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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.

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But how does this relate to receptivity to pick-up lines? Does a person's mental state affect how a pick-up line is perceived? In a recent study Gary Lewandowski and colleagues gave 99 undergraduates a five-minute writing task in which they were asked to describe a recent trip. In the "ego-depletion" condition, students were told they couldn't use the letters A or N anywhere in the story, whereas in the "non-depletion" condition, they weren't given this cognitively taxing instruction. After the writing task, participants looked at a picture of an attractive opposite-sex person and rated how they would respond if the person approached them, using one of three categories of openers: direct, innocuous, or cute/flippant. What did they find?

Those whose brains were cognitively taxed were less receptive to cute/flippant openers compared with those in the non-depletion condition. In the context of cute/flippant pick-up lines, those in the depleted group were more likely to "ask the initiator to leave them alone" and "ignore the initiator." In contrast, for innocuous gambits, the depleted students were less likely to ignore the person and ask the person to leave them alone. Receptivity to direct gambits was unaffected by being cognitively depleted. There were also gender effects consistent with the prior research I mentioned earlier. Men were more receptive to direct openers, and females were more receptive to innocuous openers. Also, women were least receptive to cute/flippant openers.

What explains these effects? The researchers argue that when it comes to cute/flippant openers, less mental effort is required to figure out the persons' 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 much 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.

There are obvious implications here. Pick-up lines are uttered in bars and clubs all across the globe, to people who probably aren't using their full cognitive resources. I think it's fair to say that if you want to accurately perceive a person's intentions, don't go overboard with the alcohol or enter a pick-up-line-rich environment when you've had a cognitively taxing day. And what about the other side of the coin? Well, if you have difficulty chatting with people without using corny jokes riddled with blatant sexual intent, you may want to work on toning it down or work on being more witty and contextually appropriate* -- or else you may just make an excellent pick-up line researcher!

Scott Barry Kaufman is Scientific Director of The Imagination Institute in the Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

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