When it comes to awkward situations, first dates—with their forced laughter and stilted chit-chat—have to rank near the top of the list.
But luckily, science is on the case. Arm yourself with this research-backed info about the best questions to ask, activities to plan, and more—and you’ll never have a cringe-worthy first-date moment again.
1. Show up early
Playing it cool by getting to the date a little late sounds like a smart technique. After all, if the other person has to wait a few minutes, it sends the message that your life is busy, which will make him want you more…right?
In reality, though, that’s not the case. “The theory of embodied cognition suggests that what we do with our body influences the way we think, and one aspect of embodied cognition shows that we are instinctively attracted to things that we move toward,” says Garth Sundem, author of Beyond IQ. “This is why some speed dating research has found that the person who sits and is approached is typically more liked than the one who rotates around the room.”
Make an effort to get to your meet-up ahead of time, order a drink and relax. If nothing else, it will be a much more pleasant way to start a first date.
2. Ditch your comfort zone
Talking about your biggest insecurities, hopes and regrets might sound more like fodder for a therapy session than a first date. So if you’re like most people, you probably opt for small talk instead. But research from Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of Predictably Irrational, suggests that might not be the smartest strategy.
His team gave online daters a list of envelope-pushing questions to ask potential partners like “How did you lose your virginity?” and “Have you ever broken somebody’s heart?” Afterward, both the asker and respondent were happier with the interaction than when they’d stuck to “safe” topics of conversation.
3. Think outside the box
In a classic experiment, men were approached by an attractive female interviewer who asked them to fill out a questionnaire. Before being approached, half of the participants had crossed a shaky suspension bridge, which made them feel fearful, while the other half had traversed a solid bridge. Driven by a phenomenon known as misattribution of arousal, men who walked over the unsteady bridge were more likely to ask out the interviewer. The theory is that their brain mistook their heightened state of anxiety for sexual excitement.
“Additionally, any time an intense emotion, like fear, is involved in a new situation, it makes a more powerful impact than a solely intellectual encounter because it activates the amygdala,” says Sundem. “The amygdala is your brain’s emotional learning center, and one of its roles is to tag memories as either good or bad.” If your amygdala categorizes a dating experience as thrilling, then chances are it will also tag the individual as thrilling.
You don’t have to go so far as to bungee jump during your first outing—but it can’t hurt to get a little creative. A fly fishing, paddle boarding or hiking date will set you up for greater odds of success than a coffee meet-up.
4. Skip the pre-date Google search
Eli Finkel, a professor of social psychology at Northwestern University, points out that research suggests dating success can’t be predicted by an algorithm—and that the photos and info found on people’s online profiles generally don’t predict whether sparks will fly in real life.
As he put it, “Many [single people] want to have fun, meet interesting people, feel sexual attraction and, at some point, settle into a serious relationship. All of that begins with a quick-and-dirty assessment of rapport and chemistry that occurs when people meet face-to-face.”
Making a snap decision about whether you’re into someone—without the burden of knowing too much about his back story—can actually lead to a better first date than if you’d Googled them to death before getting together.