When we’re attracted to someone, but the relationship does not progress smoothly towards romance, it’s easy for us to question ourselves. We ask why he or she doesn’t seem interested, and the answers we come up with often reflect our insecurities. We may worry that we’re unattractive, not successful enough, too old, or just not interesting enough to be liked by the object of our affection. The reality underlying the situation is likely to be a bit different: research has shown that romantic relationships can fail to develop even when both people are attracted to each other 1.
Most of the advice readily available to the shy or lovelorn focuses on the right way to dress, talk, or act in social situations. But what if our dating difficulties are not due to a lack of attractiveness or social grace? Researchers have demonstrated that our internal perceptions may be as important (or even more important) than our clothing or behavior 2, 3.
A group of researchers in Canada have shed some light on how anxiety about dating can affect our ability to interact with men or women we are attracted to. They point out that, when we are interested in someone, we are faced with what psychologists call an approach-avoidance conflict: we want to pursue a flirtatious, romantic interaction (which requires approaching them, both physically and socially), yet we are fearful of the prospect of being rejected (which leads us to want to avoid any situation that could lead to rejection) 4. When faced with this conflict, what do we do? A full three quarters of us are likely to avoid directly communicating attraction (or flirting, in plain English) to our potential romantic partner for fear of being shot down 5! Furthermore, as we’ll soon see, when we do communicate our interest, we are likely to overestimate how much interest we are actually showing.
In the first of two studies looking at people’s perceptions about how much attraction they communicate, participants (both men and women) viewed videos of introductions from attractive, young, opposite-sex models. They were then asked to record their own response to the model (speaking into a camera, webcam style), and were told that their responses would be shown to the model whose introduction they had viewed. Instead, these recordings were actually shown to a different group of people (of the same sex as the model), who were asked how attracted they thought the participant was to the person the video was made for. For example, a man viewed an introduction from an attractive young female model, and recorded a response for her; then another woman viewed his response, and rated how attracted she thought he was to the model. The researchers also asked the participants to rate how much attraction they thought they had shown in their response videos. When the participants’ ratings were compared to the groups’ ratings, the results were intriguing. The participants who reported fearing rejection thought they were communicating more attraction than they actually were 4.
In a follow-up study, the same researchers tested this phenomenon again, but used face-to-face interactions with opposite sex participants instead of videos. This time, the participants who feared rejection not only showed far less interest than they believed (as above), but they also appeared far less attracted to the their interaction partners than they actually were. In other words, when they liked someone, they didn’t show it. In fact, the more attracted they were, the less attracted they appeared 4.
This might lead you to ask why people tend to communicate so little attraction when they are actually interested in another person. The researcher’s explanation was that people suppress or clamp down on their signals of attraction when the risk of rejection is too high 4. Remember the approach avoidance conflict from above, and the finding that 75% of us may opt for avoidance in such a situation? We may not intend to completely stifle all signs of interest, but the problem is that we are poor judges of how much attraction we are really showing – if we feel attracted internally, we may assume that it is obvious to others in our behavior externally. So we clamp down hard to try to control how others see us, and end up hiding our attraction (especially when we’re afraid of rejection or with people we’re very attracted to).
Now consider what this might mean for your own daily life: that person that you’ve been flirting with might have no idea you’re interested! And, if the object of your affection does not respond, it might not mean that you are being rejected. Your signals might just be too subtle to be noticed (not to mention the difficulties we have when it comes to recognizing the signs that someone is attracted to us, which is a topic for another day). But does it matter whether someone knows you’re interested? It sure does: research has shown that we like people who are interested in us romantically 6, and that we prefer to date the people we feel are most likely to accept us 7. So take the risk of being more obvious, and you might encourage someone else to do the same!
- Sprecher, S., & Duck, S. (1994). Sweet talk: The importance of perceived communication for romantic and friendship attraction experienced during a get-acquainted date. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20(4), 391-400.
- Holmes, J. G. (1991). Trust and the appraisal process in close relationships. In W. H. Jones & D. Perlman (Eds.), Advances in personal relationships (Vol. 2). London: Jessica Kingsley.
- Orvis, B. R., Kelley, H. H., & Butler, D. (1976). Attributional conflict in young couples. In J. H. Harvey, W. J. Ickes, & R. F. Kidd (Eds.), New directions in attribution research (Vol. 1, pp. 353-386). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
- Vorauer, J. D., Cameron, J. J., Holmes, J. G., & Pearce, D. G. (2003). Invisible overtures: Fears of rejection and the signal amplification bias. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 793-812.
- Vorauer, J., & Ratner, R. (1996). Who’s going to make the first move? Pluralistic ignorance as an impediment to relationship formation. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 13(4), 483-506.
- Aron, A., Dutton, D. G., Aron, E. N., & Iverson, A. (1989). Experiences of falling in love. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 6(3), 243-257.
- Shanteau, J., & Nagy, G. (1979). Probability of acceptance in dating choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 522-533.