The Psychology of Attraction: Uncertainty

A while back, I was reading a romance. In the story, the girl meets a charming, handsome guy, and things are proceeding as usual. But then, out of the blue, a boy she’d hated for years suddenly kisses her and runs away. ZOMG! I was mildly interested in guy number one, but when guy number two showed up, I really took notice.

Jump cut to another story, where a girl meets an old flame. He's distant, but sometimes shows flashes of interest. As the shared moments continue, I’m avidly turning the pages. Soon, he's actively courting her -- bringing her lunch and supporting her through emotional trauma, and . . . I lose interest.

In both cases, the guy who might have been attracted to the girl was more interesting to me than the guy who  definitely was attracted to the girl. Which got me to thinking. What is it about uncertainty and attraction?

Well funny I should ask! In fact, there was a recent study . . .

This study was done on female college students. They signed up in advance and gave researchers permission to show their Facebook profiles to others. When the women arrived, researchers told them that they were testing Facebook as an online dating site and that male students from other universities had reviewed their Facebook profiles and rated how much they thought they would like each woman. Then, the women were given Facebook profiles of four men to rate.

And here's the important part. One group was told that these four men had given them the highest ratings (the liked-best condition). One group was told that these four men had given them average ratings (the average-like condition). And yet a third group was told that the four men gave them either high or average ratings (the uncertain condition). In truth, the four men were fictitious.

So which group was most attracted to the men? Participants in the liked-best condition were more attracted to the men than participants in the average-like condition. Women were more attracted to guys who like them.

But here’s the kicker: Participants in the uncertain condition were more attracted to the men than women in either of the other groups. They also reported thinking about the men more often.

So looks like there is something to uncertainty. Perhaps the sheer excitement of wondering is enough to make that hot guy  that much more desirable. So if you're looking to inject some romantic tension into your story, consider making things more uncertain.

Have you read any romances lately that did this?

Whitchurch ER, Wilson TD, & Gilbert DT (2011). "He loves me, he loves me not . . . ": uncertainty can increase romantic attraction. Psychological science, 22 (2), 172-5 PMID: 21169522

Hope you enjoyed this post!  To receive regular updates from the blog, please use the subscription options in the left sidebar.


  1. Interesting study. Women do sometimes shoot themselves in the foot over romance. It's why these same women will marry emotionally distant men and have unhappy marriages.

    I listened to women recently out of miserable relationships complain that they don't like "sensitive" men. They want another bruiser. Go figure.

    In fiction I might enjoy the tension of uncertainty. In real life, not so much.

  2. The book I'm reading right now does that and I must admit, it keeps me turning the pages. Another thing that does that for me is when something threatens the romance.

  3. Interesting! I totally agree that uncertainty in a fictional relationship keeps me interested. That's a major failure I see all too often. Failing uncertainty, we need some pretty major conflict to keep them apart. You know, warring families, holy vows, etc.

    This also makes me think about the vicissitudes of the dating life. I guess it shows just how we women can be so silly, though even we ourselves might not understand why.

    So did they do the study with men?

  4. I would bet that age has something to do with this too. When younger I always found myself in these kind of relationships. When hurt enough, I grew out of it and found a wonderful man who knew what he wanted and went for it -ME. Much better results all around. Maybe its something about how unprepared we really are for commitment when we're younger, so the 'uncertainty' we seek is really only to match our own state (subconscious as it may be)?


  5. I do remember a pattern of girls losing interest the very moment I confessed feelings.

    Women are cruel! :)

  6. I wonder if this emotion extends to other connections other than romance. For example, would a reader be drawn to a character who is uncertain about his quest or objective? Great post!

  7. What a fascinating concept. I write romance so I'll have to remember this study. Great post.

  8. yes, this is a great post. I will crank up the romantic uncertainty in my novel...

    The research study makes sense intuitively. The trick is noticing these things about human quirks and applying them in writing. Thanks, Livia!

    ...a comment about age, though. I know someone in her 50s who refers to her husband as "Velcro man." he is as in love with her today as the day they married 30 years ago. He is puppy-like in his devotion, and in fact, he doesn't like being apart from her. She realizes that she is rarely blessed, but sometimes it gets to her. She remarked that at times she'd feel more in love with him if he'd show signs of straying...

  9. Yes, uncertainty is definitely a potent ingredient. A scene in my novel has my female MC preparing for a date but, due to a texting error, she doesn't know whether the date is with her ex or this guy she just met. I didn't know whether it would be interesting when I wrote it, but my beta readers have all loved those lead-up scenes (so far!). Uncertainty wins again!

  10. Thanks for the thoughts, everyone! Sadly, my voice rec microphone broke, so I can't respond personally this week, but I'm enjoying reading everybody's thoughts!

  11. It makes sense - in an odd way. Wanting what you can't have but not what doesn't want you. Also, I think both sexes generally like 'the chase' - if it's too easy it doesn't seem as worthwhile, somehow.

  12. It's definitely the unspoken chemistry that keeps us wanting more. It's why so many couples have trouble staying married. They want that uncertainty that makes the relationship exciting.

  13. Slot machines are more profitable than a coke machine. Why?

    Behavior that is reinforced intermittently is much more difficult to extinguish than behavior that is reinforced continuously. People are not sure they are going to get a reward every time or how often, so they keep pulling the handle.

    Stalking on Facebook is like a slot machine. The payouts are unpredictable, but when they do... Wow! Just like a slot machine...

    Is that why people get addicted?

  14. strongly agree
    the unfinished business results in more thinking
    more thinking leads to more attachment

  15. in other words how society almost has you trained or brainwashed into thinking that you can cause another person to feel a certain way