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‘Heart rate and skin conductance predict romantic attraction’

Synchronised heart rates and skin conductance tell us that people are attracted to each other. This explains why we feel a romantic ‘click’ with some people and not with others. This is the result of research by psychologist Eliska Prochazkova from the Leiden Institute for Brain and Recognition, which has been published in Human Nature Behaviour.

Partner choice is based on a gut feeling, what we call a ‘click’. You feel this with some people and not with others. Psychologist Eliska Prochazkova researched how this feeling of romantic connection comes about during blind dates. She discovered that synchronised heart rates and skin conductance reactions can predict attraction between two people. This is the first study to show that the ability to synchronise with a partner at a physiological level is an important predictor of sexual attraction during the first encounters.

Heart rate increases together

The researchers set up ‘dating cabins’ at different events, including Lowlands, and invited singles to go on a blind date. A total of 140 young people were randomly assigned a date. The pairs were given eye-tracking glasses that registered their eye movements and other equipment measured their skin conductance, or the perspiration on their fingers, along with their heart rate. Like the heart rate, skin conductance is a measure of activation of the nervous system. Prochazkova: ‘We found that if the dates were attracted to their partner, their heart rate synchronised with that of their date. If one person’s heart rate increased, then the other’s did too. And if their heart rate decreased, so too did the other’s. The skin conductance followed the same pattern. The attraction between dating couples seems to grow if they synchronise at this deeper level.’

‘Men stare more at women’ 

Picking up on micro-expressions

Syncing with your partner’s heart rate and skin conductance could be caused by micro-expressions. These are tiny expressions that are not visible to the naked eye. ‘They can be small blinks of the eye, for instance,’ she says. ‘As you unconsciously perceive these micro-expressions in someone else, you feel good because you notice that he or she understands you on an emotional level. This causes your heart rate to increase. This is probably what happens if you find someone romantically attractive.’

Old, evolutionary mechanisms

What is striking is that, in contrast to what is often thought, visible external signals that we can control, such as facial expressions or eye contact, do not predict the attraction between people. ‘Women in the study made a lot of use of these kinds of signals in the form of gestures and smiling. Men, on the other hand, stare at women more; they look at women’s faces, eyes and bodies for longer. But none of these signals predicted the extent to which one person was attracted to another. It’s the invisible, internal signals such as heart rate and skin conductance that determine this. This research shows that old, evolutionary mechanisms still have an enormous impact on our behaviour.’

Social glue

Synchronisation of physiological states can be important for other types of social relationship, such as between a parent and child or a patient and therapist. It may prove possible to develop methods that promote this synchrony. Music can act as a ‘social glue’, for instance.

Publication ‘Physiological synchrony is associated with attraction in a blind date settinging’ in Nature Human Behaviour

Text: Carin Röst
Photo above article: HJL/Flickr (edited)


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