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Posts tagged ‘John Bargh’

The Psychology of Attraction: How To Flirt With Science

A lot has been written on the science of attraction lately. So I thought I would pick a few of my favorites studies and create a brief guide. Since all of these studies identify what unconsciously influences attraction, you can check your go-to pick up lines at the door – we’re talking science here. Below are four points you should keep in mind next time you’re “on the prowl.”

1. The first is a classic in the psych world. Conducted back in the 1970s, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron wanted to see if “sexual attractions occur with an increased frequency during states of strong emotion.” To do this, they set up two experiments. In one, they placed an attractive female interviewer in the middle of a “fear-arousing suspension bridge,” and in the other, they placed an attractive female interviewer in the middle of a “non-fear-arousing suspension bridge.” The instructions were the same in each scenario. Whenever male participants walked by, they asked them to a) fill out a questionnaire and b) examine an illustration of a woman covering her face and then make up a back story explaining it. In addition, they told the men that they would be happy to discuss the study later that night if they had any questions, and gave them their numbers on a piece of paper.

Dutton and Aron found that men interviewed on the “fear-arousing suspension bridge” called the interviewer back 50% of the time while men interviewed on the “non-fear-arousing bridge” called back 12.5% of the time. In addition, the former group were much more likely to describe the back story sexually than the later group. So if you are feeling nervous about talking to that special someone, go do something that excites your nerves first.

2. The second point comes from Yale psychologist John Bargh, who specializes in the effects of priming. Priming is an implicit memory effect in which exposure to stimulus or stimuli influences responses to later stimulus or stimuli (for example, if you took a multiple choice test that contained words that evoked “oldness” – e.g., Florida, gray, weak – you would subsequently walk slower than if you took a test that didn’t contain old words). In an experiment run a few years ago, Bargh had participants hold either warm beverages or cold beverages and indicate if they thought a confederate had a warm or cold personality. He found that the participants who held warm beverages judged the confederate to have a warm personality while the participants who held cold beverages judged the confederate to have a cold personality. So the next time you go on a date, take her/him out for coffee instead of ice cream. (The video below describes priming well). 

3. I blogged about the third point a few months ago, and it essentially comes down to this: men unconsciously detect menstruation and are turned off by it. Don’t think so? Let’s look at the data. In a 2006 study, researchers from the Czech Republic found that men can recognize if females are on their period through smell. The researchers gathered odor samples from 12 women by having them place cotton pads under their armpits for 24 hours. Then, they had men smell the cotton pads and rate their intensity, and attractiveness. They found that “odor from women in the follicular (i.e. fertile) phase was rated as the least intense and the most attractive [and vice versa].” In addition, a study done in January showed that “men and women judge photographs of women’s faces that were taken in the fertile window of the menstrual cycle as more attractive than photographs taken during the luteal phase.” Put differently, women are most attractive just before ovulation. So ladies, the next time you go out, remember that guys can smell and see the menstruation. And dudes, if you think she is cool and cute but something is just a bit “off,” give it a few days.

4. The fourth point comes from psychologists Sarah E. Hill and David M. Buss at the University of Texas at Austin. Hill and Buss found that “women rated men more desirable when shown surrounded by women than when shown alone or with other men (a desirability enhancement effect). In sharp contrast, men rated women less desirable when shown surrounded by men than when shown alone or with women.” How can you use this to your advantage? If you are a woman, surround yourself with women; if you are a man, surround yourself with women. Easy enough.

On one hand, the science of attraction is simple: we are motivated to pass on our genes. Beyond this, who knows? What I have outlined here really only scratches the surface. Psychology needs at least a few more decades to even begin to understand attraction. For now though, keep these four pointers in mind: 1) Do something that is emotional stimulating before flirting. If there isn’t a suspension bridge near by, do your best to find an equivalent 2) Remember that physical warmth causes people to perceive personal warmth 3) Be wary of the unconscious influences of menstruation 4) Know that the group of friends you go out with influences your desirability.

As I mentioned in the introduction, these findings all describe unconscious motivations. So in this regard, there is only a certain amount of control you can have. However, you can take advantage of these motivations now that you are aware of them.

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Priming Revisited

In 1966, psychologists (Eagle, Wolitzky, and Kleim) wanted to know more about implicit memory – memory of experiences that unconsciously influence the performances of a task – so they had participants watch three one-second clips of a tree trunk and draw a nature scene. Here was the catch, one group of participants were shown a normal trunk (the one on the left), and the other group was shown a trunk that was subtly outlined like a duck (the one of the right). To the researchers surprise, those who were shown the trunk that resembled a duck were more likely to depict a duck in their nature scene compared to those who were shown the trunk that didn’t resemble a duck, even though the students who depicted a duck in their nature scene never reported seeing a duck.

This experiment was one of the first to demonstrate the power of priming, a psychology term that wikipedia defines as the, “implicit memory effect in which exposure to a stimulus influences a response to a later stimulus.” Since the 1960s, a lot more priming studies have been done, the bulk of them coming from Yale psychologist John Bargh.

In one experiment (some of you may know this from Gladwell’s Blink) Bargh, Chen, and Barrows asked participants to make four-word sentences from 30 sets of five word combinations. The experimenters primed participants by embedding “rude” and “polite” words into the five word combinations; the words included: Aggressively, bold, rude, bother, disturb, intrude, annoyingly, respect, honor, considerate, appreciate, patiently, polite, yield, and sensitively. When the participants finished, they were instructed to deliver the test to an experimenter who was in another room, and ask for further instruction. Whenever a participant arrived in the experimenters office, however, Bargh made sure that the experimenter was busy talking to someone else – usually a confederate who was having “trouble” understanding some directions. Bargh measured the amount of time participants waited until they interrupted the conversation, and found that participants who were primed with the “rude” words interrupted the conversation on average about 4 minutes earlier than participants who were primed with the “polite” words.

In the same experiment, Bargh demonstrated that people primed with old words like “Florida,” “Grey,” and “Wrinkle,” walked slower than those who were not. And found that African-Americans who were primed with negative stereotypes of their race actdc more hostile and irritable than caucasians. Bargh concluded that “the automatic activation of one’s stereotypes of social groups, by the mere presence of group features (e.g., African-American faces), can cause one to behave in line with that stereotype without realizing it.”

Studies like these have been replicated by Bargh and others. Psychologists have found that sports drinks influence people to perform physical activities better; food advertising influences people to eat more; the presence of a backpack causes people to be more cooperative than the presence of a brief case; and that the temperature of a cup can influence how people perceive interpersonal relationships (turns out that if you are holding a hot coffee you will find strangers much more friendly than if you are holding a cold soda). Along with other findings in psychology and neuroscience, priming has clearly shown that no matter how Socratic you get, you will never be able to access the mental mechanisms that constitute your brain (the go-to metaphor here is an iceberg, with the tip representing the conscious and the rest representing the unconscious).

However, in a 2006 article in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Bargh admitted that priming studies had reached their “childhood’s end,” and that he “[needed] to move on to research questions such as how these multiple effects of single primes occur,”  and “how these multiple simultaneous priming influences in the environment get distilled into nonconscious social action that has to happen serially, in real time.”

The former point is the generation problem, and it highlights our misguided tendency to interpret priming studies as having to do with single concepts. For example, if experimenters are priming a participant with the idea of generosity, “the effect of the prime… just depends on which dependent variable the experimenter happens to be interested in.” This means that because generosity could manifest itself in a number of ways, it is a mistake to believe that it influences behavior in just one way. Overcoming the generation problem, then, requires an understanding of all the different ways a single prime could influence behavior.

The later point is the reduction problem, and it asks how brains reduce and distill stimulus rich environments “in a world in which you can only do one thing at a time.” In other words, Bargh wants to know how and why our cognition discriminates one prime from another. For example, if we are walking down a city street, our senses are exposed to a wide variety of stimulus: smells, sights, sounds, etc. The question is, which won wins?

I’m not sure how these problems could be overcome any time soon because they seem to require an understanding of the brain that is years away. Until then, psychologists must remain humble. But, as Bargh says, “By constraining and informing our models of nonconscious processes in social psychology with theoretical and empirical developments in these related fields of inquiry, we can help assure that research in our own little neck of the woods will continue to matter in the long run, and to the larger picture.”

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