21 August 2012


Scott Barry Kaufman has been looking into The Cognitive Psychology of Pick-up Lines.  His findings are of interest to those who are looking for a partner.  When you introduce yourself to someone of interest, what should you say?

It turns out that studies show there are three main types of opening lines ~

  • direct gambits, which are honest and get right to the point ~ for example, "I'm a little shy, but I'd like to know more about you."
  • innocuous gambits, which hide a person's true intentions ~ for example, "How do you like the music tonight?"
  • cute/flippant gambits, which involve humor, but often in a cheesy way ~ for example, "If I told you that you have a great body, would you hold it against me?"
The degree to which one responds favorably depends on one's gender, on whether one is looking for a long-term relationship or a short-term hookup, and on one's state of cognitive alertness or fatigue at the moment.

Gender ~ "Both men and women agreed that cute/flippant pick-up lines were the least attractive.  Women, however, preferred innocuous lines and had a greater aversion to cute/flippant lines than men, while men had a greater preference for direct opening gambits than women.  This basic pattern has been found over and over again in a variety of settings .... Trait perception plays a crucial role.  We don't have direct access to a person's characteristics, so we infer underlying traits from overt behaviors.  One study found that people perceive those who use innocuous lines as smarter and sexier than those who use cute/flippant lines.

Relationship vs. hookup ~ the above generalizations apply to women and men who are looking for a long-term partner.  For those who are looking for a casual hookup, attraction led to success regardless of the content of the pick-up line.  In fact, many such individuals were more receptive to humor and sexually-charged openers.

Cognitive fatigue ~ "When your mind is taxed (or handicapped by too much alcohol), it is much more difficult to process information and regulate your emotions, thoughts, and actions.  Like a muscle, self-control is a limited resource ~ when fatigued, it's hard to flex it .... Those whose brains were cognitively taxed were less receptive to cute/flippant openers compared to those in the non-depletion condition .... In contrast, for innocuous gambits, depleted [individuals] were less likely to ignore the person.  Receptivity to direct gambits was unaffected by being cognitively depleted.

"What explains these effects?  The researchers argue that when it comes to cute/flippant openers, less mental effort is required to figure out the person's intentions.  Mix that in with the fact that a depleted, frazzled individual may have less tolerance for obvious pick-up attempts, and you have an enhanced aversion to cheesy lines.  When it comes to innocuous pick-up lines, however, the person's intentions are much more ambiguous.  This requires more cognitive resources to decipher intent, sometimes too much.  As the researchers note, it's less socially awkward for the brain-depleted individual to continue the conversation until the person's intentions become more obvious."

All of which may be useful as guidelines, but situations and individuals vary from event to event, sometimes from moment to moment.  I'm far from being an expert at breaking the ice with a stranger, but I do trust my instincts.  Simplicity and honesty feel more comfortable to me than putting on a slick act.  So I apparently fall within the gender findings about men preferring direct gambits, and would do well to become more fluent in innocuous gambits.  

Thanks to Andrea Kuszewski for the link to this research.  For some quick comebacks to flippant gambits, click on the image at top.

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