What Determines the Success of First Dates? Psycho-Social Factors that Impact Mate Choice in Pre-Mating Encounters

By Lukas Holschuh
2014, Vol. 6 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |


First dates are social phenomena of sexual selection. Successful mating depends not only on assortative mating, but also on interpersonal and situational factors that lead to a positive result in pre-mating encounters. To examine the factors that influence the success of pre-mating encounters, this study analyzes public texts on the success of first dates. Themes were identified in five accounts of ordinary people found online using keywords. This and other research reveals that first dates seem to serve the purpose of testing if a particular romantic relationship is both possible and desirable with another person.

The success of first dates is determined by a variety of psycho-social factors, rather than phenotype similarity. An interplay of an individual’s inner and outer worlds, that is intrapersonal factors (mate selection, mate choice, goals, personality) and interpersonal and situational factors (communication, behavioural scripts, location, time frame) is primarily resposible for determining the success or failure of a first date. This research therefore supports the intuitively apparent conclusion that mate choice is in large part socially constructed.

Heterosexual dating can be seen as a social phenomenon of sexual selection. First dates enable possible mating partners to assess their compatibility and make sexual and romantic choices. How we choose mating partners may be largely determined by assortative mating, that is a tendency to choose partners with similar genotypes or phenotypes (appearance), rather than random mating (Botwin, Buss, & Shackelford, 1997; Buss & Barnes, 1986; Thiessen & Gregg, 1980; Vandenburg, 1972).

However, while assortative mating may be able to explain initial attraction, successful mating also depends on interpersonal and situational factors that occur, most typically, in pre-mating encounters (i.e., dating). Additionally, phenotype preferences may be culturally influenced or even entirely socially constructed. This study therefore addresses the influence of perceptions during pre-mating encounters using a qualitative approach, with a focus on determing which factors are most important for the success of a first date.

What factors are most important in determining the success of a first date?

Literature Review

Factors that influence dating behaviour and mate selection can be divided into two broad categories (a variation of the four levels of analysis in social psychology (Doise, 1980)): intrapersonal, i.e., what is going on inside of the individual (goals, assortative mating) and  including the individual’s belief systems; and interpersonal and situational, that is the interaction between individuals (scripts, social roles) and their societal positions, as well as factors in the external environment (location). It is thus an interaction of an individual’s inner and outer worlds that determines the outcome of a first date.

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Intrapersonal Factors

Assortative mating. Possibly the best documented theory on human mating is assortative mating (Botwin et al., 1997). Similarity plays a key role in mate choice. Individuals choose other individuals that show more similar characteristics to their own over individuals with less similar characteristics (Botwin et al., 1997; Buss & Barnes, 1986; 1976; Thiessen & Gregg, 1980; Vandenburg, 1972). We tend to choose partners with similar genotypes or phenotypes rather than to mate randomly.

Previous studies have shown positive correlations between partners’ phenotypes. We tend to choose mates with similar attitudes, age, socioeconomic status, religion, ethnicity, intelligence and personality (Botwin et al., 1997; Buss & Barnes, 1986; Thiessen & Gregg, 1980; Vandenburg, 1972). We also prefer mates with similar physical traits (1976; Thiessen & Gregg, 1980; Vandenburg, 1972), such as height, hair colour and eye colour (Vandenburg, 1972). Men thereby weigh beauty more than women, while women weigh psychological and social characteristics more than do men (Vandenburg, 1972). Women prefer mates with higher levels of socially desirable personality characteristics (Botwin et al., 1997).

A study by Hill et al. (1976) found college couples that had been dating for several months to be more likely to stay together if they were of similar age, had like-minded educational plans and were similarly physically attractive and intelligent. However, they did not find this to be true for other characteristics, such as social class, religion, sex-role traditionalism, religiosity, or desired family size, suggesting that filtering of these characteristics occurred at an earlier stage. Becoming bored with the relationship and differences in interest were thereby important factors for breakup.

First date goals. Going on a first date does not however need to be solely motivated by mating considerations. A study by Mongeau et. al. (2004) surveyed undergraduate students about their goals to go on a first date. They identified three categories: relational, social and personal goals. Having fun, reducing uncertainty, investigating romantic potential, creating or strengthening a friendship, and having sex, were identified as primary goals for the outcome of first dates.

Findings also suggest that a first date stands before a possible romantic interest and is rather used to test for and create the basis for romantic potential. The authors suggest that success of a date depends on the compatibility of each partner’s goals.

A later study found similar results (Mongeau, Jacobsen, & Donnerstein, 2007). It suggested, on the other hand, that single adults’ goals differ from college students’ goals since they emphasize commitment as a possible dating outcome more heavily than do college students.

Interpersonal and Situational Factors

Behavioural scripts. Out of a behaviourist perspective, people store scripts of how to behave and what to expect in specific situations. Differences in these scripts represent different expectations which influences mate selection. If partners’ scripts differ considerably, they may not be compatible. An otherwise successful date may fail because the conflicting expectations are not met sufficiently.

A study conducted by Serewicz and Gale (2008) examined the behavioural scripts of young adults for first dates. The authors identified an overall script based on the actions participants’ expected to occur on a first date. Actions expected by at least 50 percent of participants were get ready, pick up date (by man), go to movie, pay (by man), talk, go to a cafe/party, talk, walk/drive home (by man), kiss, future plans. Bartoli and Diane Clark (2006) found going to a movie or dinner and taking the woman home with a goodnight kiss to be scripted by college students across sexes and age groups. Sexual expectations and the variety of scripted events increased by age.

Social roles. Serewicz and Gale’s (2008) findings showed that participants had fairly conservative views of gender roles. Eighty-eight percent of participants expected the man to pick up the woman, and 68 percent expected the man to walk or drive the woman home. Participants also expected the man to pay for the date.

Notably, men were more likely to expect sexual activity than women while women were more likely to expect a kiss than men. There were also different expectations depending on who initiated the date. Men were more likely to expect more than kissing on a female-initiated date than on a male-initiated date, while women were more likely to expect a kiss on a male-initiated date than a female-initiated date.

Location. Serewicz and Gale (2008) also found variations in scripts depending on where the date took place. On a party date, more sexual behaviour but less communicative intimacy were expected than on a coffee shop date.


Studies on assortative mating have primarily focused on relationships between couples or spouses (Botwin et al., 1997; Buss & Barnes, 1986; 1976; Thiessen & Gregg, 1980; Vandenburg, 1972). However, there is little known about how sexual selection works in the event of a first date. Little research has been done on when exactly assortative mating takes place.

That is to say, we could select possible mating partners before, after or during a first date. It could also be a gradual process happening over time in longer term relationships. That is, there could be a difference between mate selection and choice. Do we select before we choose? Or do we choose before we select?

It has also not been addressed how goals and behavioural scripts relate to sexual selection. There seem to be more than mating goals involved in first dates, and failure to adhere to behavioural scripts may disrupt the whole mating process. Success could thus be a question of compatibility of goals and behavioural scripts rather than similarity. Also, goals and scripts, as well as phenotype preferences may be subject to individual and cultural variation.

To examine these factors, that is individual’s own initial selection criteria - the factors that are decisive for the success of a first date -, a thematic analysis was necessary to best capture individual variations. We sought to explore the inner and outer worlds of normal (non-academic) people in their everyday explanations on first dates. In particular, the aim of this study was to identify themes in people’s accounts that are important factors for the success of a first date. sucess determined solely by phenotype

Is assortative mating, that is phenotype similarity, an important factor for the success of pre-mating encounters, or is it rather a variety of psycho-social factors that determine mate choice?


Data Collection

In a small group of four researchers, we developed the research question. We then identified data sources. Using Google’s search engine, we looked for public texts talking about first dates. We used keywords like “first date expectations”, “first date good”, “expectations for first dates” and “first date mistakes”. We thereby included texts that we found interesting and that appeared on the first two result pages.

After reading the texts, we then either decided to use them for our analysis or not. The only criteria was that the texts had to be interesting and were accounts of ordinary people. Originally, we also included articles that summarised research findings in an informal way but these were omitted by me later. We decided to use five texts (Arianna & Doc, 2013; Great(ish)Expectations, 2011; Greene, n.d.; MetroReporter, n.d.; s.e.Jones, n.d.) for our analysis (plus the ones omitted by me).


We then analysed the texts using thematic analysis, as outlined by Braun and Clarke (2006). We first read the texts and highlighted everything that seemed interesting with regard to first dates. We summarised relevant sections with codes and looked for connections, that is similar or contrasting information.

During and after coding, we developed overarching themes to include the identified codes. We used a whiteboard to organise codes into themes. I later transcribed these codes and themes into a digital mind-map where they could be rearranged. I also reread all texts and identified additional codes. I continued to arrange codes into themes while starting to write the report and reviewing research literature.

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