First dates can be both fun and frightful. First dates can be both fun and frightful. First dates can be both fun and frightful. (Photo: Shy / Shutterstock)

How to design a scientifically perfect date

A social scientist explains how to win over that special someone (or figure out that someone isn't so special).

Need some help turning lackluster dates into meaningful ones? Meet Dan Ariely, known as the world's most irrational man. Ariely, an Israeli-American professor at Duke University, has become famous for explaining human decision-making. He's run a number of experiments on dating and relationships, and he has plenty of data-driven wisdom for you, whether you're going on a first date or considering starting a relationship.

We tracked him down to get his advice for those of us seeking dating success:

Don’t imagine the date ahead of time

imagineYour date might be charming, but don't expect Prince Charming. (Photo: rangizzz/Shutterstock)

When you know only a little bit about that girl or guy who caught your eye, you're likely to fill in the gaps by making up the best possible things about them, leaving you disappointed when you actually get to know them.

"Our imagination is often better than reality," said Ariely. "People read profiles in online dating, and they fill in the gaps and say, 'Wow, this person likes music. They must like the kind of music I like, fantastic!' And then, of course, they meet for coffee and get disappointed."

Limit small talk

afternoon sleepinessIf your date is making this face, you've got a problem. (Photo: Fabiana Ponzi/Shutterstock)

You can't tell all that much about a person from small talk. Does anybody really care how many siblings you have or what you majored in? In an online dating setup with MIT students, Ariely and his colleagues examined messages between daters.

"They were terrible," said Ariely. "They were asking things like 'What are you majoring in?' and 'Where do you go to school?'" He suspects this tendency pervades because we don't feel comfortable sharing meaningful details about ourselves, which unfortunately means our dates don't actually learn much about us. "It's really boring, useless stuff that doesn't promote the relationship in any way," he said.

Luckily, there are ways around dull chatter. You could...

Play a question game

Thinking with question signs and light idea bulb above.There are plenty of question-related books and games designed to start interesting conversations. (Photo: EKS/Shutterstock)

A good way to actually get to know someone and find out intimate things about them is to play a game or get a book that gives you interesting questions to ask each other. That way, you can really get to know someone without awkwardly trying to work this stuff into a conversation.

Ariely and his colleagues ran an experiment in which they gave dating subjects a list of 20 questions and instructed the subjects to only ask questions from that list. "Everybody benefited more from those questions," said Ariely. The question-askers got answers that they cared about, and the question-answerers found the discussion much more interesting.

So next time you're on a date, try asking something along the lines of "What’s your largest goal right now?" or "What were you like as a child?"

Choose an active environment

Sand skiing in Huacachina, PeruNo one forgets a sand-skiing date. (Photo: urosr/Shutterstock)

Consider going bowling, cooking a meal together or doing something else that puts you in an active role. "What are you trying to get out of a date? You're trying to get a glimpse of that person," explained Ariely. While some of that glimpse may come from the question-answer process, a lot of it is about interacting in the world.

For instance, if you and your date go to a concert, "and there are lots of other people around, and vendors and noise," said Ariely, you'll get to know each other in a much more meaningful way than if you two just sat and talked in a quiet room.

Make the ending count

The endGet in a good last scene before the credits start rolling. (Photo: Leszek Glasner/Shutterstock)

People overvalue endings. They don't realize it, but if the end of an experience is good, they often consider the whole experience good, or at least better than it was.

"Think about dinner," Ariely explained. "How do we end a dinner? We end it with a dessert. How would you want to end a vacation? You want to end it on a high note."

Go whitewater canoeing

Canoe racingMaybe try not to get this competitive. (Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images)

OK, it doesn't literally have to be whitewater canoeing, especially if it's winter, or you live in farm country or you hate water. But once you already know the person a bit, it's actually a good idea to pick a date where things are bound to go a little wrong.

"I'm a big proponent of the canoeing test," Ariely explained. "When you're in a canoe, things happen. You hit a rock, you flip over, there's a wave, you get wet ... The question is, how much do you blame the other person? ... Will you blame each other? Will you be collaborative? Will you be friendly?"

Normally, you don't have much to argue about on dates, other than your ride coming late. But lots of bad things happen in real life, and you want to see how you deal with those things together. "It's a wonderful opportunity to basically simulate arguments," said Ariely.


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How to design a scientifically perfect date
A social scientist explains how to win over that special someone (or figure out that someone isn't so special).