Why Women Don’t Make the First Move

illustration-of-woman-attracting-a-manThe dating world may be changing with the advent of apps that give people a chance to connect online, but the rules of dating seem to remain constant.  In the 1995 book The Rules, authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider argued (and continue to do so) that “the women who played hard to get, either deliberately or by accident, were the ones who got the guys, while the women who asked guys out or were too available were the ones who got dumped.” 20 years later, the context may have shifted, but as Fein and Schneider maintain in their 2013 “Not Your Mother’s Rules” the same principle applies: Women never initiate a relationship, they play hard to get, and they retain an air of mystery until they’ve landed their catch.

Although the 18 years in between books was just barely enough to constitute a generational change, it would seem that your mother’s rules should have changed quite a bit by now. Surely, it’s ok for women to be more assertive in relationships, more honest and forthright about their feelings, and less in need of pretending not to be interested in someone whom they’d like to get to know better.

Highlighting the idea that the gender tables could be turning, the dating app “Bumble” runs on the premise that it’s the men, not the women, who have to wait for their prospective partners to contact them (in same sex pairings among women, either party can do the initiating).  Whitney Wolfe, founder of Bumble, decided that it was time to give those tables a hefty spin.  In addition to changing the gender dynamics of online dating sites, Wolfe decided to make her app a kinder and gentler form of other dating apps, rewarding users who play nicely with extra perks, known as “VIBee” status.

The question then becomes, why haven’t we seen such a development until now, and ultimately- will it work? If you’re a die-hard evolutionary type, you’ll say that men will hunt, and women will be hunted, and such will always be the case. It’s just hard-wired into our hunter-gatherer DNA. Research on the factors that impinge on women and men who seek to initiate relationships suggest that it isn’t simply gender (or sex) per se that influences who does the asking, but psychological factors handed down to generations of girls through socialization.  The traditionally sexy woman defers to a man, allowing him to have the power and therefore be in control.

Would giving women a greater sense of control, then, give them greater power in initiating dating relationships? Bumble bases its philosophy on this idea, but there’s also a science behind it. University of Waterloo Jennifer MacGregor along with Columbia University’s Justin Cavallo, back in 2011, decided to investigate if they could break the rules by manipulating the sense of control a woman would feel when initiating a relationship.

They noted that social expectations lead women to be discouraged from directly pursuing potential romantic partners and “encouraged to resort to passivity or indirect strategies to shape their relationship outcomes” (p. 851).  Women develop a kind of learned helplessness or feeling of futility about changing the status quo which, in turn, perpetuates their conforming to society’s expectations.

Using a sample of 92 undergraduates (50 women, 42 men), all of whom were single, MacGregor and Cavallo first established that there was a positive relationship between feelings of control over relationship initiation and the amount of effort a woman would put into initiating romantic relationships. All is well and good, you say, but correlation does not equal causation, as every psychology student knows.  It’s possible that initiators just tend to feel more in control about their lives in general, and this tendency is reflected in their relationships as well as other aspects of their lives.

An experiment was clearly called for. In phase two of the study, involving a new sample of 98 undergraduates (56 women, 42 men; all single), the researchers manipulated the feeling of personal control by asking participants to recall a time in their lives when they either had control or did not. The event they were to recall was supposed to be positive in nature such as studying hard and doing well on an exam (high control) or lucking out by winning a $5 lottery ticket (low control).

Phase three involved presenting participants with pre-set scenarios and asking if they’d ever been involved in such situations. High personal control scenarios included getting stuck in traffic because you went the wrong way (it was your fault); in low personal control conditions, getting stuck in traffic was due to construction (it wasn’t your fault, just bad luck).

The question of interest is whether participants would be more likely to initiate a relationship after being primed with high vs. low personal control conditions and whether men and women would differ in their response to this manipulation.

As the researchers expected, across the two manipulation conditions, it was the women whose intention to initiate a relationship that peaked under high personal control.  In fact, under a high sense of personal control, men and women were equally likely to take charge in a dating situation.

What’s so surprising about the results is that the manipulation of personal control was ever so slight. For a woman, simply recalling a time you had personal control seems to be enough to counteract your otherwise socially acceptable passivity. As MacGregor and Cavallo conclude (p. 862), “women who generally feel a lack of control over their romantic outcomes may be particularly sensitive to fluctuations in personal control in ways that men are not.”

The upshot of the study is that Bumble, and perhaps whatever else will follow along similar lines in the future, could in fact change the rules. By giving women “permission” to act first, all kinds of new relationships may emerge that would before have been unimaginable.

You don’t have to be hemmed in by society’s restrictions about who asks and who gets asked. Find your own fulfillment in relationships by boosting your own sense of control, and you may be surprised by where it leads you.