The Truth on the Science of Mating and Dating

This time of year can get pretty mushy. The shops are filled with hearts, cupids, and cards with fancy lettering and love poems…but if you’re just not feeling the whole flowers and chocolates thing this year, maybe you’d be interested in hearing some cold, hard facts that science has helpfully dug up for us about the way people really function when it comes to sex and dating. So if you’re a hopeless romantic, brace yourself for what’s about to come. But if you’re a cynic, get ready for some “I told you so’s,” because we’re about to put aside the mush and drop some harsh truths on the science of mating and dating.

So You Say You Hate It When They Play Hard to Get…

person with their hand on their head and the other hand leaning on a red question mark
Studies show that people are more attracted to people who play hard to get.

You know how some people seem to have perfected the art of blowing hot and cold, and making you wonder how they really feel about you? And you know how you say that you hate that feeling of being on edge as your crush plays hard to get? Well, it turns out that you might not hate it as much as you say you do. According to a study published in the journal Psychological Science:

“Participants in [an] uncertain condition were most attracted to the men [who they were told liked them either a lot or an average amount] – even more attracted than were participants who were told that the men liked them a lot. Uncertain participants reported thinking about the men the most, and this increased their attraction toward the men.”

At least you know you’re not the only one who can’t stop thinking about the date who just won’t text you first.

Nice Guys Finish…Last?

We’re a little bit skeptical about this one, and we certainly don’t want anyone to kick their kindness to the curb, but brace yourself: there are actual studies that show that women, well, kind of like jerks. For example, according to the Journal of Sex and Marital Therapy, nice guys just aren’t getting the same action as said jerks:

“In one survey of men, Trapnell and Meston (1996) found that nice guys who were modest, agreeable, and unselfish were disadvantaged in sexual relationships. Men who were manipulative, arrogant, calculating, and sly were more sexually active and had a greater variety of sexual experiences and a greater number of sex partners.”

And how about this from the journal Sex Roles? Sounds like nice guys aren’t getting any and they’re just going to have to wait:

“In the end, young women may continue to claim that they find certain qualities in a ‘good guy’ nice guy as highly desirable and that they want to be in a committed relationship with one man as their ultimate goal, but, at the same time, they seem content to spend ‘the meantime and in-between-time’ going out with fun/sexy guys who may or may not turn into ‘jerks.”’

Think that being a happy jerk will make a difference? Think again. According to the journal Emotion, “…happiness was the most attractive female emotion expression, and one of the least attractive in males.” Whaaaa? Guess it’s time to adopt that strong, silent, brooding persona…

Is Cuddling Ever Just Cuddling?

Ah, snuggling and smooching – they’re their own rewards, right? Maybe for some people, but maybe not for everyone. Science is going to drop another bomb on us, and tell us that men like sex, and a lot of what they do is kind of trying to steer things in that direction. Studies show that often the main reason men kiss is to progress toward sex, while women are using their lips to size those guys up and see if they actually want to do the deed with them. According to evolutionary psychologist Gordon Gallup of the University of Albany, “Males tend to kiss as a means of gaining sexual favors, or as a means of affecting reconciliation. Females kiss more as a mate-assessment device.”

And the main reason men cuddle after sex is… to get more sex. According to the Journal of Sex Research, “…females were more likely to engage in post-coital behaviors related to bonding with both short- and long-term partners, whereas males were more likely to engage in ones that were extrinsically rewarding or increased the likelihood of further coital acts.” Hey, whatever – a cuddle is a cuddle, right? a man and a woman cuddling with each other on a beach

Oh, and even if you’re not into the idea of canoodling up with someone in a lovey-dovey way, and are sure you’ve mastered what’s known as “casual sex,” be careful. According to Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist, the chief scientific adviser to the dating site Match.com, and the author of several books:

“It’s not casual because when you have sex with somebody, and it’s pleasurable, it drives up the dopamine system in the brain. That can push you over the threshold into falling in love. And when you orgasm, there’s a flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. Those neurochemicals are linked with the attachment system in the brain. So there are all these potential chemical triggers that can get activated when you have sex with someone, whether it’s ‘casual’ or not. Something like one-third of people who’ve had a ‘friends with benefits’ relationship have fallen madly in love with that person.”

Watch out!

It’s All Chemistry

When it comes to what love actually is (yes, science has an answer to all the songs pondering this age-old question – sort of), it really is a series of complex processes in the brain that involve a lot of different chemicals and areas of the brain. There are different chemicals/hormones released that, according to scientists, stimulate “lust” (testosterone),  “attraction” (dopamine),  and “attachment” (oxytocin and vasopressin) – in fact, we could write a whole article just on that subject. 

So, funnily enough, if you ask that oh-so-romantic group of people – scientists – whether love exists, they would give you an emphatic “yes” – except they would say it originates in the head, not the heart. They’d also give you some interesting facts about what happens to your brain on love. Some of it is pretty darn nice, but some of it? Well, it’s a little iffy. Again according to Helen Fisher:

“You can think of love as an intense obsession, but it’s really an addiction. You think about them all the time; you become sexually possessive; you get butterflies in the stomach; you can read their emails and texts over and over again.

But I say it’s an addiction because we found that, in addition to the dopamine system being activated in the brains of people in love, we also found activity in another part of the brain called the nucleus accumbens.

This part of the brain is activated in all forms of behavioral addiction — whether it’s drugs or gambling or food or kleptomania. So this part of the brain fires up in people who have recently fallen in love, and it really does function like an addiction.”

And not only might you become literally addicted to love, you’re probably going to be just a little bit more embarrassing and, uh, dumb than you used to be. According to Katherine Wu, writing for Harvard University, “Sexual arousal (but not necessarily attachment) appears to turn off regions in our brain that regulate critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior, including parts of the prefrontal cortex. In short, love makes us dumb.”

Little White Liestruth with a magnifying glass over the word revealing it's full of lies

Ever try to stretch the truth juuuuust a little to impress a potential partner? Science sees you. According to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants who had been primed “to think about things in a sexual way” were:

  • More likely to give in and agree with someone’s argument about a fictitious dilemma than the participants who they had not “sexually primed” beforehand.
  • More likely to alter their dating preferences to make them fall more closely in line with those of someone they were chatting with online.
  • More likely to report lower numbers of previous sexual partners, which the researchers interpreted as a subconscious attempt to be more appealing to their attractive conversation partners.

The researchers’ conclusion? According to Professor Gurit Birnbaum, “When your sexual system is activated, you are motivated to present yourself in the best light possible. That means you’ll tell a stranger things that make you look better than you really are.” But we wouldn’t know anything about that.

Ok, ok, so this time of year is for lovers, and maybe we should just let all that testosterone, dopamine, and oxytocin work their magic and not question it. But what kind of friends would we be if we didn’t tell you the truth? Looks like we’d be the kind that had fallen in love. What are your thoughts on the science of love and sex? Does it explain all or are there some mysteries that science just can’t solve?

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