It's widely considered the spark that ignites romance, but a team of researchers wanted to know exactly what heterosexual singles mean by saying they're seeking a partner who is responsive to their needs because, as results indicate, inconsistencies in expectations can shake things up.
Although men are more likely to become sexually attracted to a responsive woman, the question of responsiveness was less important to female participants during early dating.
"Sexual desire thrives on rising intimacy and being responsive is one of the best ways to instill this elusive sensation over time," says lead researcher Gurit Birnbaum. "Our findings show that this does not necessarily hold true in an initial encounter, because a responsive potential partner may convey opposite meanings to different people."
Researchers hailing from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya, the University of Rochester and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign examined data compiled from three studies conducted in Isreal involving a total of 297 unpaid participants.
The aim of the first study, which involved 28 men and 28 women between the ages of 20 and 33, was to establish different impressions of responsiveness between the genders and understand whether it is mainly perceived as a masculine or feminine trait.
Men were more likely to be sexually attracted to women they perceived as responsive and also considered them to be more feminine than those who weren't.
On the contrary, women were not likely to fall for a man based on his responsiveness, and it could sometimes negatively affect men who reached out.
In the second study, which included 79 women and 82 men, participants were asked to interact in person, view photos of each other and chat online, and it elaborated on the results of the first, giving researchers the impression that for women, responsiveness could be a question of trust.
"Some women, for example, may interpret responsiveness negatively and feel uncomfortable about a new acquaintance who seems to want to be close," says Dr. Birnbaum. "Such feelings may impair sexual attraction to this responsive stranger."
Complicating matters further, this wasn't always the case, for Birnbaum points out that some women appreciated the warm and caring impressions the strangers left, viewing them as possible life partners.
The objective of the final study, which involved 80 heterosexual men between the ages of 20 and 31, was to determine if female responsiveness activates actual mechanisms in men that motivate them to pursue the relationship.
Researchers say it does, and that mechanism is sexual arousal, simply put.
Because female responsiveness engages the sex drive, it leads men to perceive their partner as feminine and desirable and ignites the male motivation to pursue a long-term relationship.
What mechanism motivates women in the same way is still not clear to researchers, although it's likely that the question of trust comes into play based on safety and gender stereotypes.
"Women may perceive this person as inappropriately nice and manipulative (i.e., trying to obtain sexual favors) or eager to please, perhaps even as desperate, and therefore less sexually appealing," says Birnbaum.
Birnbaum also pointed out the possibility that women could perceive a responsive stranger as being less dominant, even vulnerable.
Plenty of mystery remains on the feminine side of the study.
"We still do not know why women are less sexually attracted to responsive strangers; it may not necessarily have to do with 'being nice.' Women may perceive a responsive stranger as less desirable for different reasons," Birnbaum cautions.
"Regardless of the reasons, perhaps men should slow down if their goal is to instill sexual desire."
The study was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
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