We sought to examine perceived nervous reactions when first interacting with a particularly attractive person/potential romantic partner. From a theoretical standpoint, we cogitate on the possible adaptive nature of these reactions that appear seemingly counterproductive for future mating success.
We documented 280 participants’ retrospective self-reports of experiencing a variety of physiological, vocal, and behavioral reactions during an initial encounter with a person they found highly attractive. We also asked participants to rate the reactions of others that they used to determine if another person was attracted to them.
Participants reported most frequently experiencing increased attentiveness, smiling, staring, heart rate, giggling/laughter, blushing, and difficulty concentrating during this first encounter. Both sexes reported speaking faster and being less able to express themselves clearly, and women reported using a higher pitch and having a more unsteady tone of voice during an initial encounter of attraction. Further, participants reported observing similar nervous reactions by others whom they perceived were attracted to them. These findings were examined while considering individual differences in sociosexual orientation (i.e., propensity toward uncommitted sex), self-perceived mate value, empathy, and gender.
Participants reported that they did, indeed, experience a cluster of anxiety-related physiological and behavioral reactions during an initial encounter with someone they found highly attractive. Although appearing nervous and awkward during an initial encounter with an attractive other may seem counterproductive for future mating success, we discuss potential adaptive functions for displaying these responses.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price excludes VAT (USA)
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
Asendorpf, J. B., Penke, L., & Back, M. D. (2011). From dating to mating and relating: Predictors of initial and long-term outcomes of speed-dating in a community sample. European Journal of Personality, 25(1), 16–30. https://doi.org/10.1002/per.768.
Back, M. D., Penke, L., Schmukle, S. C., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2011). Knowing your own mate value: Sex-specific personality effects on the accuracy of expected mate choices. Psychological Science, 22(8), 984–989. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611414725.
Bartels, A., & Zeki, S. (2000). The neural basis of romantic love. NeuroReport, 11(17), 3829–3834.
Beier, K., Ginez, I., & Schaller, H. (2005). Localization of steroid hormone receptors in the apocrine sweat glands of the human axilla. Histochemistry and Cell Biology, 123, 161–165. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00418-004-0736-3.
Bendixen, M., Kennair, L. E. O., Biegler, R., & Haselton, M. G. (2019). Adjusting signals of sexual interest in the most recent naturally occurring opposite-sex encounter in two different contexts. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 13(4), 345–365. https://doi.org/10.1037/ebs0000162.
Berscheid, E., Dion, K., Walster, E., & Walster, G. W. (1971). Physical attractiveness and dating choice: A test of the matching hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 7(2), 173–189. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(71)90065-5.
Bremner, J. D., Krystal, J. H., Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (1996). Noradrenergic mechanisms in stress and anxiety: I. Preclinical studies. Synapse, 23, 28–38. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1098-2396(199605)23:1<28::AID-SYN4>3.0.CO;2-J.
Brumbaugh, C. C., & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Adult attachment and dating strategies: How do insecure people attract mates? Personal Relationships, 17, 599–614. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01304.x.
Buchanan, T. W., Laures-Gore, J. S., & Duff, M. C. (2014). Acute stress reduces speech fluency. Biological Psychology, 97, 60–66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsycho.2014.02.005.
Buss, D. M. (1992). Mate preference mechanisms: Consequences for partner choice and intrasexual competition. In J. H. Barkow, L. Cosmides, & J. Tooby (Eds.), The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 249–266). New York: Oxford University Press.
Buss, D. M. (2006). Strategies of human mating. Psychological Topics, 15(2), 239–260.
Buss, D. M., & Barnes, M. (1986). Preferences in human mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(3), 559–570. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35188.8.131.529.
Buston, P. M., & Emlen, S. T. (2003). Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 100(15), 8805–8810. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1533220100.
Cameron, J. J., Stinson, D. A., Gaetz, R., & Balchen, S. (2010). Acceptance is in the eye of the beholder: Self-esteem and motivated perceptions of acceptance from the opposite sex. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 513–529. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0018558.
Clark, D. M., & Wells, A. (1995). A cognitive model of social phobia. In R. G. Heimberg & M. R. Liebowitz (Eds.), Social phobia: Diagnosis, assessment, and treatment. New York: The Guilford Press.
Cohen, S., Schulz, M. S., Weiss, E., & Waldinger, R. J. (2012). Eye of the beholder: The individual and dyadic contributions of empathic accuracy and perceived empathic effort to relationship satisfaction. Journal of Family Psychology, 26(2), 236–245. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027488.
Collins, S. A., & Missing, C. (2003). Vocal and visual attractiveness are related in women. Animal Behaviour, 65, 997–1004.
Darwin, C. (1872, 1998). The expression of the emotions in man and animals (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Decety, J., Norman, G. J., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2012). A neurobehavioral evolutionary perspective on the mechanisms underlying empathy. Progress in Neurobiology, 98(1), 38–48. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pneurobio.2012.05.001.
Diamond, L. M., & Fagundes, C. P. (2010). Psychobiological research on attachment. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(2), 218–225. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407509360906.
Dunson, D. B., Baird, D. D., & Colombo, B. (2004). Increased infertility with age in men and women. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 103(1), 51–56. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.AOG.0000100153.24061.45.
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510–517. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0037031.
Edelmann, R. J., & Baker, S. R. (2002). Self-reported and actual physiological responses in social phobia. The British Journal of Clinical Psychology., 41(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1348/014466502163732.
Edlund, J. E., & Sagarin, B. J. (2010). Mate value and mate preferences: An investigation into decisions made with and without constraints. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(8), 835–839. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2010.07.004.
Farley, S. D., Hughes, S. M., & LaFayette, J. N. (2013). People will know we are in love: Evidence of differences between vocal samples directed toward lovers and friends. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 37(3), 123–138. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-013-0151-.
Feinberg, D. R., DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., & Perrett, D. I. (2008). The role of femininity and averageness of voice pitch in aesthetic judgments of women’s voices. Perception, 37, 615–623.
Floyd, K., Judd, J., & Hesse, C. (2008). Affection exchange theory. In L. A. Baxter, D. O. Braithewaite, L. A. Baxter, & D. O. Braithewaite (Eds.), Engaging theories in interpersonal communication: Multiple perspectives (pp. 285–293). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Galassi, J. P., Frierson Jr., H. T., & Sharer, R. (1981). Behavior of high, moderate, and low test anxious students during an actual test situation. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 49(1), 51–62. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-006X.49.1.51.
Garcia, S., Stinson, L., Ickes, W., Bissonnette, V., & Briggs, S. R. (1991). Shyness and physical attraction in mixed-sex dyads. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(1), 35–49. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35184.108.40.206.
Hall, J. A., Carter, S., Cody, M. J., & Albright, J. M. (2010). Individual differences in the communication of romantic interest: Development of the flirting styles inventory. Communication Quarterly, 58(4), 365–393.
Harrison, M. A., Jones, K., Hughes, S. M., & LeFevre, A. J. (2013). Self-reports of nipple reaction in emotional and somatic contexts. The Psychological Record, 63(3), 1-12. Doi: https://doi.org/10.11133/j.tpr.2013.63.3.006.
Hackathorn, J., & Brantley, A. (2014). To know you is (not) to want you: Mediators between sociosexual orientation and romantic commitment. Current Psychology, 33(2), 89–97. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-013-9199-9.
Harrigan, J. A., & O’Connell, D. M. (1996). How do you look when feeling anxious? Facial displays of anxiety. Personal and Individual Differences, 21(2), 205–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/0191-8869(96)00050-5.
Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: A new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 81–91.
Heiman, J. R., & Rowland, D. L. (1983). Affective and physiological sexual response patterns: The effects of instructions on sexually functional and dysfunctional men. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 27(2), 105–116. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-3999(83)90086-7.
Henningsen, D. D., & Henningsen, M. L. M. (2010). Testing error management theory: Exploring the commitment skepticism bias and the sexual overperception bias. Human Communication Research, 36(4), 618–634. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.2010.01391.x.
Hughes, S. M., Farley, S. D., & Rhodes, B. C. (2010). Vocal and physiological changes in response to the physical attractiveness of conversational partners. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 34(3), 155–167. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-010-0087-9.
Hughes, S. M., Mogilski, J., & Harrison, M. A. (2014). The perception and parameters of intentional voice manipulation. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior., 38, 107–127. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-013-0163-z.
Hummer, T. A., & McClintock, M. K. (2009). Putative human pheromone androstadienone attunes the mind specifically to emotional information. Hormones and Behavior, 55(4), 548–559. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.01.002.
Jacob, S., Hayreh, D. J. S., & McClintock, M. K. (2001). Context-dependent effects of steroid chemosignals on human physiology and mood. Physiology and Behavior, 74(1–2), 15–27.
Jacob, S., Garcia, S., Hayreh, D., & McClintock, M. K. (2002). Psychological effects of musky compounds: Comparison of androstadienone with androstenol and muscone. Hormones and Behavior, 42(3), 274–283.
Jänig, W. (1989). Autonomic nervous system. In R. F. Schmidt & G. Thews (Eds.), Human physiology. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
Karremans, J. C., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T. M., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive function. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 1041–1044. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.004.
Kasl, S. V., & Mahl, G. F. (1965). The relationship of disturbances and hesitations in spontaneous speech to anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1(5), 425–433. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0021918.
Kenny, D. A., & La Voie, L. (1982). Reciprocity of interpersonal attraction: A confirmed hypothesis. Social Psychology Quarterly, 45(1), 54–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/3033675.
Kirsner, B., Figueredo, A., & Jacobs, W. (2003). Self, friends, and lovers: Structural relations among Beck depression inventory scores and perceived mate values. Journal of Affective Disorders, 75, 131–148. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0165-0327(02)00048-4.
Kohl, C., & Robertson, J. (2014). The sexual overperception bias: An exploration of the relationship between mate value and perception of sexual interest. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 8(1), 31–43. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0097247.
Koranyi, N., & Rothermund, K. (2012). Interactive self-regulation during mate searching: Reciprocal romantic interest increases attention allocation to opposite-sex others. Zeitschrift für Psychologie, 220(3), 194–199. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000113.
LaFrance, B. H., Henningsen, D. D., Oates, A., & Shaw, C. M. (2009). Social-sexual interactions? Meta-analyses of sex differences in perceptions of flirtatiousness, seductiveness, and promiscuousness. Communication Monographs, 76(3), 263–385. https://doi.org/10.1080/03637750903074701.
Landau, W. M. (1953). March of piloerection as a convulsive equivalent. Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry, 69(6), 766–768. https://doi.org/10.1001/archneurpsyc.1953.02320300099012.
Laukka, P., Linnman, C., Ahs, F., Pissiota, A., Fran, O., Faria, V., Michelgård, Å., et al. (2008). In a nervous voice: Acoustic analysis and perception of anxiety in social phobics’ speech. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 32, 195–214. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10919-008-0055-9.
López, H. H., Hay, A. C., & Conklin, P. H. (2009). Attractive men induce testosterone and cortisol release in women. Hormones and Behavior, 56(1), 84–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2009.03.004.
Marks, I. M., & Nesse, R. M. (1994). Fear and fitness: An evolutionary analysis of anxiety disorders. Ethology and Sociobiology, 15, 247–261. https://doi.org/10.1016/0162-3095(94)90002-7.
Meston, C. M., & Frohlich, P. F. (2003). Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller-coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 32(6), 537–544.
Montoya, R. M., & Insko, C. A. (2008). Toward a more complete understanding of the reciprocity and liking effect. European Journal of Social Psychology, 38(3), 477–498. https://doi.org/10.1002/ejsp.431.
Moruzzi, S., Pesenti-Gritti, P., Brescianini, S., Salemi, M., Battaglia, M., & Ogliari, A. (2010). Clumsiness and psychopathology: Causation or shared etiology? A twin study with CBCL 6-18 questionnaire in a general school-age population sample. Human Movement Science, 29(2), 326–338. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.humov.2010.01.005.
Nitschke, J. B., Heller, W., Palmieri, P. A., & Miller, G. A. (1999). Contrasting patterns of brain activity in anxious apprehension and anxious arousal. Psychophysiology, 36, 628–637.
Pageat, P., & Gaultier, E. (2003). Current research in canine and feline pheromones. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 33(2), 187–211. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0195-5616(02)00128-6.
Penke, L., & Asendorph, J. B. (2008). Beyond global sociosexual orientations: A more differentiated look at sociosexuality and its effects on courtship and romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95(5), 1113–1135. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-35220.127.116.113.
Pennebaker, J. W., & Roberts, T. (1992). Toward a his and her theory of emotion: Gender differences in visceral perception. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 11(3), 199–212.
Perilloux, C., & Kurzban, R. (2015). Do men overperceive women’s sexual interest? Psychological Science, 26(1), 70–77. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614555727.
Place, S. S., Todd, P. M., Zhuang, J., Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2012). Judging romantic interest of others from thin slices is a cross-cultural ability. Evolution and Human Behavior, 33(5), 547–550. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2012.02.001.
Prehn-Kristensen, A., Wiesner, C., Bergmann, T. O., Wolff, S., Jansen, O., Mehdorn, H. M., Ferstl, R., & Pause, B. M. (2009). Induction of empathy by the smell of anxiety. PLoS One, 4(6), e5987. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005987.
Rantala, M. J., Eriksson, C. J. P., Vainikka, A., & Kortet, R. (2006). Male steroid hormones and female preference for male body odor. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27(4), 259–269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2005.11.002.
Rappe, R. M., & Lim, L. (1992). Discrepancy between self- and observer ratings of performance in social phobics. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 101(4), 728–731.
Re, D. E., O’Connor, J. J. M., Bennett, P. J., & Feinberg, D. R. (2012). Preferences for very low and very high voice pitch in humans. PLoS One, 7(3), e32719. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0032719.
Roney, J. R., Lukaszewski, A. W., & Simmons, Z. L. (2007). Rapid endocrine responses of young men to social interactions with young women. Hormones and Behavior, 52(3), 326–333. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2007.05.008.
Roney, J. R., Mahler, S. V., & Maestripieri, D. (2003). Behavioral and hormonal responses of men to brief interactions with women. Evolution and Human Behavior, 24(6), 365–375. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(03)00053-9.
Roney, J. R., Simmons, Z. L., & Lukaszewski, A. W. (2010). Androgen receptor gene sequence and basal cortisol concentrations predict men’s hormonal responses to potential mates. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences Series B, 277(1678), 57–63.
Sakaguchi, K., Sakai, Y., Ueda, K., & Hasegawa, T. (2007). Robust association between sociosexuality and self-monitoring in heterosexual and non-heterosexual Japanese. Personality and Individual Differences, 43(4), 815–825. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2007.02.006.
Sabatelli, R. M., & Rubin, M. (1986). Nonverbal expressiveness and physical attractiveness as mediators of interpersonal perceptions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10(2), 120–133. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01000008.
Sacco, D. F., Jones, B. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Hugenberg, K. (2012). The roles of sociosexual orientation and relationship status in women’s face preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(8), 1044–1047. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2012.07.023.
Sarason, I. G. (1984). Stress, anxiety, and cognitive interference: Reactions to tests. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 46(4), 929–938. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-3518.104.22.1689.
Saxton, T. K., Lyndon, A., Little, A. C., & Roberts, S. C. (2008). Evidence that androstadienone, a putative human chemosignal, modulates women’s attributions of men’s attractiveness. Hormones and Behavior, 54(5), 597–601. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.06.001.
Shields, S. A. (1984). Reports of bodily change in anxiety, sadness, and anger. Motivation and Emotion, 8(1), 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00992989.
Simpson, J. A., & Gangestad, S. W. (1992). Sociosexuality and romantic partner choice. Journal of Personality, 60(1), 31–51. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-6494.1992.tb00264.x.
Thornhill, R., Chapman, J. F., & Gangestad, S. W. (2013). Women’s preferences for men’s scents associated with testosterone and cortisol levels: Patterns across the ovulatory cycle. Evolution and Human Behavior, 34(3), 216–221. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2013.01.003.
Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). The scent of symmetry: A human sex pheromone that signals fitness? Evolution and Human Behavior, 20(3), 175–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1090-5138(99)00005-7.
Tuomi, S. K., & Fisher, J. E. (1979). Characteristics of a simulated sexy voice. Folia Phoniatrica, 31, 242–249.
Valins, S. (1966). Cognitive effects of false heart-rate feedback. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4(4), 400–408. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0023791.
van der Meij, L., Almela, M., Buunk, A. P., Fawcett, T. W., & Salvador, A. (2012). Men with elevated testosterone levels show more affiliative behaviours during interactions with women. Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences Series B, 279(1726), 202–208.
van der Meij, L., Demetriou, A., Tulin, M., Méndez, I., Dekker, P., & Pronk, T. (2019). Hormones in speed-dating: The role of testosterone and cortisol in attraction. Hormones and Behavior, 116, 104555. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2019.07.003.
Verhaeghe, J., Gheysen, R., & Enzlin, P. (2013). Pheromones and their effect on women's mood and sexuality. Facts, Views & Vision in ObGyn, 5(3), 189–195.
Wakabayashi, A., Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Goldenfeld, N., Delaney, J., Fine, D., Smith, R., & Weil, L. (2006). Development of short forms of the empathy quotient (EQ-short) and the systemizing quotient (SQ-short). Personality and Individual Differences, 41(5), 929–940. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2006.03.017.
Wenzel, A., & Emerson, T. (2009). Mate selection in socially anxious and nonanxious individuals. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(3), 341–363. https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.2009.28.3.341.
Wyart, C., Webster, W. W., Chen, J. H., Wilson, S. R., McClary, A., Khan, R. M., & Sobel, N. (2007). Smelling a single component of male sweat alters levels of cortisol in women. The Journal of Neuroscience, 27(6), 1261–1265. https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.4430-06.200.
We wish to acknowledge the Albright Creative Research Experience (ACRE) program for their support of this work.
Conflict of Interest Statement
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Hughes, S.M., Harrison, M.A. & de Haan, K.M. Perceived Nervous Reactions during Initial Attraction and Their Potential Adaptive Value. Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology 6, 30–56 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40750-019-00127-y