Our emotions and hormones are powerful forces that can make us do things that may feel right but are not actually in our best interest. On a regular basis you may think you're attracted to someone when you're not, make yourself uglier when you're trying to look good, and generally cause yourself grief while dating despite your best intentions. Here's a look at how you cause these problems and what you can do to fix them.
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Stupid Thing #1: You Confuse Heightened Emotions For Physical Attraction
When you feel love, attraction, fear, sadness or any other emotion, your brain likes to come up with an explanation to make sense of the feeling. The problem is the explanation is often wrong because you try to match the feeling to the closest explanation possible. If you're standing on the edge of a mountain and afraid you could fall and die, a beautiful man or woman standing beside you could cause you to mistake that anxiety for sexual attraction. This misattribution happens frequently in various stressful situations.
David McRaney, of the blog You Are Not So Smart, points to a study by psychologists Art Aron and Donald Dutton that put men in a room and scared them into believing they'd receive a mild or painful shock. While they fearfully waiting to be electrocuted, they'd meet an attractive subject and be asked afterwards to fill out a questionnaire rating their anxiety and attraction to the subject. Here's what happened:
The men who expected a terrible, painful future rated their anxiety and their attraction to the ladies as significantly higher than those expecting mild tingles. When it came to those narratives explaining the pictures, once again the more anxious the men, the more sexual imagery they produced.
Aron and Dutton showed when you feel aroused, you naturally look for context, an explanation as to why you feel so alive. This search for meaning happens automatically and unconsciously, and whatever answer you come up with is rarely questioned because you don't realise you are asking.
In the real world, you're constantly waiting to be shocked, but you do occasionally feel anxiety, excitement, and other heart-pounding emotions. You run the same risk as the test subjects of attributing your state of arousal to the most convenient explanation. This can cause you to feel attraction to someone you wouldn't otherwise find compelling, which can be problematic whether or not you're in a relationship already.
The easiest way to combat this problem is to consider why you're feeling aroused rather than automatically accepting the conclusion that pops into your head. We make a lot of mistakes because we assume what we think and feel is accurate without questioning, so challenge these assumptions to avoid stupid mistakes.
(To learn more about the misattribution of arousal, ready McRaney's full article.)
Stupid Thing #2: Wearing Cologne, Perfume And Body Sprays Inhibit Others From Finding You Attractive
Wearing any type of cologne or perfume and even some deodorants can inhibit your sexual attractiveness. The problem isn't that people don't enjoy those lovely scents concocted in a lab, but that they do. When you wear a body spray, cologne or perfume, you're masking your natural, subtle scent (read: NOT body odour). That includes the pheromones secreted when you sweat, which are believed to play a fairly large role in attracting a partner. A study published in the European Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology concluded that scent and pheromones play a larger role in sexual attraction than we initially believed:
Human sociosexual interactions are influenced by pheromones, even if they cannot be detected consciously. Pheromones have the potential to influence human behaviour and physiology and so there has to be asked the question, in which way the modern striving for cleanliness and odourlessness affects our everyday social lives and human reproductive success in the future. What we know at the moment, as many studies in the last few years have pointed out, is that the human sense of smell has by far been underestimated in the past and that humans, like other animals, use olfactory signals for the transmission of biologically relevant information.
While the jury is still out on the exact role scent plays in sexual attraction, studies are beginning to find that covering up our natural scent may be detrimental. While we don't want to go around wafting oxidised sweat from our armpits, diet and exercise plus good hygiene can be more than enough to help us maintain a scent that's actually more attractive to prospective mates than the ones we pay so much for in stores.
Stupid Thing #3: You Try To Hide Physical Features You Consider Unattractive
Whether your nose is too big or too small, you have freckles you hate, or you wish your skin was darker or lighter, making those changes won't do you much good. Popular dating site OKCupid posted a look at what people find most attractive on their blog and it wasn't a specific standard of beauty. Instead they found that people who were considered both ugly and unattractive by their users received the most messages -- likely because they offered a level of uniqueness that some people found very attractive.
While TV, movies and other entertainment media can make it easy to believe that there's a general ideal of beauty that we ought to aspire to, statistics point to that being a problem. If you want to be attractive, just take good care of yourself. Don't try to be somebody else.
Stupid Thing #4: You Choose the Partner You're Most Likely To Lose Rather Than The Best One
When single and dating, chances are you're not seeing just one person at a time until someone shows potential -- or at least you think that's what's happening. According to behavioural economist Dan Ariely, you're more likely to pick a mate that you're worried you may lose even if they're not the best option:
In the experiments we've done we've shown that if you can date three people, and they all promise they can stay viable and you can keep on dating them, you very quickly pick one and just stay with that person. But if you date three people and two of them threaten you that unless you go on and continue dating them or they will go away and find somebody else, you keep on revisiting those options. We have a very hard time closing doors.
Ariely suggests that actually making a commitment can make these anxieties go away, as you can avoid stress by simply making a decision and going forward, but obviously you don't want to choose the wrong person simply because they pose a risk of leaving. To help avoid this problem, just consult your friends. They won't be worried about losing someone you're dating, so they'll be able to help you see the truth of the situation.
Stupid Thing #5: You Believe The Opposite Sex Should Always Understand What You're Saying
For both men and women, we assume the other sex understands what's being said. In reality, male and female brains operate a little differently and women are generally far more capable when it comes to verbal communication. This advantage allows women to track multiple conversations and pick up on intricacies of speech that men can't. In essence, women are better listeners than men by default, even if it's a somewhat minor distinction. The Norwich Bulletin points to a study from the University of Sheffield that discovered the male brain has trouble tracking a woman's speech because of how it processes the sound of the female voice:
These researchers found differences in the way male and female brains process voice sounds. The results of this study demonstrate that, in the male brain, the perception of male and female voices activates different brain regions. The guys could easily hear and understand other men's voices. However, women have a greater natural melody in their voices and possess a more complex range of sound frequencies than a male voice. The men in the study had a harder time deciphering them and really hearing what a woman was saying. When they heard the female voices, they had to decipher them using the part of the brain that processes music - a more complex process than is used in the part of the brain that analyses a male voice.
The only real solution to the problem is for both men and women to be aware and understanding of this inherent communication issue. Communication is difficult even without the gender differences, so it can help for men to make the extra effort and for women to understand that what they say may not always come across in exactly the way they think.
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