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The Psychology of Pick-Up Lines

First impressions matter, and our opening few lines can either energize the interaction or cause the other person to look around for the nearest exit.

Every relationship begins with that first step. Some people never get past that first step. First impressions matter, and our opening few lines can either energize the interaction or cause the other person to look around for the nearest exit. Gratefully, psychologists have spent years of celibacy trying to understand the psychology behind pick-up lines for your own benefit.

In the '80s Chris Kleinke and colleagues analyzed the effectiveness of 100 pick-up lines across a number of different settings, including bars, supermarkets, restaurants, laundromats, and beaches. They found three main categories of openers:

  1. Direct gambits, which are honest and get right to the point ( e.g., "I'm sort of shy, but I'd like to get to know you")
  2. Innocuous gambits, which hide a person's true intentions ( e.g., "What do you think of this band?")
  3. Cute/flippant gambits, which involve humor, but often in a cheesy, canned way ( e.g., "Do you have any raisins? No? Well then, how about a date?")*

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, including singles bars. What's going on?

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. Another study found that while women perceived men who use silly pick-up lines as more sociable, confident, and funny, they also perceived them as less trustworthy and intelligent. While all these traits are certainly valued in a mate, research shows that low trustworthiness and low intelligence are deal breakers for a long-term relationship, overriding other "luxuries," such as humor and confidence.

Women are rightfully skeptical of cute/flippant pick-up lines: Research shows that those with a long-term mating strategy tend to use supportive and honest pick-up strategies, whereas those with a short-term strategy tend to use manipulation and dishonesty. I should note that when a woman is looking for a short-term fling, it may be an entirely different story: One study conducted on college students found that women were willing to have a short-term fling with men they were attracted to, regardless of the content of his pick-up lines! More stable individual differences also play a role, with extraverts and those with a general orientation toward "hook-ups" vs. long-term committed relationships being more receptive to humor and sexually charged pick-up lines.

While all these findings are informative, they don't address moment-to-moment mental fluctuations. We're not machines, with a steady supply of cognitive resources on command. Receptivity to pick-up lines involves cognitive processing, which requires thought. A certain amount of mental energy is required to follow the conversation and cut through the bullhonkey to figure out a person's true intentions. But your mental state at any given moment is influenced by a number of factors, including how much stress you've experienced that day, or even just before the current conversation. If you've already been hit by a barrage of cute/flippant lines, your brain may feel a bit fatigued.

Cognitive fatigue matters. When your mind is taxed, 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. This has important implications for interpersonal relationships: People in monogamous relationships whose brains are tired spend more time looking at attractive potential mates, are more likely to accept a coffee date from an attractive person, report more interest in an attractive person who is not their partner, and are more likely to actually cheat. Actually, in that last study, cognitively fatigued individuals were more likely to actually have sex with their current partner during the experiment!

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