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There is certainly no shortage of dating advice out there. Such advice is doled out by self-help books, fashion magazines, and our friends and acquaintances. Some of that advice can be quite helpful, but some is mistaken and based on personal experiences and opinions, rather than on actual research about relationships. In this post, I take on five common tidbits of dating advice that are misguided or flat out wrong.
1. When you meet the right person, you’ll know right away.
One comforting piece of advice is that when the right person comes along, you’ll just magically know. Maybe you’ll even experience love at first site. Unfortunately, for those romantics out there, the evidence suggests that there’s no magic.
In a series of studies, Paul Eastwick and colleagues tracked people’s memories of various relationship experiences across the entire course of their relationships, both short-term and long-term.1 They found that early in the relationship, the timing of various relationship milestones (e.g., first kiss, first sexual encounter) and the strength of people’s feelings toward their partner was the same for both short and long-term relationships. It was only later on that the researchers saw differences between relationships that lasted and relationships that eventually fizzled.
But what about love at first sight? Research shows that many people believe they have experienced love at first sight.2 But in fact, this research suggests this feeling of “love” is really just a feeling of intense physical attraction — More akin to lust than love. And many people who report “love at first sight” with their current partner are just projecting their current feelings onto their initial encounters with that person.
2. If you’re interested in someone, you should play hard to get.
Many relationship advice books tell women that they should play hard to get if they hope to attract a man. According to this strategy, men like what they can’t have, so a woman should act uninterested in the man she desires. She should ignore his phone calls and pretend to be busy when he asks for a date.
Research does suggest that we are most attracted to people are selective in who they choose to date.3 But it does not follow from this that we are most attracted to people who act as if they do not like us. In fact, research on reciprocity shows that we like people who like us.4 We are also unlikely to pursue someone whom we believe is out of our league.5
The best strategy may be to show the person you’re interested in that you have high standards, but to also let them know that they meet those standards.3 You don’t want to appear desperate, but you should still show your interest. Essentially, you want to send the message “I’m picky, but I like you.” Playing too hard to get can send the message: “I don’t like you.” And do you really want to date the kind of person who continues to pursue someone even when that person is sending signals that they’re not interested?
3. Focus on putting your best foot forward until you’re firmly committed.
Some dating advice books suggest that the courtship experience should be approached as a game with the end goal of snagging a partner — Carefully monitor your behavior and the impression that you create in order to win the prize of a committed relationship.
It’s true that first impressions matter and that you should generally be on good behavior on those early dates.6 But sometimes this advice goes too far. For example, in the advice book, “The Rules,” the authors advise women to hide personal information from their boyfriend for the first few months until they are sure he is madly in love with them, in case any of these personal revelations could turn him off and cause him to leave. Waiting months to share personal information with a romantic partner is a recipe for a shallow relationship. Mutual sharing of personal information is one of the key building blocks of intimacy.7 If you keep everything light, you will never develop emotional intimacy with one another. Someone who falls in love with you in the absence of emotional intimacy is probably not someone you want to form a lasting relationship with. In fact, a relationship free of emotional intimacy is what people with avoidant attachment styles desire8 — That is, an intimacy-free courtship will appeal to an intimacy-avoidant person.
4. Opposites attract, so try to find someone really different than you.
People often claim that “opposites attract.” However, it is much more often the case that “birds of a feather flock together.” Birds of a feather also tend to have fewer conflicts, making for a smoother relationship.9,10
Now, there are times when someone with a quality that is very much the opposite of ourselves may fascinate us. Maybe you’re very cautious and conservative and are excited by someone who is spontaneous and unconventional. Maybe you’re very emotional and find the perspective of someone who is highly rationale to be eye-opening. However, research on “fatal attractions” suggests that these sorts of opposite qualities may initially attract us, but ultimately end up being sources of friction in the relationship.11 That cautious person becomes irritated with a partner who is reckless and disorganized. That emotional person is frustrated by an overly rational person and feels like they’re dating a robot.
5. You’ll only meet liars and weirdos if you date online.
Many people believe that everybody lies online, a topic I’ve written about previously here and here. Online daters do sometimes lie about their age and physical appearance. However, research shows that extreme lies are rare because people who are looking to develop relationships with those they meet online realize that such lies will eventually be revealed and when they are, it would likely spell the end of the relationship.12
There is also a stereotype that people who use online dating are desperate losers, unable to get a date “in real life.” Contrary to this picture, research shows that there are almost no personality differences between people who date online and those who don’t.13 And in fact, one study found that people who met their spouses online were more likely to be of higher socioeconomic status than those who met offline.14
So when you’re on the dating market, go ahead and be yourself, don’t go chasing after your polar opposite, don’t expect to instantly know if you’ve found “the one,” and don’t be afraid to try online dating.