Can you will a "spark" to happen?

In this blog, we have a go at answering a question from Twitter.

Some people go on a date and click instantly. The chemistry is amazing, it feels completely natural, conversation flows effortlessly. That's the dream.

Most dates, of course, aren't quite like that. There are awkward pauses, one of you says something embarrassing, or you slowly realise that your outlooks on life are very different. So how much do those things really matter? If you get on well but don't feel that kind of deep, instinctive connection, should you give up?

Of course, the answer depends partly on who you are and where you're up to in life. If you're desperate to settle down and start a family, you might care less about fireworks and more about finding someone caring, loyal, and devoted. But if you've got years to kill and lots of romantic options, "sweet and kind" might not quite cut it.

For our purposes here, let's say you're in something more like the first group. You've met someone who's a great match for you, but for some reason the chemistry isn't there. Can you will it to work?

We've blogged previously about an experiment along these lines, run back in the halcyon days of OkCupid. The short version: pairs who were told that they were more compatible than the algorithm said they were ended up behaving very compatibly; pairs who were told that they were less compatible than the algorithm said behaved as if that were true, even when it wasn't.

The experiment had limitations, chiefly that its success metric was to do with how many messages each couple exchanged. Those messages didn't have to say anything positive to count as successful, meaning a protracted back-and-forth of "I hate you" and "I would rather drink bleach than go on a date with you" would be recorded as a success, whereas "I think you are the most beautiful human I've ever seen" and "Thanks, let's stop chatting here and meet up immediately" would be recorded as a failure.

Nonetheless, we know people are fairly suggestible on the whole. It's why marketing works, and why eyewitnesses are often wrong. Naturally, some people are more suggestible than others, although we don't really know why: there's a lot of debate about how suggestibility breaks down by gender, but at least one large metastudy has found no link. In fact it found very few traits that were clearly positively correlated with suggestibility, with the possible exceptions of creativity and insecure parenting. Stress was found to correlate both positively and negatively with suggestibility. IQ had minimal bearing on the matter, at least in children.

An aside: in adults, whilst no overall gender difference in suggestibility is obvious, women may be marginally more susceptible to hypnosis, possibly because they have a more positive attitude towards it. But they also may be no more suggestible than men. Alternatively, we may never know, because nobody has done any analysis on what happens when you use a female hypnotist. Some research has found men to be more confident in their false reports than women, and attractive men more suggestible than attractive women, but we'd urge caution on reading too much into those findings either.

This is a long way of saying that psychologists have almost no idea what makes some people more suggestible than others. Yet it's a surprisingly powerful tool in the would-be romantic's arsenal. We are generally better at persuading ourselves than other people are at persuading us: if you want someone to believe something, get them to role-play convincing you of it. People are more likely to stop smoking if you get them to give a talk about it than if they merely listen to the same arguments, partly because humans don't like the cognitive dissonance that results from saying things we don't actually believe.

This is particularly interesting in a romantic context. When someone is enthusiastic about their partner and temptation is introduced (in the form of an alternative romantic prospect), the enthusiastic person will typically persuade themselves of negative information about the alternative prospect, such as a lack of fundamental compatibility between the pair of them. It's a defence mechanism that's not seen in people whose feelings about their existing partner are those of obligation. And it seems to work. We can also deliberately persuade ourselves to forgive others, including partners, who've hurt us.

There is no reason to think self-persuasion can't be equally powerful in relationship initiation. So tell yourself (or, better, your friends) all about the attractive features of someone you'd like to pair up with, and the feelings might just set in for real.

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