatibility and popularity among the dating pool are influential in shaping who people pursue as potential romantic partners.

Although popularity and compatibility have been studied in established romantic relationships, in one of the first studies of its kind, UC Davis researchers explored whether these and other types of romantic first impressions affected later romantic outcomes.


Researchers found that first impressions tend to linger, shaping whether people desired further contact with potential romantic partners after an initial meeting. The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Although we expected popularity to be an important factor in the study, we were amazed to find that a good first impression is not just a popularity contest, it’s also about compatibility, even when people are still getting to know each other,” said Alexander Baxter, a UC Davis doctoral student in psychology and co-author of the study. “In other words, although it helps to be popular when it comes to getting a second date, having a unique connection with a potential partner can be just as important.”


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Assessed during speed dates

The researchers asked more than 550 speed-daters, including some men who date men, to rate their romantic interest in the potential partners they met. The participants, all from the United States or Canada, included both college students and people attending a comic book convention, who cumulatively attended more than 6,600 speed-dates during the experiment.

“Representation really matters in psychology research, and one of the strengths of our study is that we included a subsample of men who date men that attended an all-male speed-dating event,” Baxter said. “This means that our findings generalize not only to male-female relationships, but also to male-male relationships too. We hope that future studies will consider other diverse types of relationships.”


After the speed-dating event, researchers surveyed the participants over the next two to three months to assess whether they dated any of the potential partners that they met and how their romantic feelings changed over time.

Meta-analysis of primary and secondary initial desire variables associated with dichotomous outcome variables. The figure shows the average effect sizes (diamonds) and 95% CIs (horizontal error bars) for the meta-analyzed associations between each primary and secondary component of initial desire (the predictor in each analysis) and each dichotomous outcome assessed. Individual effect sizes for each study are also shown (circles). The dark gray diamonds indicate meta-analyzed odds ratios that are significantly different from one (P < 0.05), and the light gray diamonds indicate meta-analyzed odds ratios that are not significantly different from one (P ≥ 0.05). For a summary of each analysis and the meta-analyzed effect sizes, see Table 1 (for more detailed information, see SI Appendix, Table S2).

Researchers used a statistical model to test whether later romantic outcomes were predicted by three factors that affect how romantic first impressions form — selectivity, popularity and compatibility. In other words, they looked at patterns of initial desire that were observed during the speed-dates, and assessed whether these factors differently predicted whether people later pursued a relationship with the potential partners that they met.


The factors assessed were:

  • Selectivity — Daniel liked Rose because he liked everyone;

  • Popularity — Daniel liked Rose because everyone liked her; and

  • Compatibility — Daniel uniquely liked Rose, above and beyond his own flirty disposition and her general popularity.

Schematic showing the SRM effects for initial desire. The figure demonstrates how the three primary SRM effects (A–C; i.e., the SRM calculations based on participants’ desire for their dates) and three secondary SRM effects (D–F; i.e., the SRM calculations based on participants’ dates’ desire for the participants) examined in this study were calculated for a hypothetical participant in the mixed-gender speed-dating events (A2, represented by the black circle) and one of their other-sex dates from the speed-dating event (B2, represented by the gray circle). A1 and A3 represent other participants of the same gender as A2, and B1 and B3 represent participants of the same gender as B2 (i.e., other-gender dates). In this example, each A went on a speed date with each B, but As and Bs did not go on speed dates with each other (as in the mixed-gender speed-dating events). Solid black arrows represent responses that are included in the SRM calculation for variance in A2’s romantic desire toward B2, and dashed gray arrows represent responses that are not involved in the SRM calculations. In the case of primary and secondary relationship effects, the solid gray arrows represent responses that are involved in partitioning variance (i.e., the respective partner and actor effects) but are not indicative of the overall meaning of the relationship effect (i.e., relationship effects reflect unique liking over and beyond partner and actor effects). The primary and secondary SRM effects were calculated similarly for the all-men speed-dating event, except with a slight correction for the round-robin design (see ref. 44).


The results showed that people were particularly likely to pursue a romantic relationship with those who were popular and those they were compatible with. Selectivity played a relatively small role, with more romantically outgoing individuals being slightly more likely than less outgoing people to pursue their speed-dating matches, according to the study.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by University of California - Davis. Content may be edited for style and length.


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