A series of three speed dating studies with later follow-ups investigated whether different aspects of initial romantic impressions predicted later romantic outcomes and whether a romantic relationship would be initiated. Results showed that the desirability of the potential partner and assessment of how compatible the person is as a partner strongly predicted whether a date would result in a romantic relationship or not.
The new findings were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
First impressions are important. They are the primary assessment we make of another person and they serve as the starting point for our subsequent thoughts, feelings, and behaviors towards others. A first impression often determines whether we will give the other person a chance to interact with us further and thus, for many people, first impression is the only assessment we will make of them. “You don’t get a second chance at making a good first impression.” And what goes for our assessments of others, works equally in how other people evaluate us.
Research has shown that first impressions are formed extremely quickly. People exhibit consensus about other people’s desirable attributes, such as physical attractiveness, after even the briefest exposures. These initial judgements effectively predict many later outcomes such as popularity of a person or even occupational success.
First impressions are particularly important in dating, where many interactions begin in settings where people can easily disengage from future interactions with a potential partner if their first impression is not good enough. This is particularly the case in online dating.
“I wanted to study how human romantic relationships form because it fits into my broader interest in the evolutionary origins of social bonding,” said study author Alexander Baxter, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Davis.
“I’m interested in what factors matter for forming romantic relationships, and why those factors might have been important for helping our evolutionary ancestors survive. That is why we used a method that would let us assess both popularity and compatibility, as both factors are thought to be important for how humans found (and continue to find) long term mates.”
Research has shown that effects of these first impressions endure and can define the relationship between people even long after the initial contact. However, it remains unclear which components of the relationship the first impression exactly affects. To study this in the context of romantic relationships, Baxter and his colleagues divided the first impression of a potential partner into three components – partner, actor and relationship effects of a romantic first impression.
Actor effects describe the tendency for a perceiver to give low vs. high ratings. There are individuals who have a general tendency to see others as unappealing, but also those who tend to see others as generally appealing. Partner effects represent the collective assessment of the qualities of a person and how desirable these qualities are. In other words, how popular a person was. Relationship effects represent “a participant’s unique liking for a date over and beyond partner and actor effects.” In other words, their unique “compatibility” with the other person.
The researchers organized three experimental speed-dating studies. In the first study, all dating events were mixed gender, but the second study also involved one same gender speed dating event. In these first two events, participants went on 4-minute speed dates with each member of the other sex. The same sex event included only men, who speed dated other men from the group.
After each speed date, participants completed a brief survey to assess the initial desire for each date. Within 24 hours they indicated on a website which of the dates they wanted to interact further with. If both participants in a speed date expressed the desire to interact further, they had the opportunity to contact each other through an online messaging system.
While the first two experiments were done at the university, the third experiment was done at the Toronto 2015 Anime North comic book convention, but followed a very similar procedure to the first two. After these events, participants were sent follow-up surveys on multiple occasions in the following months. In these surveys, they were asked to report on their current relationship with each date.
Results showed that partner and relationship effects were particularly strong predictors of whether a relationship was initiated or not. In other words, first impressions of the qualities of a potential partner and assessments of unique compatibility with him/her predicted whether a date will later become a relationship.
“Although we expected compatibility to matter for predicting romantic pursuit, we were somewhat surprised to see that it was just as important as popularity,” Baxter told PsyPost. “This suggests that people have some sense of compatibility with a potential partner (even after only a brief conversation), and that this impression contributes to later courting and dating.”
These findings highlight the importance of romantic first impressions in the early stages of relationship development. “From a practical standpoint, our results show that while it helps to be popular, a unique connection with a potential partner can be just as important for getting a second date,” Baxter noted.
Like all research, the new findings have some limitations that need to be taken into account. Namely, speed dating is a rather specific social context and psychological mechanisms of romantic interactions in other contexts might not be the same. Additionally, participants in the first two studies were all university students.
“An important caveat is that the participants in this study didn’t know each other before the speed-dating events in this study, and so popularity and compatibility may play slightly different roles in situations where people go ‘from friends to lovers’ (i.e., when people have an established platonic relationship and then become romantically involved),” Baxter said.
“Although we suspect that compatibility is also important in this context (and in fact, may be even more important!), further research is needed to assess whether different types of first impression matter more for forming platonic relationships (versus romantic relationships), and how impressions change as platonic friendships become romantic.”
“One thing I’d like to add is that we are proud to have included a sample of men who date men in our study. This increases how generalizable our findings are, and is an important step forward to making social science more inclusive and diverse (as sexual and gender minorities have historically been excluded from psychology research),” Baxter continued.
“However, we note that there is still a long way to go in the field, and we regret that we were unable to assess romantic relationships between women (or in other types of diverse contexts, e.g., between bisexual, pansexual, transgender, and/or asexual people). While we presume that the relationship formation process is relatively similar across genders and sexualities, we hope that future studies of romantic relationships will consider including more diverse samples to substantiate this assumption.”
The study, “Initial impressions of compatibility and mate value predict later dating and romantic interest”, was authored by Alexander Baxter, Jessica A. Maxwell, Karen L. Bales. Eli J. Finkel, Emily A. Impett, and Paul W. Eastwick.