The Right Body Language Can Boost Odds of Online Dating Success

Potential partners size you up in seconds, and the way you sit or stand matters

girl in the sun
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Forget the catchy pick-up lines. Those looking for love can make themselves instantly more attractive without saying a word, simply by adopting body postures that are desirable to potential mates.

A recent study of speed dates and online dating profiles found that, all else being equal, expansive postures with open arms and stretched out torsos made people almost twice as likely to be rated as attractive by prospective partners—and also much more likely to be asked out on a “real” date. In this high-speed era of fleeting first impressions, where a picture on a mobile device may be the only information available, these physical first impressions may be more important than ever.

How does one strike the popular pose? “In general, we see an enlargement of the amount of space that a person is occupying, in contrast to contractive postures with arms and legs held close to the torso,” explains Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, who studies human behavior at the University of California, Berkeley.

These postures are associated with dominance and social standing in a given hierarchy, she explains. They give people the appearance of having resources, the ability to acquire more and the willingness to share them, which are all very attractive traits. Past studies have shown that humans are remarkably good at picking up on non-verbal cues and making snap judgments, Vacharkulksemsuk notes. “Within milliseconds, we can pick up a suite of information about a person, with social dominance and hierarchical standing being one of those things.”

In the new study, published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vacharkulksemsuk and her colleagues examined videos of 144 speed-dates from a 2007 event at Northwestern University. The dates alternately paired 12 men and 12 women for 4 minutes at a time. Afterwards, each dater reported their interest level on a scale of one to 10 for categories including sexy/hot, ambitious/driven, fun/exciting, dependable/trustworthy, friendly/nice, smart and charismatic. The participants also reported whether they would pursue future romantic pursuits with any of their dates.

Each video was also graded by experts who were unaware of the experiment's goals but trained to track and keep a score card of when daters exhibited behaviors linked to attraction, such as laughing, smiling and nodding.

A second, online experiment was conducted in the California Bay Area using a popular, free mobile dating application that uses GPS information from a person’s phone to match nearby singles. Here, nearly 3,000 respondents responded “yes” or “no” to individual profiles that had only minimal information—a single photograph accompanied by the user's first name and age. Two profiles were created for each person in the experiment, one in which they appeared with expansive open postures and one with contacted postures. Names, ages and other details were kept identical.

Finally, the team used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service to recruit 853 participants (59 percent of whom were male). Each was paid 40 cents to complete a short attractiveness survey based on one of 12 photo collages of the contracted and expanded profile images of the same people.

The results were similar across all of the platforms and, perhaps surprisingly, among men and women as well. “It appears that both can benefit from having a little bit of expansiveness,” Vacharkulksemsuk notes. That's at odds with traditional stereotypes suggesting that many females would prefer more dominant partners while men would see more submissive women, she adds. “Based on our research, if that was the case in the past, things may be changing.” 

Rory McGloin of the University of Connecticut has previously studied how online dating pictures affects perceptions of trustworthiness. He notes that the research raises interesting questions about the differences between online and offline courting behavior, because people adopt the same postures in the real world.

“When we meet people in real life, we don’t see them in a static fashion. Their open or closed cues are changing throughout the encounter,” he notes. “Online, we judge the cues in a static picture.” He wonders whether the cues that are used online are unique to the limited world of the online environment.

If they are, he says, that would open the door for opportunities to portray oneself in a certain fashion. “But, as our study suggested, it may also be recognized as a cue that could lead to lower trust,” he says.

With online dating now commonplace, intuitive first impressions may well be more important than ever before, Vacharkulksemsuk says. “The architecture of dating has changed, and what used to be days and weeks of courting is being quickly reduced to minutes or even seconds now,” she explains. “Speed dating paradigms, and online app paradigms are creating these situations where for dating we are forced to rely more on these instincts because time is so limited. People are forced to make more rapid judgments about a person based on more limited information.”

Figuring out all the factors involved in those snap judgments won't be easy, she notes, but she's keen to explore more of how we're adapting to seismic shifts in the world of dating. 

“If you watch someone using something like Tinder, they are swiping really, really fast,” Vacharkulksemsuk says. “What are they actually seeing when they look at a profile picture? Here we've identified perhaps one cue they are instinctively picking up on, but it can't be the only thing.”


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