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Sensory Speed Dating and the Science of Attraction

Love at first sight? Such a cliché. But love at first smell, at first listen? Research might just back that up. Miriam Sitz follows her nose — and ears — searching for the science of attraction.


For the past few weeks, Olivia Koski has been recruiting people through email and social media for a little experiment.

Tonight, about 60 New Yorkers will gather in the atrium of a midtown Manhattan building. They’ve paid 20 bucks to find out who’s attracted to whom.

It’s called Sensory Speed Dating.

Koski: So, it’s kind of like double dating, meets speed dating meets science experiment.

Koski is the cofounder of Guerilla Science, the group that’s putting on the event. Participants will be guided through a series of activities — all based on research about how sensory perceptions affect attraction.

The evening will start with conversation — normal… except for the blindfolds. Then…

Koski: People will touch each others faces, you know a more tactile observation of them. (SITZ: Will that be awkward?) I’m sure. I’m sure it will be very awkward.

Later on, she’ll have them do a few jumping jacks, work up a bit of a sweat…

Koski: And then we’ll have them smell each other to test whether or not they have compatibility. (SITZ: And so you’re actually going to have strangers smell each other.) Yes, yeah.

There’s scientific justification for this. The idea that you can pick a partner based on smell, that was proven true 20 years ago by the so-called Sweaty T-Shirt study. Men in the study were asked to wear the same shirt for two days, and then women chose which smelly shirts turned them on most.

Berlin: Basically the study showed that people were attracted to the smell of people who had a different immune system than they had,

Heather Berlin teaches psychiatry and neuroscience at Mount Sinai.

Berlin: …which signaled genetic compatibility. And they called this the major histocompatibility complex. Which is a really large sounding name but it just means odor gives us cues about people’s genetic fitness, and we tend to be attracted to immune systems that are complimentary to our own.

That might not sound sexy, but it makes for healthier reproduction.

Now the forces at play in that experiment are pheromones — chemicals excreted by animals that illicit a response in members of the same species.

Winnifred Cutler is a biologist, and an expert in sex pheromones.

Cutler: They seem to be designed by nature to promote the reproductive life of the species, the longevity of the species.

Early on in her research, she found that sex pheromones could be extracted from women’s underarm sweat, applied to other women, and their menstrual cycles would sync up. But something else was happening.

Cutler: In that data I saw, oh my goodness, look at this, they’re having more contact with men. Something in female essence is serving to increase the sexual behavior of the woman.

Women with an extra dose of pheromones were getting more attention from men. So Cutler isolated the specific compounds that she thought were responsible.

Cutler: We call it a love potion because it actually promoted all kinds of positive effects.

So maybe it’s possible to make yourself smell more appealing. But can you sound more attractive?

Xu: Definitely, it’s not hard at all.

Yi Xu is a professor of speech science at University College London.

Xu: The voice affects people’s perceptions of the person’s attractiveness overall.

His research examined several vocal characteristics. He played synthesized voices for people in the study that were higher and lower in pitch, and breathy versus harsh in voice quality.

According to his results, men and women agree on one thing:

Xu: What matters the most was the voice quality. And for attractiveness, the breathier the better.

Think Marilyn Monroe.

Marilyn: You know what they say about girls with glasses…

And the male ideal? Channel Joey Tribbiani’s pick-up line from “Friends.”

Joey: How you doin’?

Xu: Remember the famous phrase?

Here it is again:

Joey: How you doin’?

Xu: He did exactly what we found, “How you doin?” That is, he used lengthened vocal tract and also breathy voice not pressed voice, and low pitch.

So maybe it’s possible to outsmart nature. But should we? Neuroscientist Heather Berlin.

Berlin: It’s really an ethical question, but we do it all the time with cosmetic surgery, right? Women get breast enhancements. Even wearing contacts for example in a sense is tricking people into believing you have some sort of genetic trait that you really don’t, so it’s just all about where you draw the line, I think.

Ethical questions aside, best of luck to you, Sensory Speed Daters. If all else fails, just remember Yi Xu’s findings.

Xu: According to our study, breathiness should work across the board.

Miriam Sitz, Columbia Radio

Marilyn: I wanna be loved by you….

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