In the Beginning: Part 2 of 4

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Stanford professors Daniel McFarland and Dan Jurafsky published “Making the Connection: Bonding in Courtship Situations”, a study on how people develop initial romantic bonds, or “click”, using the arena of speed dating, in May’s American Journal of Sociology. The series “In the Beginning” elaborates the study’s findings.

In part one of “In the Beginning”, McFarland and Jurafsky discovered that physical beauty matters in determining clicking. Beauty augments mystique: assuming I have the courage to speak to her in the first place, I’m willing to initially overlook the fact that Kate Beckinsale might be a selfish jerk because she’s drop-dead gorgeous. However, in the speed dating game, the beautiful former cheerleader did not receive the most votes from male daters, nor did the studly former football star from female daters.

McFarland and Jurafsky determined that interactions do matter, even those forged in the four minute constructs of the speed date, and evaluated the qualities of interaction that led to emotional clicking, as well as interactions that mattered for each gender. This is the brilliance of the study: daters are forced to construct awkward, quick-paced conversations that give a semblance of what qualities and interests each dater contains without sharing too much information (after all, nobody likes a braggart). The interaction process that ensues in the four-minute conversation determines the wedge between date-worthy and not date-worthy.

k7769McFarland and Jurafsky expound upon the research of University of Penn sociologist Randall Collins, who elaborated on work by Emile Durkheim to write Interaction Ritual Chains. Collins explains that people create “social solidarity” by comfortably developing a routine script, or “synchronization”, of interactions. (Please note that the cited phrases refer to McFarland and Jurafsky’s article rather than Collins’ writing, although you can read the first chapter of Collins’ book here.) Sometimes, dyads can be synchronized antagonistically, where individuals respond to perceived negative non-verbals with stronger, more negative non-verbals, creating a negative feedback loop. Other times, dyads synchronize around emotional excitement, or “intensification”. McFarland and Jurafsky write that emotional intensification “gives sacredness and value to an exchange that it otherwise mundane” (p. 1600).

Dyads that created emotional intensification in their four minute speed dates were the most likely couples to click. Daters were microphoned throughout their speed dates, and their conversations were not only scripted but evaluated for non-verbals. The Stanford professors discovered that men who laughed, particularly in synchrony with the women’s laugh, varied their loudness, and spoke from a similar pitch variance (though not monotone) were most likely to receive emotionally intense responses. Women who spoke softer, with some volume variation, raised and varied their pitch, and took shorter turns speaking also received emotionally excited responses from their partners. These emotional inflections happened in tandem, allowing for greater likelihood of mutual appreciation and sympathy, and creating a shared, emotionally exciting conversation.

We will discuss various communication theories on this blog, but most can be reduced to a similar concept: context and non-verbals, including body posture, tone, and flow of speech, matter significantly more than literal content, even in the establishment of clicking.

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