It's no secret that finding love isn't easy, but at least we're not alone in the hunt. There's a wealth of self-improvement guides out there to help us, from The Rules to He's Just Not That Into You. But just how much assistance do these books really provide? Not much, according to Andrew Trees, acclaimed author and journalist. After listening to sisters and friends wax lyrical about one dating manual after another, Trees tried to delve deeper into what made them so popular, but came up empty as it soon became apparent that most could be summed up by a zippy catchphrase and few contained any research or evidence. Want-ing to find out more about the science of attraction, Trees did his research and set about writing Decoding Love, the anti-dating-advice book. Drawing on a variety of studies from different arenas including economics, game theory and evolutionary psychology, Trees uses scientific enquiry to create a more substantial insight into love.
Forget about finding The One
Trees warns that extravagant expectations are counterproductive. "Western romantic myths of the perfect someone actually cause a lot of harm in dating and relationships ... it turns out that our idea that you have to find The One is not very healthy." Consistent with the underlying message of his book, we must be willing to step out of the boundaries of our existing notions about dating. The sad fact is that a lot of us nurture inflated notions about our "market value" and this interferes with what we expect in a partner. Like it or not, Tree found a number of studies that indicated factors such as height and income dictate a man's value while physical beauty is important in determining a woman's, and that there are trade-offs of these qualities that take place in relationships.
Using the findings from a study, "From Pride and Prejudice to Persuasion: Satisficing in mate search", by evolutionary psychologists Peter F Todd and Geoffrey F Miller, Trees illustrates if we are willing to accept a partner that is simply good enough rather than faultless, we should adopt the "try a dozen" rule. After you've dated 12 potential partners, the next person that is better than those 12 will be a good fit. Unfortunately, this is likely to average out as the 33rd person you date – yikes.
Don't compare the market
We live in a world where choice and variety are easily accessible. So much so, we don't have to commit to anything without making a thorough assessment of everything available to us. This should be making dating easier but instead it's immobilising our ability to decide and "distorts what you're looking for," says Trees. He offers an interesting analogy using a group of consumer researchers that set up a jam-tasting stand over two days in a supermarket. Customers were encouraged to taste the jams available and if they liked them, were offered a discount voucher to buy them. On one day, there were six jams and on another, there were 24. When there were six jams available, 30 per cent of samplers went on to buy whereas when there were 24, only 3 per cent became sales.
Too much choice also results in buyer's remorse. Examining your choices so closely forces you to look at the trade-offs you've made or leads you to believe you could be satisfied further. Surveys show that those that stress the most over decisions are the most dissatisfied. Trees advocates we spend time enjoying what we have rather than worrying about what we think we don't.
Eggs are precious but sperm are cheap
In a culture of nifty dating one-liners, this probably wouldn't make the cut, but according to evolutionary psychology it's the natural order of things. This school of thought argues that because women ovulate once a month and are pregnant for nine months at a time, whereas men are able to ejaculate hundreds of millions of sperm several times a day, human mating behaviour has evolved with these biological considerations in mind. Or to put it another way, in heterosexual relationships, men should do the chasing and women should do the choosing.
To illustrate his point that the power really lies in women's hands, Trees cites Matt Ridley's sex and evolution book The Red Queen. He presents linked propositions: that monogamous society will prevail if women find monogamous relationships more advantageous – unless men can force them otherwise. Alternatively, polygamous society will be the result if females prefer choosing men already attached (eg, would you rather be the second wife of Johnny Depp or the first wife of, say, John Prescott?) – unless the women with a partner can persuade them otherwise (don't mess with my man, capice?).
Turn biology to your advantage
Love isn't blind. Trees says it isn't even subjective. Trees highlights surveys that indicate we share common concepts about attraction. We find the same things beautiful because we respond to attractive genetic indicators subconsciously. Male square faces with a manly jaw require a lot of testosterone at puberty to develop, but as testosterone suppresses the immune system, a man who has these features and has survived vulnerability to disease is genetically attractive. Similarly, a genetic fitness signal in women is a small waist-to-hip ratio.
But rather than feel resigned to our genetic inadequacies, Trees suggests that it is also possible to exploit these biological instincts. In a study by Geoffrey Miller, a menstruating lap dancer's tips averaged at $35 and a dancer that was neither menstruating or ovulating averaged at $50, but an ovulating lap dancer could make double what her PMS colleague made at $70. In addition, studies have shown ovulating women dress more provocatively, wear more jewellery and speak more seductively. There is something to be said for finding out your ovulation dates and making the most of it. Alternatively, Trees also suggests that you surround yourself with more attractive people as studies show proximity to beauty increases your own.
Feel the fear – it's an aphrodisiac
Being in a dangerous or exciting situation with someone can heighten attraction because the conscious mind finds it difficult to differentiate between sexual arousal and any other type of arousal. So, we can perceive fear as attraction. An attractive female researcher conducted a study on a bridge of wood and cables that swayed over a 230ft drop. She stopped passing men and asked them questions about scenery before leaving them with her number and telling them to call her. She conducted the same experiment on a safer bridge nearby and found that men from the "scary" bridge were eight times more likely to call. The men instinctively associated the thrill they felt with the woman they encountered while feeling it. Psychologists call this priming. And it's not just fear or even arousal that stimulates good associations. If every time a potential date sees you it's in a warm place, they will associate you with warmth. However, Trees warns, priming doesn't create attraction; it simply intensifies what is already present. Only try and prime somebody who is actually attracted to you, otherwise you'll end up priming their dislike.
Trees warns against what he calls "paralysis by analysis". In a return to jam-related experiments, participants asked to rate the quality of five brands of jam were divided into two groups. One group simply had to pick their favourite, while the other had to qualify their choice. The results of the group that didn't analyse mirrored choices made by professionals. Similarly, in a study where two groups of students had to predict how long their relationships would last, the group asked to scrutinise their relationship before answering were later proved to be less accurate than the group that didn't. For Trees, these findings called to mind a woman he interviewed who had a girly, Sex and the City-style lunch to discuss every guy she met, but all these sessions had done was encourage her to get increasingly particular over irrelevant things. "Over-thinking hurts our ability to come to a good conclusion," Trees says.
You can be happy alone
The joys of being in love aside, the lack of that special somebody is not a reason to despair, Trees reminds us. Finding Mr or Ms Right will not solve all of our problems and it will not necessarily make us happy. "People have a tendency to feel that 'If I can just meet that person ... ' and get really caught up with the idea that they can finally be happy." Trees stresses that happiness is not dependent on finding someone – or on any other life events. He points to a study that compared the happiness of lottery winners, non-winners and paraplegics. Initially, lottery winners were elated but in the long term were no happier than non-winners. In fact, non-winners were reported to still get pleasure from simple things such as watching TV and conversations, while winners found it more difficult to do so. Paraplegics started out despondent but again, in the long term, their happiness was reported to be fractionally less than everybody else's. What was found was that everybody has a pretty constant line of happiness in their life and while both fortunate and distressing events have an impact, these deviations are temporary and soon became just part of your life. The most important factor is having a rich and fulfilling life, with or without someone.
How to click: Top techniques
* Send your introductory emails on a Monday; sending them on the weekend tells others that you've too much spare time.
* Bumping into the object of your desire promotes familiarity – essential in mutual attraction.
* Keep the first meeting short. Women take just five seconds to decide if there is any chemistry and it's 10 seconds for men. So keep a first meeting to just 45 minutes – this will allow you just enough time to test your first feelings.
* If you like someone, try mirroring – and not just movement; it also occurs with speech patterns and tone of voice. It promotes intimacy.
* Try "priming cues"; this is really about getting someone's heart racing and them associating this excitement to being attracted to you. Even the most crude priming mechanisms work – for instance, handing someone a warm drink will make them see you as a warm person.
* When with a new partner, act as if they already have the qualities you like: people try and become the good opinion others have of them.