Does it pay to play nice in the dating game? It does if you're a lady, according to a new study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Plenty has been written about what behavior men and women like to see on a first date or in the early stages of a relationship. While we’re inclined to recommend behaving like, well, yourself, this recent study sheds fascinating light on how different sexes perceive “responsiveness.” The researchers defined responsiveness as a trait “that may signal to potential partners that one understands, values, and supports important aspects of their self-concept and is willing to invest resources in the relationship.”
“Sexual desire thrives on rising intimacy, and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time,” explains the study’s lead researcher, Gurit Birnbaum, PhD. She and her team of researchers from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, the University of Rochester, and the University of Illinois hypothesized that responsiveness might be perceived differently by different sexes and in different contexts, and so they devised a series of scenarios to investigate.
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In their first study, designed to assess whether men and women tend to view a “responsive” person of the opposite sex as attractive, individuals were assigned partners and instructed to interact with them. (The study was limited to heterosexual singles — specifically, 112 undergraduate students.) Men, it turned out, evaluated conversation partners who had been coached to be “responsive” — to exhibit concern, understanding, and support — as the most “feminine” and sexually attractive. But, women did not associate responsiveness with "masculinity," and even found more-responsive men (marginally) less desirable.
In a second study, participants chatted online with either responsive or non-responsive different-sex strangers. Beforehand, each participant viewed a photo of his or her partner. The catch: Each woman was given the same photo of a man, while each man was given the same photo of a woman. Participants were then instructed to share problems in their lives with their virtual-conversation partners via chat. The responses were predetermined: Non-responsive virtual dates glossed over their partners’ feelings (with replies such as “Doesn’t sound so bad to me”) while responsive partners offered more comfort and understanding (e.g. “You must have gone through a difficult time”).
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After spilling their guts to online strangers, unwitting participants evaluated how sexually attractive they found those virtual dates. Again, while men rated responsive women as more desirable than non-responsive women, a significant number of women reacted negatively to responsive partners, viewing them as less-desirable than non-responsive men. “Some women may interpret responsiveness negatively and feel uncomfortable about a new acquaintance who seems to want to be close,” Dr. Birnbaum says. The researchers admitted that while the relationship between responsiveness and men's sexual preferences appeared to be fairly straightforward, women's desires seem to be more complicated. Are we surprised?
Trying to parse the reasons people find one another appealing is obviously difficult, since so many of our desires are culturally constructed. We're used to media depictions of women as caring and nurturing, while men are far less often portrayed this way, and these representations influence our real-world expectations. What's more, there are plenty of reasons why women might be skeptical of men who seem overly attentive. But, as long as it's done without a hidden agenda, there's nothing wrong with responding to others with empathy and encouragement — values that should have no gender.
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