The Science of Love and PersuasionFebruary 14, 2013
Quick — what do testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, oxytocin, and vasopressin all have in common? They’re the chemicals of “true love.”
Yep, some jerk has reduced romance to a science.
What’s this got to do with selling? Plenty, it turns out.
Just ask Prof. Robin Dunbar of Liverpool University. Dunbar — according to the BBC — spent the last half of the 1990s studying personal ads. And no, not because he was lonely.
Rather, Dunbar discovered that the copy used in all kinds of personal ads, from people of all different kinds of backgrounds, shared a strikingly similar subset of ”hot button” words. And virtually all those words fell into just five categories: Wealth, Commitment, Sexiness, Social Skills, or Attractiveness.
These are, of course, some of the same basic drivers we lean on when we write copy for “products” other than a date with a significant other (“Double Your Income in Less Than a Year,” “Win Friends and Influence People,” “Look Sexier This Spring”… and so on).
But here’s where Dunbar’s research gets even more interesting…
Once Dunbar had the categories, he then asked 200 men and women to rank the appeal of ads that contained a mix of the most common buzz words.
Women responded most to “Commitment” heavy ads. Then, in order, ads that emphasized Social Skills, Resources, Attractiveness, and — last — Sexiness.
Men put attractiveness at the top of the list. Perhaps no surprise. Was sexiness second? Not at all. Instead, they focused on ads that suggested Commitment followed. Then Social Skills, Resources, and — last again — Sexiness.
Surprised? Other than men putting “attractiveness” at the top of the priorities, the lists are virtually the same. And even the ad copy personal ad writers created for themselves — to attract mates — reflected that, pitching the traits they instinctively knew would be important to their prospects. But then, in follow-up interviews with the men and women in the study, Dunbar found deeper shades of difference.
For instance, both men and women in the study placed high value on “a sense of humor.” But to each gender, it meant different things. Women said it meant they wanted someone witty and quick to make others laugh. The typical man, however, said he mostly wanted someone who could get his jokes so he would seem like a funny guy.
Which actually works out well for both parties.
Likewise, the average woman wanted a man about five years her senior. The average man, on the other hand, wanted women that at least looked younger — with smooth skin, glossy hair, and the like. Not coincidentally, say the researchers, they’re all signs of high estrogen levels.
But here was something surprising. Older women that looked younger had a better appeal to men then women with a fresher birth certificate. Possibly, say the researchers, because the younger looking women just seemed like they came from a better gene pool.
(Hey, I’m just reporting the results here!)
Younger guys, in general, have less wealth to offer. They also seem to have lower requirements than older men. Likewise, older women polled suggested they were more open to less handsome or wealthy men. But younger women, on the other hand, have lots of youthful beauty as an asset. And, it happens, end up being the choosiest of all.
And all this, it turns out, adds up pretty neatly to creating ideal conditions that work best for cranking out offspring. Which is, after all, how the species survives. Cold, perhaps, but that’s over a decade of research doing the talking. Kinda puts a different light on that romantic candlelight dinner you had planned for tonight, doesn’t it?
One last thing: The one thing both men and women wouldn’t stand for in the ads… but encounter all the time… was lying. Instinctively, match-hunting advertisers know what prospects want. They will even bend the facts to promise it. But it almost always backfires in the end. Just like it would in any other kind of advertising.
Do I personally believe love and romance are as cold and scientific as all that? Well, let’s just say I would LIKE to believe it’s not so simple as all that. The heart, said Pascal, has its reasons which reason knows not of. And Dickinson, the fact that love is all there is is all we know of love.
I’ll agree… but can’t promise you that it’s not just the oxytocin talking.
Happy Valentine’s Day!