Looking for love may take much less time than most people think. A new study suggests that people can assess a potential mate in moments rather than months.

Researchers surveyed participants of a speed dating service and found that the men and women made their dating decisions based primarily on visible physical attributes, like height, weight and attractiveness, and placed relatively little importance on other factors.

"Although they had three minutes, most participants made their decision based on the information that they probably got in the first three seconds," says Robert Kurzban, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, in a news release. "Somewhat surprisingly, factors that you might think would be really important to people, like religion, education, and income, played very little role in their choices."

"Some people say they're looking for one kind of person, then choose another. Other people say they don't even know what they’re looking for. But our data suggest that, however it happens, people know it quickly when they see it," says Kurzban. "People generally understand their own worth on the dating market, so they are able to judge each other's potential compatibility within moments of meeting."

The results of the study are scheduled for publication in an upcoming issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.

Looking for Love in a Glance

In the study, researchers analyzed surveys from 10,526 anonymous participants of HurryDate, a company that organizes “speed dating” sessions in which a group of about 25 men and 25 women has three minutes to interact with each other on a one-on-one basis and decide whether they’d be interested in contacting each other in the future by indicating a “yes” on their scorecard.

Researchers analyzed the percentage of “yeses” that a person received from a member of the opposite sex and found that women were much more selective than men. On average, men were selected by 34 percent of the women, and the women were selected by 49 percent of men.

The study also showed that physically observable traits were the biggest predictors of how often a person was selected as a desirable mate by the opposite sex.

Men who were more attractive, taller, and younger were chosen more frequently regardless of whether they were being selected by women who were similar to them in terms of physical attributes, although racial preferences were also prevalent.

A woman’s desirability was also strongly related to her physical attributes, although her BMI (body mass index, a measure of weight in relation to height) played a bigger role, and it wasn’t unusual for men to choose women who were thinner than they were.

Overall, men at events were strongly attracted to women who were thin, young, attractive, and of a similar race. Women preferred men who are physically attractive, tall, young, of medium build, and of a similar race.

Women’s preferences didn’t seem to be strongly determined by a single trait, but they were collectively driven by superficial appearance.

New Clues on the Dating Game

Researchers say the speed dating survey offered a unique opportunity to study how people actually behave when selecting a mate vs. how they say they would act in such situations.

"The actual behavior of people is worth more to us than their stated beliefs,” says Kurzban. “In this case, because participants might suffer the consequences of a bad date with someone who might look compatible on paper, they had more incentive to follow their hearts and desires."

They say the results showed that both men and women are aware that they are in a market and know how to respond to market forces. For example, men and women who rated themselves low on desirability said “yes” to a higher proportion of potential dates.

Researchers say these results apply only to assessments men and women make in situations in which they are meeting potential mates for the first time and may not apply to repeated interactions.

By Jennifer Warner, Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Kurzban, R. Evolution and Human Behavior. News release, University of Pennsylvania.