Why We All Suck at Dating

Why We All Suck at Dating

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Despite being involved in the dating advice industry and spending an inordinate amount of time analyzing and thinking about my own emotional life and relationships, I’m still amazed at how terrible I am at evaluating my own romantic and sexual situations objectively. And I think we’re all terrible. In fact, I’m sad to report that I think I’m better than most at it, and I’m still terrible. The fact is that we’re all terrible at it.
Like when that girl you bragged to your friends about shows up on the first date, but you can’t remember why you liked her so much. Or the woman you’re so convinced is relationship materia, but when she unexpectedly breaks things off you realize that you actually feel better without her around. Or the ex-boyfriend you miss horribly for months, but when you reunite with him it becomes abundantly clear why you broke up.
 We’re all terribly unobjective with our emotional lives. We can’t seem to help it either. We all have ideals and dreams of what we want our perfect partner to be, what we want our perfect relationship to be, how we want our relationships to play out. Therefore we tend to see what we want to see in someone else, not what’s actually there. We’re all experts at projecting and distorting the reality in front of us to try to fit our own ideals. These distortions are called perceptual biases. They are the fun-house mirrors that misshape our perceptions of others in front of us. Some people are (far) more afflicted than others, but none of us are immune to it. But with practice and conscious awareness, we can help ourselves become more aware of these biases, and prevent them from getting us into too much turmoil.

Perhaps the biggest problem with both psychological research into attraction and relationships and dating and seduction advice is that we’re trying to measure and quantify something in which it’s impossible to be completely objective about. Psychological research into attraction is mostly based on self-reporting. Dating advice is based on personal experience. The problem is we’re unable to provide reliable data. We’re poor curators of our own emotional experiences. The phenomenon of perceptual biases has intrigued me for a couple years now. Many of my close friends have grown annoyed and tired of me constantly pointing out their biases to them. “You only liked her that much because she was the only girl on the bus,” or “Yeah, it makes it a lot easier when they think your job is cool.” Yeah, I’m a buzz-kill. Below are ten perceptual biases that most of us fall victim to, five which distort how attractive we perceive someone to be, and five that distort how emotionally connected to a person we feel.

Perceptual Biases of Attraction

1. Contrast Bias – The contrast bias occurs when we meet a moderately attractive person in an environment with unattractive people. For instance, if you go to an office party, the one cute girl at work will suddenly look like a stunner surrounded by a bunch of married, aging, overweight women. Put that same girl in a night club and she’d look pretty average. But at the office party, suddenly her stock has shot through the roof. Another common example is when you have the “hot friend” phenomenon. When you meet a group of women, all of which are unattractive except for one. Suddenly that one attractive one looks a lot better. Welcome to the contrast bias.

2. Scarcity Bias – The scarcity bias is similar to the contrast bias, except instead of overestimating how attractive a person is based on other people being unattractive, the scarcity bias overestimates how attractive a person is because there are few or no other options. A perfect example of this happened with a friend recently in Thailand. We were taking a boat tour, and there was a very plain-looking French girl on our boat, along with about 12 Chinese tourists, most of whom were elderly or older couples. My friend started chatting to the French girl, who was pleasant but nothing really too exciting. By the end of the full-day boat tour, he excitedly described to me how they traded Facebook information and how he thought he liked her and wanted to meet up with her. I looked him in the eye and said, “You liked that she was the only available woman on a boat that you were stuck on for 12 hours, that’s what you liked. By tomorrow you’ll have forgotten about her.” Sure enough, he did.

3. Reciprocal Bias – The quote of mine that’s been passed around the dating industry more than any other is, “The biggest aphrodisiac is someone who likes you.” This is the reciprocal bias. That cute girl, as soon as she grabs your hand and tells you that you’re hot, goes from “cute” to “really sexy” in a heartbeat. The reciprocal bias goes in reverse as well. That “smoking hot woman” over there, once you talk to her and she shows absolutely no interest in you, immediately turns into that woman “with a nice body, but terrible attitude,” and you’ve already convinced yourself that you’d never date her and that you were stupid for wanting to.

4. Personality Bias – The personality bias may be one of the only biases that one could consider a good bias. The personality bias occurs when someone’s personality makes them appear more physically attractive to you. When a woman has a great sense of humor, or shares similar interests to us, or has similar perspectives on life, we inevitably find them to be more attractive. Recently, I met a cute girl who I found out used to compete in Halo tournaments for XBox. The nerd in me couldn’t help it, she immediately jumped up a level in my book.

5. Barriers Bias – The barriers bias relates to the scarcity bias in that we tend to overvalue things in which we perceive to be hard to obtain. The barriers bias occurs when there are barriers to being with a particular person, causing our attraction for them to increase. An extreme example of this would be celebrities. From a purely physical perspective, you and I probably meet women who are just as physically attractive as celebrities, but our perception of them would not be even close to the same. The barriers bias can play out on a large scale or small. The girl you were talking to and her friend stepped in and dragged her away, chances are you are going to remember her as more attractive and more interested than she actually was. The girl you meet who is moving across the country tomorrow, otherwise she would definitely go out on a date with you, your perception of her will probably be that she’s more attractive as well.

The barriers bias also affects relationships or perceptions of relationship material as well. We have a tendency to idealize people we’re unable to be with, both in terms of how attractive they are, but also in terms of how good our relationship would be with them. Which brings us to…

Perceptual Biases in Relationships

6. Physical Bias – Plain and simple, the more physically attractive a woman is, the more likely we will be to idealize her, over-estimate her, and become emotionally invested in her. As men, our emotions are yanked around by how physically beautiful a woman is. And it’s a pretty short leash.

This one definitely afflicts me often, and I hate that it does. I would like to say I’m not so shallow, but the more physically beautiful she is, the more I’m going to invest in her emotionally, and the more I’m going to convince myself that there’s potential for something more significant with her when there probably actually isn’t. Believe it or not, the physical bias can actually be negative as well, depending on a guy’s beliefs. I have met a number of guys who when confronted with an attractive woman, will get excited and talk about how attractive she is. But when confronted with an absolutely drop-dead gorgeous woman, they begin to nitpick faults and criticize her before even meeting her. If a man believes himself to be unworthy of a supremely beautiful woman, he will actually develop a perceptual bias AGAINST them.

7. Sexual Bias – One of my strictest rules for myself and my clients is to never make any major commitment decisions with a woman without having sex with her first. Aside from the whole “test drive before you buy” argument, the fact remains that men are not objective about a woman before we’ve had sex with her. We inflate our perception of them and over-estimate how much we actually like them. Yeah, it’s screwed up, but it is what it is. The reverse is often (but not always) true as well: that our perception of a woman immediately after sex will be deflated and we will underestimate what we actually feel for her.

8. Mystery Bias – This one is probably more common for women than men, but we both do it. The mystery bias occurs when you really like someone, but you don’t know a whole lot about them yet. The less we know about them, the more we fill in the gaps with our own idealizations of who they are. This can be particularly dangerous if we’re not able to be around them often, such as in a long-distance relationship scenario.

Long distance is so dangerous emotionally because we’re not forced to be in the other person’s business all of the time, our communication is always full of excitement and longing. The multitude of boring, drab interactions where she does a myriad of minor things to annoy you are missing. You don’t see their flaws, only their virtues, since that’s all you have time to show to one another. As a result you replace their flaws in your mind with made up virtues. And eventually reality comes and bites you in the ass.

9. Turbulence Bias – The turbulence bias is when we overestimate the emotional connection and compatibility we have with someone whom we’ve suffered through a lot of emotionally difficult circumstances with.

This can play out in a number of ways. A girl who you’ve gone through a traumatic event with can suddenly seem like someone you relate to and connect with on a deeper level than you actually do. Or a girlfriend who you keep breaking up and reuniting with, it’s easy to perceive those break ups and reunions as further proof that you two belong together, since you’ve gone through so much together. Or the girl who is cheating on her boyfriend with you, and is struggling to decide whether to end that relationship or not and the drama that ensues as a result, one can easily feel that these struggles and obstacles you overcome together “mean” something, and imply that there’s some deeper purpose for you being together. This is all fantasy. It’s a romantic concept better left to Disney movies.

10. Serendipity Bias – Another romantic fallacy. The serendipity bias is when we interpret coincidences involving a woman to signify something deeper or some sort of “fate” that is bringing you two together. For instance, maybe you go on a few dates with a woman who moves away to go to grad school. You then take a job overseas in Barcelona, and just happen to run into her walking around Barri Gotic. She’s studying abroad. The spark reignites, except this time you can’t help but feel that there’s some deeper purpose that’s bringing you together. As a result, you overvalue the meaning of the relationship and perhaps see an emotional connection that isn’t really there.

Perceptual biases are an inevitable part of dating. Of course, I’m being a little hyperbolic when I claim we all “suck” at dating. The fact of the matter is the dating game is a numbers game, and all of us are going to strike out the vast, vast majority of the time. Whether an interaction ends within five seconds or five years, almost all of your relationships are going to end. The hard part is knowing when they’re ending or if they should end or not. We’re all bad at that. Perceptual biases act as a fog that most of us have trouble wading through and realizing there are obstacles in front of us until we smack right into them. The goal is not to get rid of perceptual biases, but to understand them and become aware of them. Perceptual biases can be enjoyable at times, but they can be dangerous as well. Know and understand which ones you’re susceptible to, and use that understanding to inform your relationship decisions in the future. Hopefully, you can spare yourself a little extra heart break.

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38 Comments

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  • Reply

    Socialkenny

    4 months ago

    Deep post Entropy.

    The one that sticks out the most was the last point:Serendipity bias.Similar situations used to occur to me often,where I would give meaning to things which probably has just occured by chance.It’s different if the girl and I mutually feel that it was predestined that we meet again.But the irony from in my AFC days was that I was the only one seeing a hook up as predestined and “meant-to be”.That mentality made me invest way more in the girl,while she drifted apart.

    I think a lot of newbies can learn from this article.Keep your shit in check!

  • Reply

    Socialkenny

    4 months ago

    By the way Mark,I want you to co-sign an article of yours over at my blog.It’s my latest blog post.I featured an article by you[50% rule],which was one that helped me out a lot.IDK if you still abide by that concept(you should),but it’s be nice for my blog followers to see an actual big-wig comment on an article by him.So you cam find that article at the link below.If not,just click on my name and it’d redirect you to my latest post(your article).Thanks in advance bro’.
    http://kennyspuathoughts.wordpress.com/2012/01/17/50-rule-by-mark-manson-aka-entropy-pick-up-artist/

  • Reply

    Alvar

    4 months ago

    Man, I feel sorry for your friends. You do indeed sound like a buzz-kill ;)

    Interesting article. The first Bias, contrast bias, is very well explained in Dan Ariely’s book, predictably irrational:

    [quote]We always seek to draw comparisons, and we are often unaware as to how seemingly irrelvant factors such as the simple presentation of options, actually influence what we select.

    Thus, given three choices, A, B (very distinct, but equally as attractive as A), and A- (similar to A, but inferior), we will almost always choose A, because it is clearly superior to A-.

    Say we are trying to decide on a vacation between two choices: a Paris trip with free breakfast and a Rome trip with free breakfast. We cannot decide between the two because we love Paris and Rome equally.
    Simply adding a third option – an “A minus” version of one of the options, will cause us to pick the A version, over the equally atractive B version.
    Thus, the simple addition of a third “A-” option, “Paris without a free breakfast”, will cause us to choose “Paris with a free breakfast”, the “A” option, over “Rome with a free breakfast”, the equally attractive “B” option.
    Similarly, had the third option added been “B minus” – “Rome without a free breakfast”, we would have selected that “B” option – “Rome with a free breakfast”.
    This is irrational behavior because in the presence of two equal options, we couldn’t decide between the two, and the presence of a third, inferior option, shouldn’t cause us to suddenly prefer one of the two.
    Ariely did an experiment where he used photos of undergrads to test this; 75% of research subjects chose choice A over choice B.

    [i](from bookoutlines.pbworks.com/w/page/14422685/Predictably%20Irrational )[/i][/quote]

    I’m sure someone has already read that chapter and made it into PUA doutrine: go out with mates that aren’t as tall/good looking/well dress/witty or agressive as you and you’ll easily stand out.

    • Reply

      Alvar

      4 months ago

      Darn BB tags!

  • Reply

    DJ Fuji

    4 months ago

    Best article I’ve read in a LONG time. Kudos, Mark.

    I’ve recently been obsessed with the idea of perceptual biases after working with so many hard case guys with bad inner game. What really happens and how they perceive it are so different most of the time and they just have no idea. I think it’s something that permeates the entire industry (and as you’ve said, the entire world really) to such a large extent but goes largely unnoticed.

    So many things that we believe (esp with sex/dating/relationships) just don’t hold up under rational scrutiny.

  • Reply

    Brian

    4 months ago

    This is a great article. It helped clarify a lot of mistakes I’ve made in relationships that I knew were there, my experiences have made me more aware of these biases and have made me a little cynical over time about how strong a connection really is.

  • Reply

    Alberto

    4 months ago

    Excellent post, I agree in practice but disagree with the philosophical treatment of the cases, and I don’t think it is just an academic point. On the contrary, I think it has consequences for having a more serene and realistic understanding of life and relationship.

    Basically, you talk like there was THE real value of a girl for one person, and he may fail to estimate it correctly because of various biases (she is the only decent girl at a party, etc.). This ignores the fact that context and social influence constitutes what values is in the first place. Humans are inherently contextual beings.

    Let’s take an example: at a dinner of old high school mates you end up sleeping with the girl who was the nicest in your class. Objectively, she is just average (the other girls in your class were all ugly).

    Now you would say that you have been biased in considering her more attractive that she is. I disagree. Humans are inherently contextual beings who have an history. We are not estimating the objective size of the moon. She is part of your history, you are having fun during the dinner, lots of memories are involved, ending the night together would be a little bit crazy. These are not bias factors interfering with the objective estimation of the value of a Van Gogh’s painting. These are factors that actually explain why that night together HAS value and will be remembered as a nice crazy adventure.

    Now, of course if you think that you may as well marry that girl from high school, well yes you are biased. But the failure is in misunderstanding the contextual nature of human life. That was a great one night stand, and at the same time it is unwise to plan a long relationship.

    Also, it is of course possible that the “in that context it made sense” line of reasoning become an excuse to justify stuff that did not make sense, not even in that context!

    I believe understanding the contextual nature of human life helps becoming a happier person.

  • Reply

    Jack

    4 months ago

    Great article, I would have split it into two parts though since its so cerebral.

  • Reply

    Jean

    4 months ago

    Why don’t they teach this on e-books? Why, God? Why?

    • Reply

      Socialkenny

      4 months ago

      You mean why don’t they teach this in school lmao.

      • Reply

        Halo Effect

        4 months ago

        Study social psychology and you’ll learn all about it. ;)

        In social contexts the number one priority of our minds is often not accuracy or truth, but protecting our ego. Everybody has these biases. It requires knowledge, self-reflection and courage to poke through them.

  • Reply

    Oscar Serna

    4 months ago

    Indeed!
    I recommend you read the book Thinking, Fast and Slow. It basically is the book about psychological studies of two different systems (Not actual physical systems but merely descriptive. The author explain that one in the Introduction.) of instinct/intuition/gut feeling/etc and of logical/analyzing/etc.
    Fascinating book and relevant to this post!

  • Reply

    Citylights

    4 months ago

    Thanks Mark.
    I recommend this blog and your book as always as I can.

  • Reply

    jeff

    4 months ago

    Nice Article. Super relevant. The Turbulance Bias actually reminded me of another bias that could easily be added to the list: The “Investment Bias.” Basically, the more someone invests in a person, the more they justify their decision. For example if a guy invests alot of time and money in a girl (i.e. buying dinner, tickets to events etc), he will like her more and convince himself that she was worth it, even if she barely reciprocates. (after all, who wants to feel that their time/effort was a waste)

  • Reply

    Dr. Jeremy

    4 months ago

    Excellent stuff Mark. To add to the discussion, there are also a whole host of “Attribution Biases”. They function to protect our self-esteem, often at the expense of a clear perspective about our own and others’ behavior. In other words, we distort reality to keep a favorable picture of ourselves…but that distorted picture interferes with our behavior and choices.

    The most prevalent of these biases is the “Fundamental Attribution Error”. This bias causes us to blame our own shortcomings on situational factors, while blaming the failures of others on stable parts of their personality. In a dating context, someone might justify his failure to approach a woman because the “situation wasn’t right” (thereby protecting his self-esteem). However, he might say his buddy is a “wimp” if he doesn’t approach (boosting his own self-esteem by comparison). In both cases, the bias helps improve the guy’s self-esteem…but it does nothing to help him approach, take action, and get what he wants.

    I discuss two additional self-esteem related biases (Self-Handicapping and Pre-Judging) and how they relate to dating in an article here:
    http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-attraction-doctor/201201/where-is-love-how-do-you-find-love

    Keep up the good work!

  • Reply

    Zen

    4 months ago

    “The fact of the matter is the dating game is a numbers game, and all of us are going to strike out the vast, vast majority of the time. Whether an interaction ends within five seconds or five years, almost all of your relationships are going to end. ”

    hmmm… that I really liked. No one has ever said that to me before.

  • Reply

    Peanut

    4 months ago

    So would you say that hot women and highly desirable men are probably more or less immune to the reciprocal bias (for obvious reasons)?

    • Reply

      Mark

      4 months ago

      I wouldn´t say they´re immune. I don´t think anyone´s immune. What I would say is that people who are not very desirable are even more susceptible to it.

  • Reply

    Paul

    4 months ago

    Excellent subjective and objective insights. What I really appreciate about this article is that you are doing a real exploration of concepts in depth psychology…something that is really lacking in however you would define this movement we’re all connected to. Some bloggers will skim psych only at the surface of its corpus (i.e. the undergraduate level), but the real stuff is in the depth. Nice job. Look at Stephen Mitchell’s work if you haven’t already.

  • Reply

    Jon

    4 months ago

    There’s also a consistency bias. You keep dating somebody who’s bad for you because you can’t admit to yourself that you should have dumped her months ago.

  • Reply

    brett

    4 months ago

    you met a girl who used to play in Halo tournaments?!?! That’s hot.

    • Reply

      Jean

      4 months ago

      No, bro, that’s reciprocal bias lol

  • Reply

    c

    4 months ago

    Great post. Reading through this, I was amazed at how much many of these biases have colored my own relationships/attraction without my even realizing it (or realizing it, but not realizing how irrational it was).

    Also, reading the sexual bias section made me laugh because I usually have the opposite problem: My perception of a woman actually tends to *increase* after I’ve had sex with her.

  • Reply

    Ryan W.

    2 months ago

    Why is the “Turbulence Bias” a bias? It seems like an entirely functional heuristic. The fact that a relationship can survive turbulence demonstrates what it can endure. The fact that your relationship survived that first fight indicates it will likely survive the second as well. Things might be more valued simply because we have to pay for them and that may be irrational, but the fact that we DO pay for them is an entirely legitimate signal to another person.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      2 months ago

      Because not all fights are justified. I’m convinced that this bias is a big reason why low self esteem individuals seek drama. Because the resolution of the drama creates the false feeling of security for a temporary period of time.

      I do agree with you that overcoming conflict can be a legitimate signal that the relationship is stronger. But the relationship isn’t actually always necessarily stronger.

  • Reply

    Artemis

    2 months ago

    #7 – Sexual bias is just so sad. I can tell you that for us girls it`s the other way around 99.99% of the times: usually our perception of a man changes for the better after we’ve had sex with him. So basically this is confirmation that playing hard to get really pays off?
    Having been raised to believe that it was possible to break the mould, I am finally coming to the disappointing conclusion that there is no way out of traditional masculine-feminine models when it comes to relationships/attraction. Ouch.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      2 months ago

      Individual men and women vary far more than the populations. But yes, on average, there are very real biological differences between men and women sexually and these things may be true on average. But if you’re an exception, there are certainly men who are exceptions walking around out there.

    • Reply

      Ryan W.

      2 months ago

      I don’t think sex has ever decreased my opinion of a woman. I’m married now, though. lol.

      I do think waiting to have sex for a period of time is an important screening tool for women. Also, guys who have had sex with lots of girls are more likely to see a pattern of ‘one time fling’ vs. ‘start of a relationship.’ I suspect the guys with a lower number of partners would be more likely to go the other way.

  • Reply

    Jake

    1 month ago

    This article points out an excellent list of biases.

    So it begs the question… On what factors can we legitimately gauge someone?

  • Reply

    CCoach

    1 month ago

    Hello Mark,

    _ I personally think you put alot of effort into writing the content of your articles. Thank you so much for your time and your effort. A female reader.

  • Reply

    Pippa

    1 month ago

    Thanks Mark. The reciprocity bias is good old-fashioned flattery, isn’t it. I’d be interested in an article from you with more detail on a particular bias, how to recognise it and how to factor-in that insight into your decision-making about a potential mate. How does one cope with the flattery of reciprocated attraction and still have insight into the other person’s suitability. How does one maintain the joy of romance and falling-in love (the delightful biology at the beginning of a relationship) but avoid a doomed romance? And, most importantly, how does one see one’s biases but not spoil the romance of a really healthy relationship? It would be a shame to find a great mate but miss-out on the fabulous romantic connection by being too cautious.

  • Reply

    Vernon Barbary

    28 weeks ago

    Keep em coming

  • Reply

    Rachel

    15 weeks ago

    When is it just ok to fall in love? Wish I didn’t read this. Maybe ignorance is bliss. Maybe who the hell cares what perception plays into belief system etc etc . Wish i didnt read this because now even more so i will over think and gage every emotion and situation. Dating feels like solving a super hard algebra question.

  • Reply

    Kate

    7 days ago

    Hi Mark,

    With regards to sexual bias, do you think it’s something two people can consciously work on or if it wasn’t there then it’s not worth persuing?

    ‘that our perception of a woman immediately after sex will be deflated and we will underestimate what we actually feel for her.’- can you elaborate what that means.

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