romantic couple

Online dating is big business these days. There are approximately 324 million online dating sites worldwide, according to an industry report, which has brought app developers an estimated $5.6 billion in revenue by 2021. A significant portion of those looking for romance online — 42 percent — say they’re on the hunt for a spouse, but only 13 percent end up getting married for someone they meet online. In fact, research has already shown that judging a potential suitor based on written or visual stimuli (eg, an online profile) does not accurately predict attraction during a first date.

This discontinuity may be caused by how difficult it is to determine a working definition of attraction. Someone can look witty over text and tick all the right boxes on paper, but then the all-important “spark” just isn’t there in person.

Understanding and quantifying how sexual and romantic desires work is challenging, yet it has long preoccupied scientists. research, published last year in the magazine Nature Human Behavior, tried to get us one step closer by measuring a host of different biological variables while people are on a first date. The approach won them over the coveted 2022 Ig Nobel Prize this September. The Satire Awards seek to recognize and praise quirky research that makes people laugh – and then learn something new.

“We choose to award things that will get people interested,” explains Mark Abrahams, editor of the Annals of Improbable Research, which established the Ig Nobel Prizes in 1991. “It’s all about things that get people excited.”

Ig Noble Pursuit

Although the word “ignoble” technically refers to something that is not honorable in character, the Ig Nobel Prizes are not meant to mock or ridicule scientists, Abrahams says, instead they are a celebration of weirdly fun research projects.

The latest prize winners brought together 142 heterosexual participants – half male and half female – to meet in a purpose-built ‘dating lab’. The scientists, based in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, measured several physiological phenomena during these first encounters. Participants wore special glasses with built-in cameras to track their eye movements. The glasses also took data on heart rate and skin conductance, which shows how well the skin conducts electricity. A higher level of skin conductance is a known biological response to an arousing experience.

A visual barrier was placed between the participants and then removed for just three seconds so that they could form a first impression of each other. Participants were then asked to rate how attractive they found their partners on a scale of zero to nine. This experience was then followed by two additional interactions that lasted two minutes; the first was silent, but participants were allowed to talk to each other in the second interaction. Participants were asked to rate their attraction again after each of these longer interactions.


Read more: When hearts beat as one


Interestingly, the researchers found that signaling behaviors such as smiling, laughing, or eye contact were not associated with attraction. Nor the mimicry of such social cues. Instead, the most accurately predicted attraction is when partners’ hearts begin to beat in sync. Skin conductance is also a good interpreter of attraction. This led researchers to hypothesize that attraction levels between partners wax and wane while their subconscious levels of arousal rise and fall simultaneously.

After all, it’s the hidden biological signals that betray one person’s attraction to another — and that’s simply not something that can be inferred from an online profile. In other words, it’s impossible to say for sure how you’ll feel about someone until you meet them. With that in mind, perhaps the most important part of online dating isn’t really about the “online” part at all. Rather, it’s about going from in-app messaging to an actual first date, where the sparks can really start to fly.

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