Sex Question Friday: Do Pick-Up Artists Really Know What They’re Talking About?


Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader of the blog who wanted to know whether there’s any science to back up the techniques promoted by professional pick-up artists.  

Have you read 'The Game' by Neil Strauss? In the book, Neil learns that (among other things) he needs to dress well, and with style, to get the ladies. It's advice that's common enough. But what, if any, is the evolutionary appeal to favor men who can dress well? Also I'd love to hear your thoughts on seduction/pickup-artistry/The Game.

Great questions! Regarding Strauss’ advice to dress well, there is actually some science behind it. Evolutionary psychologists believe that men and women have developed preferences for different characteristics in their partners in order to maximize their chances of reproductive success. It is thought that men have evolved a tendency to focus on physical beauty because it tells them something about a woman's health and fertility, whereas women have evolved a tendency to emphasize a partner’s status and resources because it helps them to avoid getting pregnant by a man who cannot support his own children [1]. Historically, clothing has been a sign of a person’s social status and income, and research has confirmed that clothing does indeed affect which men heterosexual women are drawn to.

For instance, in one study, female participants rated their interest in men who were wearing one of three costumes: a Burger King employee uniform (to depict lower socio-economic status), a plain white tee-shirt (to depict medium socio-economic status), or a shirt and tie with a fancy jacket draped across the shoulder (to depict high socio-economic status) [2]. Results indicated that women were most attracted to the well-dressed men and expressed greater willingness to have sex with and marry these guys compared to the men wearing tee-shirts and fast food uniforms. Importantly, this effect held regardless of how physically attractive the man was to begin with, which means that good clothes can compensate for lower levels of attractiveness. Consistent with this idea, women rated unattractive but well-dressed guys as better relationship prospects than attractive guys who wore cheaper clothes.

As for your more general question about pick-up artistry, there isn’t really much (if any) research to back up the claims made by those who have made a living out of selling and promoting their pick-up techniques. Thus, we do not really know whether they work. I will say that negging, one of the most commonly promoted techniques, would appear to be rather dubious from a psychological standpoint. Negging refers to the act of pointing out a negative feature or characteristic of another person as a means of catching their attention. “Negs” are basically mild insults or teases and they are supposed to work by virtue of their novelty (i.e., they are thought to be a better attention-grabber). I am unaware of any studies that have tested the effectiveness of negging, but I would argue that it’s a pretty high risk strategy. Research indicates that we typically like people who make us feel good [3]. Negging is risky because teasing has a strong potential to turn the other person off or to make them feel bad. Consistent with this, research has found that women rate cutesy and flippant pick-up lines very poorly [4]. Thus, if I were you, I wouldn’t waste my money on hiring a professional pick-up artist to teach you the tricks of the trade because the reality is that they are not teaching you scientifically validated techniques and there is no guarantee that someone else’s personal experiences and anecdotes will work when you apply them to your own life.

For past Sex Question Friday posts, see here. Want to learn more about The Psychology of Human Sexuality? Click here for a complete list of articles or like the Facebook page to get articles delivered to your newsfeed.

[1] Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204

[2] Townsend, J., & Levy, G. D. (1990). Effects of potential partners' costume and physical attractiveness on sexuality and partner selection. Journal of Psychology, 124, 371.

[3] Forgas, J. P., & Bower, G. H. (1987). Mood effects on person-perception judgments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 53-60. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.53.1.53

[4] Kleinke, C., Meeker, F., & Staneski, R. (1986). Preference for opening lines: Comparing ratings by men and women. Sex Roles, 15, 585-600. doi: 10.1007/bf00288216

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