Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=168517
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 2:19:21 PM CST
When 24-year-old Ben Smith decided to go speed dating with two of his coworkers, he had no idea what to expect. Until then, he never even thought speed dating existed in real life. He assumed it was something people did in movies.
But life is its own drama. The speed-dating event he attended in downtown Chicago unfolded like a scene straight out of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, with minor crossovers from the The Goonies for good measure.
“I thought the type of people that would be here would be more outgoing, more personable,” he said. “They were just…socially awkward.”
“It was way past socially awkward,” interjected Jessica Miranda, 25, who shared Ben’s curiosity that Sunday night, but not his penchant for euphemisms. One person reminded her of The Goonies and another seemed to her to have blood stains - or something that looked like it - all over his clothes. “It was pretty bad.”
It was also surprising, considering that Ben, Jessica and their coworker Jennifer Block, 31, came with admittedly low expectations. Yes, they were single, but they were not on the prowl for life partners. Fun, a good laugh and maybe an interesting story at the end of it were all they said they really wanted when they decided to meet other single people through speed dating.
“The draw to me was to meet a lot of people in a short period of time and not have to spend an hour with each person,” Ben said. “You get more bang for your buck this way.”
The appeal of speed dating is all in the numbers. Speed daters can spend roughly $40 to have instant dates with multiple potential partners as opposed to $40 to take out just one. They only have to put themselves “out there” once or twice a month, and therefore have time left for other areas of interest—from the office to watching The Office. And the chances of finding someone who likes you back increases.
So is speed dating a viable way to find a mate because of the numbers? “Just by the numbers, yes. But with the type of people that tend to go to these [events], probably not,” Jessica said.
The problem was, even the numbers weren’t on their side that fateful summer night. Only four other men and three other women showed up or, more accurately, stayed since some participants left after spotting the sparse dating pool.
The whole event lasted just 15 minutes as each date ran for only three minutes. Some speed-dating organizers host five- or eight-minute “dates.”
Jessica and Jennifer noted that not all speed-dating scenarios turn out badly. “This was very different from the other one we went to,” Jennifer said. “This was terrible.”
Still, Ben’s introductory experience, even if extreme, demonstrates how the speed-dating scenario can be one breeding ground for dating disasters. Speed dating, after all, may be the blindest of blind dates, since there is absolutely no screening process involved. None of your relatives or friends vouches for your dates or has assessed your possible compatibility. Anyone with $40 is welcome.
The anxiety associated with blind dates may be heightened because there is also more pressure to try to win acceptance at first glance. Ben, Jessica and Jennifer were, for instance, dressed to impress. Ben wore jeans and a fresh striped button-down shirt. Jessica exuded a professional look with glasses and an elegant black-and-white ensemble. And Jennifer wore a flattering teal sundress that complemented her tan.
For speed dating, looks are crucial.
“The first attraction is physical,” Ben said. “If you’re not physically attracted to somebody in that short time period, you may as well leave.”
Jessica added, “Because you only have a few minutes, there’s no time to make an intellectual connection.”
Recent research from University of Edinburgh and University of Essex, both in the United Kingdom, confirms this. Study researchers Alison Lenton and Marco Francesconi examined how 1,868 women and 1,870 men across 84 speed-dating events made dating decisions. They noticed that, the more prospects confronting speed daters, the more likely they were to resort to decision-making shortcuts.
Lenton and Francesconi proved what Ben had assumed: one common denominator may be the most significant - appearance.
“People who have a large set of options tend to pay attention to attributes that are more easy to digest, assess or see,” said Lenton, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh who also served as the lead author of the study findings that appeared in Psychological Science. “Fundamentally, people’s preferences are not static. They’re changeable.”
This more instinctive manner of deciding on potential partners in speed dating can manifest itself in another way. Just as in high school, where the popular kids seemed more attractive by virtue of their popularity, speed daters also tend to feel more attracted to those they perceive as being attractive to other people.
“You’re already starting to judge them even before the actual date,” Ben said. “You can hear [the conversation on] the next table, so you better come up with more than one conversation. You can’t say the same thing twice.”
Scientists have long documented this phenomenon called mate choice copying in the animal kingdom even among fish and birds. And psychologists at Indiana University observed it in humans for their study, which recently appeared in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
Lead author Skyler Place surveyed the opinions of 40 men and 40 women after they had observed speed-dating videos of couples who appeared to be hitting it off and having fun. The participants rated persons of the opposite sex as more attractive after witnessing their successful behavior in the videos compared to initial reactions to photos of them. Apparently, people pay close attention, whether consciously or unconsciously, to flirtatious encounters going on around them.
“Most people probably assume that their decisions for who they’re interested in romantically are based on their own experiences, their own knowledge,” he said. “In reality, what’s happening between others and who others like can have a dramatic effect on their own preferences.”
And, clearly, the underwhelming turnout in that downtown speed-dating event took a toll since no matches formed by the end of that night. Ben, Jessica and Jennifer were so disappointed that they asked for refunds.
“I lost my speed-dating virginity tonight, and based on this experience, I wouldn’t want to go again,” Ben said. “I think there are better opportunities out there.”