How to Find Love in 4 Minutes: The Science of Speed Dating

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Before the rise of Tinder and OKCupid, back in the days when banging our friends didn't require a Facebook account, there was speed dating.

Essentially, a session of heterosexual speed dating involves a group of women sitting around in a circle and a group of men who rotate around them. Everyone gets a chance to meet (and flirt); and successful pairings are given contact info to try their luck in the “real world.”

Speed dating is useful for obvious reasons, like sharing horror stories about inappropriate participants. But, for two Stanford researchers, speed dating also provides rich material for analyzing the science behind romance and attraction. According to their findings, there are a few key elements of the standard four-minute speed date that consistently predict whether two people will hit it off or head for the hills - even outside of the speed-dating arena. Some of the results are a no-brainer (women like men who are interested in them), while others are less intuitive (who knew asking too many questions was a faux pas?).

What's the Deal?

Researchers recruited graduate students from an “elite private American university” to take part in a series of speed dating sessions in 2005. Everyone participated just once, and all students were promised the contact information of anyone they matched with. The daters wore audio recorders during their four-minute interviews (so no lewd comments, please!). In the end, researchers ended up accumulating transcripts of 1,100 dates. All daters also filled out surveys about their demographic, personal interests, and dating experience.

After analyzing all the data, the scientists came to the conclusion that there are certain key factors that predict whether couples “clicked.” Perhaps surprisingly, men and women usually said they clicked when their conversations were mostly about the women. Less shocking, women were more likely to say they connected with men who used appreciative language (“That's awesome!”) and who interrupted them - but only as a way to show understanding and engagement (“Exactly”).

And for those who think it's a good idea to ask a bazillion questions about where their partner grew up and the name of his or her childhood pet, think again: Asking questions usually signalled a lack of connection, probably because women felt that they had to act curious in order to keep a boring conversation going. Signs of a good conversation were subtler, like varying one's speech to get louder and softer.

Why It Matters

Some previous research on speed dating and first encounters has found that physical attractiveness pretty much determines whether two people are initially into each otherWhat leads to romantic attraction: similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Luo, S., Zhang, G. Department of Psychology, Social Behavioral Science Building, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Wilmington, NC. Journal of Personality 2009 Aug;77(4):933-64.. But this new study adds to a growing body of research suggesting there are other factors, aside from a pretty face, that predict whether two people click. For example, one study found that speed-dating couples with similar speaking styles were more likely to report a mutual connection.

What seems pretty clear from all the research is that speed dating isn't just B.S. In general, people are pretty quick to determine whether they like each other. (Four minutes might be pushing it, though, since some research suggests it takes 20 minutes for people to decide whether they want a second date.) And first impressions may be more important for men than for women. In one survey, one in five men said they'd experienced love at first sight, while only one in 10 women said the same.

Still, the researchers' findings aren't meant to be rules for how to interact on a first date. Instead, they're observations about the factors that contribute to romantic chemistry. When on a first date - or, really, in any situation - it's probably best to just be yourself. There's no use faking a connection: If you don't click with your potential mate, you probably wouldn't want to be in a relationship with them anyway.

When it comes to romance, how much do first impressions matter to you? Let us know in the comments below or tweet the author at @ShanaDLebowitz.