Interpersonal Science’s Web Serial

What does it mean to be cool? – Part 2

In Part 1 we explored society’s images of what “cool” is, and how humans are wired to make quick judgements about the social value of others. We found that an attitude of disengagement led others to perceive people as being cooler, which led us to a question:

Why would a disengaging attitude lead to perceptions of cool? After all, being disengaged and cool towards people is the opposite of how we’ve been raised: one of the key lessons from childhood is to be nice, and friendly, and warm. Findings from this and prior research can address the counter-intuitive nature of cool. First, consider that as humans we live in co-operative society. Unlike many other animals, we live in close proximity to our peers, and depend on each other to survive and to thrive. However, we are not all equally dependent. While some of us have plenty of resources, some of us have too few. The more you have, the less dependent you are on people for support. And status level is connected to resource possession. Next, consider how being dependent on another person might influence how we behave towards them. If you have something I want, I am dependent on you, and I will naturally put in effort to connect with you so you can give me what I want. I am literally “needy.” On the other hand, if you want from me and I don’t want from you, I’m going to be far less willing to put in effort to engage you. I will be “cool” towards you. What follows is the finding discussed above: those who have enough are going put in less effort to connect, and thus display fewer engagement and more disengagement behaviors.

While this idea is easy to understand when the need is financial, the principle also applies to social requirements. It has been established that our need for social acceptance is fundamental, and research has found that the more dependent social interaction partner is willing to submit to the less dependent. Some call this “having the upper hand”. In the case of our “cool” person, I contend that he feels socially satiated – he has whatever social resources he needs, or at least has determined that he doesn’t want social resources from those currently around him. And he signals this independence through relative levels of engagement cues.

Simply put, less engagement and more disengagement cues are indicative of coolness because they tell others “I don’t need you, I have plenty.”

Conceptualizing “coolness” in this way allows me a better understanding some of my earlier dating experiences. When I was younger and searching for the secret to being cool, I would fall apart when I met someone attractive. There was one girl I met my sophomore year of college, Sara, a freshman who was both beautiful and friendly. I was desperate for her to like me, in part because she was pretty, and in part because of the self-esteem boost I knew would come with acceptance from such a hot girl. It’s safe to say that I stood to gain more from her than she did from me, and this was sadly apparent in how we interacted. She was friendly and normal. But, in my desire, I did whatever I could to make her like me, including (but not limited to) agreeing with whatever she said, not bringing up things they might disagree with, smiling and nodding like bobble-head, complimenting her, dropping any standards I might formerly have held, and trying to say things that would impress her, whether true or greatly exaggerated. This attempted courtship went about as well as you’d expect. However, things changed drastically when I gave up on her and started dating someone else. All of a sudden, I discovered that I was a real person around Sara. I no longer threw out an abundance of unearned engagement signals to her just because she was pretty. I didn’t need to, because I felt romantically satiated. Ironically, not needing anything from Sara anymore meant I naturally displayed “cooler” signals, which in turn lead her (and other women) to find me attractive. While this felt like Murphy’s Law at the time, I now understand the dynamic. This phenomenon probably accounts in part for the finding that those in relationships report being hit-on more frequently.

While this theory of coolness is helpful, there are some strong caveats. Stay tuned next time for a discussion of why the “I’m going to try to seem cool” is a bad dating strategy that’s sure to backfire.


  1. Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin-slicing approach. Psychological Science, 20(1), 99-106.

What Does it Mean to be Cool? – Part 1

When I was younger I really wanted to be “cool”. I looked around me and saw that the cool guys were far more popular with girls than I was. In fact, being cool seemed to trump even the need to be physically attractive. While people wondered “why is she going out with him?” I knew it was because he was cool. Sadly, I was not cool. And unfortunately, although I could identify who was cool, I couldn’t identify what made them that way. This made it particularly challenging to become cooler, since I didn’t didn’t have a clue what to do. So I asked around. “What does it mean to be cool?” I collected a bunch of theories – the basic thread of which was that seeming like you don’t care, not putting in effort, and not trying to be cool makes you cool. This did not work for me since I could plainly see that plenty of people didn’t care and put in no effort to be cool, and yet were as removed as I was from the pinnacle of cool. Far from being James Dean of the campus, they were badly dressed and socially shunned. Without a clear answer, I came back to this topic regularly over the years, but never reached a satisfying conclusion. But recently, I came across an article that finally gave me insight into what exactly “cool” is.

Research coming out of Dasher Keltner’s lab looked at the behavior cues we use to judge others when given only a short amount of time – 60 seconds in this case. The researchers broke 100 participants into groups of two, and then videotaped a 5 minute get-acquainted session between the two strangers. They found was that high and low status people (based on SES) behaved differently in these interactions. Compared to their low status peers, the higher status people were a little colder towards their interaction partners. They showed fewer “engagement cues” while getting acquainted – they looked at their partners less, they didn’t laugh as much, and were less likely to nod their heads or raise their eyebrows. Engagement cues are all ways of dedicating attention towards partners and encouraging a connection. At the same time, higher status people displayed more “disengagement cues” than their lower status counterparts – during interactions they were more likely to pick lint off themselves, doodle, and fidget with nearby objects. All these behaviors convey a distinct lack of attention and encouragement towards a conversation partner.

It turns out you don’t have to be a psychological scientist to recognize the lack of engagement from high status people. Observers who were shown 60 second clips of the interactions could tell with reasonable accuracy the status level of each person involved. They knew, better than chance (that is, what you would expect to get if you guessed), who came from high SES homes and who did not. Additionally, researchers showed that observers were using engagement and disengagement cues to accurately predict who was higher and lower in status. It is likely that as we encounter people in our daily lives, we are also making automatic judgments based on these cues.

This study got me wondering: could engagement and disengagement cues be telling us something about a person’s level of coolness? It occurred to me, while reading, that these high status people look awfully similar to my mental picture of the “cool guy”. I picture the cool guy leaning back, against a wall or on a couch, and not really giving much attention to others. He’s listening or engaged in the conversation, but only if it interests him. He’s the opposite of “needy” – if the needy guy is doing lots of work to make others like him, the cool guy is certainly not. In fact, I picture him paying far less attention to others, unless they “deserve” it (by being interesting, exciting, etc.). At the same time, I picture everyone else paying him a lot of attention, hanging on his every word. It even fits with the semantics of “cool”. He isn’t warm, he isn’t hot, he isn’t excitable, he’s calm and he’s cool.

The idea of equating coolness with reduced engagement stands up to the pop-culture test. Think about it for a second – doesn’t the high status person in the Keltner study sound a little like the famous “cool guys” of history? Picture James Dean. Do you picture him smiling, nodding, laughing, or do you see him apart from others, focused on something more important than trying to impress and win over everyone around him. Or think of Brad Pitt in Fight Club, or Ocean’s 11, (or most other movies). What would it be like if you were talking to him? Think even of the caricature of a “cool guy,” Fonzie in Happy Days. When I picture myself talking to these characters, I imagine substantially more disengagement and less engagement cues than I might get from someone a little needier, like Tom Cruise or Bradley Cooper.

But why would a disengaging attitude lead to perceptions of cool? We’ll get into that in Part 2.


  1. Kraus, M. W., & Keltner, D. (2009). Signs of socioeconomic status: A thin-slicing approach. Psychological Science, 20(1), 99-106.

Around 75 hours of Speed-Dating are Required to Meet 1 Romantic Partner

How much time and effort do you think you need to invest in order to find a romantic relationship? If we’re talking about speed-dating, the answer is close to 75 hours. Is that surprising? For many people, the idea of investing a certain amount of time in order to get a relationship might fly in the face of the spontaneous “it just happened” mentality we have become accustom to. But whether we admit it or not, how much time we invest will affect how much dating we do, and how likely we are to be successful. Going back to the 75 hours of speed dating, consider what this means: if the average speed dating event lasts 3 hours and you’re meeting 11 potential partners, you would need to go to 25 speed-dating events. You need to meet 275 people in order to find that special someone, due to a low success rate of 4-6%. Now take a moment to reflect – realistically, how many hours are you investing in finding a romantic relationship? This means meeting people in the course of daily life, engaging in new activities, developing networks of friends, going to social gatherings, and trying singles-specific activities like online- or speed-dating.

How many potential partners are you meeting each week? And how long will it take to get up to 275? If you find you are meeting 5 a week, you’re still looking at over a year in order to get up to 275. It takes initiative, effort, and assertiveness to meet new people; on the other hand, it doesn’t take any work to sit on the couch and watch reruns of Becker (anyone get the reference?). But often when people complain that they aren’t meeting anyone, you also find out that they aren’t investing much time in looking. Interestingly, the amount of effort men put into meeting women has also been found to significantly predict who women want to date after a three minute speed-date.

Now these numbers come from just one recent German study, and it looked only at the outcomes of three minute-long dates. And people tend to meet their romantic partners in a range of different ways, most commonly through work, school, or through friends of friends. We also don’t know how much time and effort would be required to predict developing a romantic relationship. This analysis doesn’t consider the fact that some potential partners you meet are a better “match” for you than others (e.g., you are likely to match with people within friendship networks compared to strangers because of increased similarity). But it does illustrate the concept that time and effort must be invested to increase the odds of getting the outcome you desire. So take a look at how much time you invest towards achieving important goals, and whether you are dedicating as much time as needed to developing your love life.


  1. Asendorpf, J. B., Penke, L., & Back, M. D. (2011). From dating to mating and relating: Predictors of initial and long-term outcomes of speed-dating in a community sample. European Journal of Personality, 25(1), 16-30.

Posture, Power, and Dating

Do you remember how concerned your parents were with your posture? “Shoulders back”, they might have reminded you, “don’t slouch,” or perhaps they’d encourage you to keep your “chin up.” Although it’s unlikely they were thinking about your future dating life, it turns out that our parents were correct – posture is important. In fact, what we do with our bodies is far more powerful than even psychologists had previously expected.

Posture or body expansion is an important communication signal in the animal kingdom. From cats to dogs, bears and primates, all the way up the evolutionary ladder to humans, the expansion of the body is associated with power, status, and dominance. Bears will rear onto their hind legs to intimidate, birds will puff out their feathers or spread their wings, chimps will expand their arms. Power is associated with size. On the flip-side, submission also has a common appearance across animals – constricting the body, bending down, lowering eye contact, essentially making the body small and non-threatening. This is submission to power, like someone showing respect to a king.

Researchers have found that, as humans, we assume someone is powerful and high in status when we see expanded body posture. Picture someone sitting with their limbs spread out (e.g., legs apart and arms resting on the chair next to them, or standing with hands on their hips); you are likely to automatically perceive that they are a person of high status. We assume someone is low in power when we see constricted posture, like them being hunched over with their hands in their lap, or their legs pulled under them.

Recent fascinating research has shown that, as well as convincing others that we are more powerful, expanded body posture appears to convince ourselves that we are more powerful1. After deliberately posing participants into powerful expanded postures, researchers discovered that these participants thought and behaved more like powerful people. Like those in power, they took risks, reporting feeling powerful, were more inclined to approach new experiences rather than avoid them, and even performed better on abstract cognitive tasks. Another similar study found that just two minutes in these powerful poses leads to increases in testosterone and a decrease in the stress hormone cortisol – the endocrine profile associated with powerful people – compared to those posed in constricted postures2. And just how strong are these posture effects? Stronger than being placed in an actual position of power (like being able to control the rewards other participants received) or recalling experiences of being powerful, according to one study.

These studies come out of the investigation of embodied cognition, in which researchers look at how the body influences thought (as well as feeling and behavior). And how does this apply to your dating life? Power has long been recognized as an attractive trait for men, so the appearance and experience of power that comes from adopting powerful postures will be beneficial to men. Research has shown that men who expand their bodies in bars are the recipients of more “come-hither” signals from women3. Additionally, the boost in risk-taking and approach-motivation that comes naturally with increased experience of power will lead to more attempts at meeting people – one of the core principles to successful dating. The wonderful thing is that these benefits flow from the simple act of expanding the body and taking up more space. No complicated mental or verbal techniques required. (No wonder your authors include this principle in their Social Warm Up exercises when working with patients on dating skills.)

As always, there’s a wrong way to do this. But if you start in moderation, perhaps checking in with your body occasionally to see that you aren’t overly constricting yourself, you are likely to sample some of the benefits. Go try it out.


  1. Huang, L., Galinsky, A. D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Guillory, L. E. (2011). Powerful postures versus powerful roles: Which is the proximate correlate of thought and behavior?. Psychological Science, 22(1), 95-102.
  2. Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1363-1368.
  3. Renninger, L., Wade, T., & Grammer, K. (2004). Getting that female glance: Patterns and consequences of male nonverbal behavior in courtship contexts. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(6), 416-431.

The Power of the Rebel

A series of experiments, published in this month’s edition of Social Psychological and Personality Science, has documented an effect you no doubt recognize from growing up – people who break the rules are perceived to be more powerful. I have strong memories of how the coolest people at school were often also the ones who broke the rules; they’d make risque jokes, they’d put their feet up on their desk, they’d cross the road against the light, they’d even occasionally skip class. It seemed like they weren’t as worried about getting in trouble as the rest of us.

Now researchers in Amsterdam show that it still works that way for adults. In four separate studies, they found that adults breaking rules or norms (socially accepted but unspoken rules) were considered more powerful by observers than those who dutifully obeyed. The rule-breakers were observed doing things like taking coffee from a city official who was out of the room, putting their feet up on a desk or chair, dumping cigarette ash on the ground instead of an ashtray, and breaking bookkeeping rules. Observers thought these rule-breakers were more powerful people, as well as more likely to be angry and not sad, and more approach-oriented. The effect was found across different types of experiments, as observers read about rules breakers in vignettes, or looked at them in pictures, or actually interacted briefly with them.

This connection between rule-breaking and power relates to dating, because research has found women are attracted to power in men. But before we head out and start breaking rules willy-nilly, lets think a little more about this effect. Simply breaking a norm won’t increase attractiveness. For example, let’s say I went out wearing a plastic bucket on my head and started throwing eggs at passers-by – though I’d certainly be breaking norms, I doubt I’d be a new sex symbol. It’s likely that only certain rules or norms can be broken with success – something science has yet to establish. Some clues may be found in related research on risk-taking: it has been found that people who take more risks are more attractive, but only certain types of risks, like standing up to peer pressure, or playing adventurous sports. In these studies, taking health risks like using drugs was not attractive. It needs to be determined which rules or norms specifically are OK to break.

Also consider why it is that rule breaking convey power. The study’s authors point out that powerful people can get away with breaking rules, and so when we see someone breaking rules, we assume they are powerful. However, by digging a little deeper we discover that it is not the act of breaking the rule that actually matters. What really matters is “volition capacity” (or acting of your own volition). Essentially, what matters is not that you broke a rule, but that you had the strength of character to do what you wanted. In fact, the rule only matters in that it gives you an opportunity to show that you do what you want – it gives you something to oppose. Breaking a rule that you don’t care about or agree with is a straightforward way to show that you are the sort of person who sticks to their convictions. But, if you think about it, we can follow a rule and still show volitional capacity – for example, by adhering to it in the face of opposition.

When it comes to dating, this research actually fits nicely within the current model we espouse here at Interpersonal Science. You don’t become more attractive by trying to play a bad boy in real life, purposely breaking rules in order to look cool. Instead, you take the time to understand yourself, recognize what you personally believe, and then act in accordance with it. Anxiety is a common barrier to being able to living in this authentic way – we let anxiety stop us from behaving how we wish, and doing what we actually want to do. Thus, increased self-awareness and treatment of anxiety leads to becoming naturally more powerful and authentic people, which in turn flows into improved dating success.


  1. Van Kleef, G. A., Homan, A. C., Finkenauer, C., Gündemir, C., & Stamkou, E. (2011). Breaking the Rules to Rise to Power: How Norm Violators Gain Power in the Eyes of Others. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2(5), 500-507.

Addendum to: The Average Person has a Far Less Exciting Sex Life than You Think

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US just released a report 1 summarizing their own health statistics collected from 2006-2008 regarding sexual behavior. When we read the results, we decided that we had to write this addendum to our post about people’s perception of the average number of sex partners. Many of our numbers in this article came from a comprehensive report published in 1994, which did cause us to wonder whether or not things have change in the last decade and half. The answer is, basically, no.

According to the CDC’s report, which surveyed 13,495 15-44 year olds, 75% of women and 69% of men reported zero or one sex partner (of the opposite sex) in the past 12 months. Only 3% of women and 6% of men reported more than three. They were also asked about their total lifetime partners. The CDC reported median (or 50th percentile, meaning half were above and half were below) partners instead of average, which is more appropriate than average in this case for a number of statistical reasons (a floor effect coupled with many high outliers, for those of you who are interested). The median number of partners for men was five, and the median for women was three.

Now some of our more observant readers may be thinking to themselves right now: “Wait a minute, they said 15-44 year olds. Fifteen year olds are bound to have fewer partners than 44 year olds, so if you bunch them all together, you will get a number that’s too low.” This is good thinking (you’re really thinking like a scientist if you said this), but you would only be half right. Yes, the younger members of the group had fewer total partners. The 15-19 year olds in the group reported a median of 2 for men and 1 for women. However, when you look at the age group with the most partners, it is mot much different from the overall median for everyone. Among men, every age group over 25 pretty much had a median of 6. For the women, most age groups over 25 had a mean of 4. The likely reason for this phenomenon is the fact (which we discussed in the original article) that most people end up pairing off at some point in their lives.

It was interesting to see this new data, and how well it lined up with prior surveys. Also interesting was the consistent difference between the numbers reported by men, and those reported by women. Considering that the data only took into account opposite-sex partners, you would expect the numbers to be the same. As it turns out, this difference is consistent across most surveys of sexual activity… but that is a larger topic, and one which we plan to cover in a future installment of the blog.

Interested in these findings? Read the original post.

  1. Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D. , & Copen, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: Data from the 2006–2008 National Survey of Family Growth (National Health Statistics Report No. 36). Retrieved from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website:

Interview with Brian G. Gilmartin, Ph.D.

For this edition of the Interpersonal Science blog, we are pleased to interview Dr. Brian G. Gilmartin, Professor of Sociology at Montana State University-Northern. In 1987, he published Shyness and Love: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment, which was the first comprehensive scientific investigation of dating and relationships initiation problems (for which he coined the term “love-shyness”). In writing the book, Dr. Gilmartin presented the existing sociological, psychological, and biological literature, as well as the results of his survey of hundreds of men who struggle to form relationships with women. His analysis included recommendations for interventions aimed at improving interpersonal functioning. Gilmartin’s book has been embraced by many as an honest and compassionate description of their difficulties.

IS: Dr. Gilmartin, thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. First of all, what do you think about the reception Shyness and Love has received?

BG: When I was first looking for a publisher back in 1985, I was somewhat amazed that literary agents and publishers were both skeptical about the idea of a book on any form of shyness selling well. This is despite the fact that Phillip Zimbardo’s 1977 book [Shyness: What it is, What to do About it] on the subject actually did rather well.

So I had to settle at that time for University Press of America. It turned out that it and the much shorter The Shy Man Syndrome, did much better business in Japan than it did here in the United States. Over 30,000 copies were sold there. And as a result, I was offered a consultancy position over there – which I have very much enjoyed over the past 15 years. I have especially enjoyed the free trips to Japan!

To the best of my knowledge, my work has not been published in any of the European countries.

Another issue is the fact that even in 1985, some 93 percent of all literary agents in New York (and elsewhere) were women. Some of these women were “put off” by the fact that LOVE-SHYNESS dealt only with males – even though I tried to make the point clear that love-shyness is almost exclusively a male problem.

IS: The two decades since the book’ publication have seen a great deal of change; what do you think are the most important factor(s) affecting love-shy men in the modern world?

BG: One of the most important developments on the love-shyness front is the increasing degree of consensus that at least 40 percent (two out of five) of the most severely love-shy males have ASPERGER’S SYNDROME. This, as you know, is high functioning autism. The diagnostic category was first introduced back in 1944, by Austrian psychologist Hans Asperger. Unfortunately, Asperger’s important work did not come to the attention of the English-speaking world until rather recently – not until 1982 in Great Britain, and not until 1990, here in the United States.

Asperger’s Syndrome can be most accurately diagnosed using neuroimaging strategies. However, you might want to check the basic behavioral manifestations of Asperger’s, which are listed in the DSM-IV-R. Some 11 out of every 12 cases of Asperger’s are male. And a key symptom is that of severe shyness in informal, unstructured situations. Asperger’s boys typically had no playmates while growing up, had been bullied, and normally played alone while pursuing somewhat unusual (for children) and adult interests.

I think the “link up” of severe love-shyness with Asperger’s Syndrome, may be good news in disguise – because it may open up a range of preventative learning experiences and therapeutic strategies for love-shys, that otherwise would not become available to them. The earlier in life this problem can be diagnosed, the better the overall prognosis. The brain is highly malleable (see work on neuroplasticity), and early training in interpersonal skills can and does make a big difference.

IS: One change impacting the landscape of dating has been the development of dating websites where people can meet one another. How do you see this playing out for men who struggle to initiate relationships?

BG: I think that the enormous improvement in the social acceptability of “internet dating” sites can (and has) helped a great many love-shy men. Today, fully 20 percent of all American marriages eventuated from “first meetings” through the Internet or through some sort of “computer dating”.

Computer technology has helped out a great deal in this regard. But it has done nothing to deal with the physical attractiveness bugaboo. We still need to find the genes that control for the programming of physical (and especially FACIAL) prettiness/attractiveness. For many men, it is impossible to “fall in love with” someone who is not perceived as having a pretty face. In this regard, the face is of much greater importance than the rest of the body.

I think that in the future we may be able to develop a technology that would give all eligible young men and women a BAR CODE, similar to that which is found on many supermarket products. This bar code would contain a great deal of DNA-related information as well as data germane to politics, social views, religious orientations, musical tastes/predilections, entertainment interests, hopes, desires, aspirations and dreams, etc. Such a bar code (which could be entered into computers and on the internet) might easily be disseminated throughout the world – so that people could much more easily locate those whose major attributes are similar to their own.

IS: Given that changes in gender politics have altered the roles men and women play in society (and in romantic relationships), do you see love-shyness becoming a more prevalent problem among single women?

BG: One can argue that love-shyness in females is manifested by the shy woman refusing invitations for dates and for informal conversations with men, that she really would very much like to accept. Saying “no” all the time IN SOME CASES may reflect an underlying fear, anxiety, as well as severe shyness. But even those women thusly afflicted, are highly likely to still have their female friends. In fact, that is a major sex difference right there: love-shy males tend to be friendless vis-à-vis BOTH sexes, whereas love-shy females are merely deficient of subconsciously desired MALE companionship.

So in terms of rate data, I do not see changes in gender politics as having produced any increase in the prevalence of “love-shyness” among women.

In short, women can satisfy their needs for emotional intimacy by and through their female friendships. In contrast, MALES do not enjoy this luxury. Males can satisfy their emotional intimacy needs only through interaction with a female.

IS: In what direction would you like to see the research on dating and relationships initiation go?

BG: At University of London some fascinating work is being done using brain scans – e.g., SPECT scans, fMRI and PET scans, etc. – that can easily determine whether or not two people are actually indeed in love. Of course, this is separate from the love-shyness area of research. But I think it is worth mentioning.

I would like to see research conducted on a “Harrad College” type of model, wherein 18-year old college freshmen are paired off with opposite sexed room mates. I think that this could cultivate interpersonal skills, social self-confidence, as well as a more realistic, down-to-earth attitude with respect to heterosexual relationships. I think it might also cultivate an improved level of academic performance, at least in male students.

One of the promising areas of research pertains to what in social psychology is called “biased interaction”. This involves hiring confederates (very attractive, interpersonally well-skilled FEMALE confederates), and assigning them to go out on dates with love-shy males. The “twist” is that the love-shy male is unaware of the fact that he is dating someone who is being paid to go out with him.

This approach resembles “practice dating”, which I discuss at length in my book. However, it is a considerably more forceful approach that has shown considerable promise. Sharon Brehm discusses it in one of the earlier editions of her standard Social Psychology textbook – the 3rd edition, I think. Anyway, psychologists Robert Montgomery and Francis Hammerlie conducted a study using this strategy. And if their findings are to be believed, they achieved considerable success with it. “Biased interaction” has a history going back to 1937, when Cornell University psychologist Robert Guthrie did a study on just one “wallflower” girl – an experiment that worked quite well. And she, of course, was kept entirely unaware of the fact that she was a “guinea pig” in a psychology study.

The logistics of “biased interaction” and to a lesser extent, of “practice dating”, are very challenging. And so extremely few psychologists have used either of these strategies, or experimented with them.

IS: Modern developments in evidence-based behavioral healthcare (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy and exposure-based treatments) have been demonstrated to be effective in treating anxiety in a number of settings. Do you think these interventions have the potential to impact love-shyness?

BG: Love-shyness (including Asperger’s) inheres in the limbic system or in the EMOTIONAL BRAIN, NOT in the intellectual brain, NOT in the higher cortical, reasoning centers. This constitutes another reason for helping children as early in life as possible (example: at age 3 or 4), as soon as they begin to display symptoms.

Simply put, cognitive-behavioral therapy has its limits. I teach cognitive-behavioral therapy. And so I have great confidence in it, BUT NOT FOR THE FORM OF SOCIAL PHOBIA THAT BOGS A PERSON DOWN IN INFORMAL, UNSTRUCTURED SOCIAL SITUATIONS. As a case in point, the Joseph Wolpe “psychotherapy by reciprocal inhibition” simply cannot be adapted to the dating scene – because it is unstructured, requires improvisation, and because there is no way to predict in advance what might happen over the course of a relationship.

In contrast, if a person is afraid of public speaking or playing the piano at a concert or appearing in a stage play, THIS SORT OF THING CAN BE CURED (or close to “cured”) USING PSYCHOTHERAPY BY RECIPROCAL INHIBITION – as well as other cognitive-behavioral strategies.

Rational reasoning simply will not release the amygdala from its imprisonment, nor will it modify traumatic memories, or normalized an abnormally high level of monoamine oxidase – or calm down an overly active RIGHT pre-frontal cortex.

Parenthetically, “biased interaction” would also quality as “exposure treatment”. But again, the logistics are overwhelmingly difficult for therapists and clinicians to negotiate.

IS: Thank you again for discussing your research with us. And thank you for all the work you’ve done to understand and help people develop happier and healthier love lives.

BG: I hope the foregoing ideas have provided you with some helpful insights.

The Average Person has a Far Less Exciting Sex Life than You Think

You can’t help it; if you’re plugged into popular culture at all, you’ll come away with the idea that everybody is having a lot of sex. In fact, they’re having a lot of sex with a lot of different partners. This is particularly true if you watch television dramas: a cast of characters mix-and-match from week to week, moving from one passionate moment to the next. Those of us living in real life – which can often look very different – can’t help but feel like we’re missing out on something. In short, whether we admit it or not, compared to those characters it seems like we’re dating a lot less than we should be. But how accurate is this perception? How many partners do most Americans really have?

Luckily for us, researchers have asked this question; specifically, how many people has the average American adult had sex with in the past 12 months? Despite what you see on TV, no matter how you divide it, the answer is one 1, 2. Regardless of the age group, and regardless of geographic area, Americans tend to have slept with one partner in the previous 12 months. This is a far cry from the string of hookups we see celebrated on TV. In fact, as many as 80% of Americans have had either zero or one sexual partner in the last year. And what of the rest? If someone was part of the minority that had more than one partner, it is most likely that they had fewer than four (only 3% of Americans had five or more).

Of course, this is just looking at number of partners in a single year. What about if we extend the time frame out to five years, surely then the numbers will start to add up? Actually, only 4% of people have had ten or more sexual partners in the last five years, which hardly lives up to the stereotype so popular in the media.

The truth is, people tend to form long-term relationships, and they tend to wait a while before having sex with a new boyfriend or girlfriend 1. The perception of everyone coming home with a different person each weekend is statistically very, very improbable. But what about the celebrated freedom of the college years? Have 30 years of low-budget campus comedies been lying to us? Although there were some differences between age groups (with the younger people tending to acquire more partners), these differences were almost negligible.

Given the rather surprising finding that Americans tend to have a single partner per year, we wondered whether or not this was common knowledge. At least as far as college students are concerned, it isn’t. A series of studies have found that college students tend to vastly overestimate the sexually permissive attitudes and behaviors of their peers. Case in point: the National College Health Association survey 3 of almost 30,000 college students in 2002 showed that these young adults believed 85% of their peers had been with two or more sexual partners, when the reality was a far lower 28%. Furthermore, they also vastly underestimated the percentage of their peers who were not sexually active. Students’ assumptions about their peers’ attitudes towards sex appear to be similarly inaccurate. Additional studies have shown students over-estimate their peers’ level of comfort with sexual behavior 4 and sexual activity while not in a relationship (i.e. “hooking-up”) 5, as well as expectations for how soon in a relationship sexual intercourse should occur 6.

This brings up an interesting question: if Americans tend to be largely monogamous, why does it seem like everyone is getting a lot more action than the data support? Well, partly because that’s what makes for good TV. A study from 2006 found that college students believed that others were a lot more sexually promiscuous than they actually were, and that they had gotten that idea from watching TV 7. In fact, the more entertainment media a person is exposed to, the higher their estimates tend to be 8. However, it might also depend on who we compare ourselves to in real life; people tend to pay attention to new and different things (in other words, the people who stand out in the crowd), and are more likely to notice things that support what they already believe. If we believe that the average person’s love life is filled with a constant stream of new men or women, we may tend to remember the one popular person who appears to fit this stereotype, rather than the 99 others standing alone at the bar – or the countless others sitting at home.


  1. Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T., & Michaels, S. (1994). The Social Organization of Sexuality: Sexual Practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. Zimmer-Gembeck, M., & Collins, W. (2008). Gender, mature appearance, alcohol use, and dating as correlates of sexual partner accumulation from ages 16-26 years. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42(6), 564-572.
  3. American College Health Association. (2002) National College Health Assessment: Reference Group Report. Baltimore, MD: American College Health Association.
  4. Cohen, L. L., & Shotland, R. L. (1996). Timing of first sexual intercourse in a relationship: Expectations, experiences, and perceptions of others. Journal of Sex Research, 33(4), 291-299.
  5. Lambert, T. A., Kahn, A. S., & Apple, K. J. (2003). Pluralistic ignorance and hooking up. Journal of Sex Research, 40(2), 129-133.
  6. Hines, D., Saris, R., & Throckmorton-Belzer, L. (2002). Pluralistic ignorance and health risk behaviors: Do college students misperceive social approval for risky behaviors on campus and in media? Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 32(12), 2621-2640.
  7. Chia, C. S., & Gunther, A. C. (2006). How media contribute to misperceptions of social norms about sex. Mass Communication and Society, 9(3), 301-320.
  8. Buerkel-Rothfuss, N. L., & Strouse, J. S. (1993). Background: What prior research shows. In B. S. Greenberg, J. D. Brown, & N. Buerkel-Rothfuss (Eds.), Media, sex, and the adolescent (pp. 225-247). Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, Inc.

Think You’re Communicating Attraction? Think Again!

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!


  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Shanteau, J., & Nagy, G. (1979). Probability of acceptance in dating choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 37, 522-533.