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  • 14th Feb 2020

Five ways behavioural science can help you with love

Once again Valentine’s Day is upon us. The annual frenzy of consumerism to convince you to spend lots of money on red and heart-shaped things for your significant other or make you feel super lonely if you’re on your own is here.

Here at the Behavioural Insights Team we’re all about using our detailed understanding of human decisions, actions, and yes desires to help bring about positive outcomes for all concerned and matters of the heart are no exception.

So if you are on the look-out for that special person, here are five ways behavioural science can help:

1. Stay where you are

Unless you despise the place you call home and can’t wait to move away, you really don’t need to spread your wings far and wide to find love. The chances are that the person who will set your heart aflutter is a lot closer already than you might think. Studies around the world have regularly found that around 40% of married couples lived less than a mile away from each other before they first met.

It makes sense when you think about it. If you’re in a strange land and meet someone who comes from the same place as you, you instantly feel a bond with them. People naturally tend to gravitate to those who are similar and that includes where they make their home. People like you and people who will like you live where you do. 

2. Do not under any circumstances trust yourself

You may reasonably take the view that the best judge of yourself and your thoughts and desires is of course yourself. Reasonable but often wrong. In some ways and situations you’re actually more like a stranger to yourself.

You see it turns out that we are really terrible at knowing what we like and who we’ll be attracted too. Time and again behavioural science has found that the correlation between what we say we want and what we actually choose is incredibly weak.

This research from 2008 for example used a speed dating set up and found that what those taking part said they liked and were looking for in a potential partner beforehand had practically no bearing who they actually liked once they’d met everyone.

You really have no idea who you’ll actually like in real life, so tell your inner voice to keep quiet on this one. They’re really not helping even if they think they are. All you need is an open mind about everyone you meet.

3. Hide your phone

Research has found that mobile phones are not conducive to helping people who are spending time together, for example on a date, build closeness and trust between them. That’s not at all surprising if you imagine being on a date with some jerk who spends most of the time fiddling with their phone while you’re trying to be nice and engaging. That’s unlikely to go anywhere.

But here’s the thing – the negative effect of phones isn’t just from people actively using them, even the mere presence of a phone in view can have a negative effect on how well people get to know and build connections with each other.

Even if there are no alerts, messages, updates or calls, the silent phone lurking on the side is a constant diversion for both people, whether they are aware of it or not. So if you want to really start to get to know someone well, put the phone away.

4. Sing. To yourself

In psychology there’s what’s known as the ‘Big Five’ personality traits which are the five broad areas that as a whole describe an individual. The Five are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism. We all have a different combination of these five broad areas which together make our unique personality.

All of the Five clearly play a role in matters of the heart but studies have shown that people whose personalities score higher in the agreeableness and openness areas tend to be more successful at finding and maintaining a romantic relationship.

A behavioural science study from a few years ago looked at which kinds of activities were strongly associated with each of the Five and found that those with high openness scores were more likely to do things like buy books and organic food, compost their waste, go to galleries and concerts, meditate and swear (though presumably not normally at the same time, but who’s to judge?).

So some tips there, and for people with strong agreeableness traits, who are liked and pleasant to be around, a very helpful quality when looking for a soul mate? They are more likely than anyone to sing in the car or the shower.

So start loosening those vocal chords every time you’re on your own and a much more popular future awaits.

5. Be afraid

No really, but in a positive and intentional way. You see two people going through pain, stress and fear together are much closer afterwards as a result of this shared scare.

In 1989 hurricane Hugo hit the state of South Carolina in the US. Nine months later there was a mini-baby boom, but crucially only in those counties that had been affected by the hurricane. There was also an increase in marriage rates as well as divorces. There’s nothing like a dose of life-threatening danger to focus the mind on what’s really important. 

We’re not for a moment suggesting including anything actually physically risky in your dating strategies, but stepping beyond your comfort zone into something a bit different and unexpected, that’s where those extra special memories and personal bonds that last forever are made. Plus you don’t actually have to wait for February 14th every year to do that.