A Scientific Guide to the Perfect First Date
First dates are tough. You're trying to make a good impression on someone, but you're also trying to read the person you're with and see if they're worth your time. Dating may not be an exact science, but that doesn't mean we can't use a little science to our advantage during that first interaction. Here's what you need to know.
A perfect first date is different for everyone, but you can guess that anyone will want solid conversation skills
Keep the Conversation Interesting (and Risky)
Conversation is one of the most important parts of a first date and it's often pretty difficult to navigate. Conversation on a first date needs balance between impressing someone and learning about them. It's not always easy to do.
For anyone out there who likes to prep their speeches, be warned. A study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that rehearsed lines and jokes had a negative effect on the date. Instead, they recommend sticking to topics like generosity, culture, or athleticism if you really want to impress. If you're funny, go for the jokes, but don't plan out what you're going to say ahead of time.
You also want to learn about the person you're on a date with, and boring conversations like "what do you do for work?" or "where did you go to college?" aren't really going to reveal if you're much of a romantic match. Instead, behavioral economist Dan Ariely poses asking more questions that are personally revealing. These might include boat rockers like "How many romantic partners have you had?" or "How do you feel about abortion?" It's a risky move to be sure, but Ariely points out that getting out of your comfort zone often makes for a better first date:
Think about what you can do to make sure that your discussions are not the boring but not risky type. Maybe set the rules of discussion upfront and get your partner to agree that tonight you will only ask questions and talk about things you are truly interested in. Maybe you can agree to ask five difficult questions first, instead of wasting time talking about your favorite colors. Or maybe we can create a list of topics that are not allowed. By forcing people to step out of their comfort zone, risk tipping the relationship equilibria, we might ultimately gain more.
The key here is try and make yourself a good conversationalist while still investigating the person a bit. So, avoid common mistakes like asking stereotypical questions or dominating the conversation
Use the "Right" Amount of Eye Contact
We've long been told to try and maintain eye contact for as long as possible in conversations
The study shows that when we lock eye contact for too long the other person might see that as forced dominance, which is (usually) not something you want to exude on a first date because it's confrontational. Likewise, it's not as persuasive as it once was and the study showed that too much eye contact was actually counterproductive.
In the context of a first date, balancing the right kind of eye contact is crucial. You don't really want to appear too dominant and controlling, but still need to maintain the confidence that comes from solid eye contact. So, what's the right amount of eye contact? The Wall Street Journal suggests that it's about 7-10 seconds of eye contact at a time. Hold your gaze, look away briefly at a window, waiter, or other table, then return the look. Eye contact is still important, but don't overdo it. The last thing you want to do is creep out your date with too cult leader eyes.
Watch for Mimicry (But Don't Go Overboard)
If you've ever spent an extended amount of time with someone you know that you'll likely pick up a few of their mannerisms, expressions, and gestures. That mimicry is an accidental sign of affection in most cases and science suggests that we're also attracted to that copycat behavior.
In a study published in Social Influence, researchers found that men were more likely to enjoy a date when the woman mimicked him. Another study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society demonstrated that we're more likely to like people who mimic us, and yet another study from Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin suggests that people mimic others they find attractive. The moral of the story here? Mimicry-whether it's verbal or bodily-is often a sign of attraction.
This means that mimicry is a good thing to look out for when you're on a date with someone. This might be them subtly crossing their legs after you do or if they put their hand to their chin after you. The New York Times breaks it down like so:
"When you're being mimicked in a good way, it communicates a kind of pleasure, a social high you're getting from the other person, and I suspect it activates the areas of the brain involved in sensing reward," [neuroscientist Dr. Jean Decety] said.
Of course, it's a thin line between a charming mimic and purposeful persuasion
Mind Your Body Language
Body language can reveal all kinds of things about another person
Psychology Today breaks down the obvious signs you might accidentally give and offers this advice:
Don't assume an unattractive pose. That means that men should not pretend to a macho style where they strut about and assume a truculence as a way of looking strong. Women should not seem aloof. It comes across as snobbery. Neither should either men or women pretend sophistication. I think even those who have been around the world a few times and know a great deal about a great number of things should not present themselves that way if possible. It is intimidating rather than appealing.
In the context of a first date, it's also important to keep your body language relaxed and comforting. In a report published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, it's suggested that you keep your movements subdued at first. Remember that the person across from you is essentially a stranger, so use small gestures, slower movements, and don't crowd them. Once you're comfortable together (and you're no longer seen as a threat) you can make faster, more animated gestures. Basically, show interest in what your date's saying and doing, but don't go all Kramer on them.
Be Direct with Plans
It's often easy to beat around the bush during a first date to try and fish out a response to a question. Whether it's asking them if they'd like to grab a drink or go on another date, it's best to just be direct with the question.
In a study published in Personality and Individual Differences, researchers found people were more responsive to direct questions. This means people tend to prefer a more direct, "Can I take you out again next Tuesday?" to tentative plans, jokes, or subtle lines. In fact, subtleness was often rated the least effective way to show someone you like them, debunking that high school ideal of "playing hard to get."
That first date is already filled with a ton of ambiguity, so don't pile more by trying to drop a bunch of subtle hints when a simple question will suffice. If you want a second date, ask for one. If you're going to grab a drink afterwards, invite your new friend along. It seems overtly simple, but it's better than bringing along an Enigma machine and hoping for the best.
Beyond all this it's a good idea to keep in mind the basics. Don't get drunk. Wear something nice