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Are Women Born Picky? The Sadie Hawkins Effect Says Gender Role Can be Reversed in Dating

Please imagine that a girl and a guy are at a party, and one of them approaches the other and strikes up a talk. Chances are that when you are envisioning the scenario, you presumably assign the guy to be the one who approached the other. Psychologists call this behavioral scripts, a sequence of events that we typically expect to happen in social situations. In most cultures, norms or expectations about male and female dating behaviors, for instance, guy approaches girl, are so entrenched that there appear special days or dances where the roles of male and female are flipped. On Sadie Hawkins Day (traditionally observed in early November) or a Sadie Hawkins Dance, females have the chance to break social norms and ask males out on a date or to a dance. In order to study such dating behaviors, researchers arranged somewhat unique experience of speed-dating.

First, let’s say a little bit about speed-dating. It is a structured way for daters to meet with a lot of people quickly. In traditional speed-dating, women sit at different locations in a room, usually a coffee shop or bar, while men circulate and chat with each woman for a couple of minutes. A signal will notify men if time is up and men should move along to the next woman, until everyone in the event has “dated” each other. Then, male and female participants will tell the organizer who they want to meet again. When the male and female indicate mutual interest, the event organizer will give them each other’s contact information—the rest of the task would be taken by the couple. If everything is done efficiently, a speed-dating allows a dater to meet over a dozen of potential dating partners within one hour.



A scene at a speed-dating. *Image source: ttunonverbalcoms.wordpress.com

You can see that the typical speed-dating depends heavily on the norm “guy approaches girl”. Speed-dating study reveals that—consistent with norm expectations—females are pickier than males when showing interest in potential partners [1]. Generally, women indicate interest in roughly a third of men while women indicate interest in about a third. [2] However, some other researchers wanted to know if this apparent gender difference was really a gender difference, or it was just the result of the social situation. [3] Specifically speaking, they were interested if the results were a byproduct of women sitting in a place while men circulated in the room and accosted.

In order to test this, the researchers invited over 300 undergraduate students to take part in speed-dating events. In half of the events, the students engaged in the conventional speed-dating procedure of men approaching women. For the other events, the participants performed a Sadie Hawkins-like role reversal—men sit at one place and women circulated around the room.

In the typical “men circulating” events, the researchers found that women were picker about who they liked compared with men. This result replicated previous findings and supported the prevailing stereotypes. More importantly, in the non-standard “women circulating” events, where women and men switched roles, it was found that the exact opposite pattern—men became the pickier whereas women were less selective. In other words, there existed a “Sadie Hawkins Effect”, such that when females were rotate from one man to another during a speed-dating event, they acted like stereotypical men by stating that they had interest in more of their potential partners.

women fight for a man

In a non-standard “women circulating” events, men became the pickier. *Image source: crspiritsproteam.com


These results suggest a widely assumed gender difference—females are picky about who they like while men are not—could largely be an artifact of social situations. Men are less picky, not because they are men, but because social norms need them to be responsible for the approaching in dating and that women’s selectivity originates from their ability to wait for their potential suitors to come. Said another way, if you have a lot of experience of potential suitors approaching you, it will be easier for you to become picky.

Furthermore, this brings up a border point: It is too easy to presume that women and men are widely different due to inborn difference. However, we should be careful not to make such assumptions without first thinking about other potential explanations.


  1. Todd, P. M., Penke, L., Fasolo, B., & Lenton, A. P. (2007). Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of The United States of America104(38), 15011-15016. doi:10.1073/pnas.0705290104
  2. Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior26(3), 227-244. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012
  3. Finkel, E. J., & Eastwick, P. W. (2009). Arbitrary social norms influence sex differences in romantic selectivity.Psychological Science20(10), 1290-1295. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02439.x

 Source: Science of Relationships.

Image source: oraclenewspaper.com

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