Spicing Up the Awkward First Date Conversation

Dan Ariely brings behavioral economics to the awkward, boring first date conversation: “Basically, in an attempt to coordinate on the right dating strategy, we stick to universally shared interests like food or the weather.” Ariely gave online daters a list of “interesting and personally revealing” questions they were allowed to ask. “What we learned from this little experiment is that when people are free to choose what type of discussions they want to have, they often gravitate toward an equilibrium that is easy to maintain but one that no one really enjoys or benefits from,” writes Ariely. “The good news is that if we restrict the equilibria we can get people to gravitate toward behaviors that are better for everyone (more generally this suggests that some restricted marketplaces can yield more desirable outcomes).” [%comments]

Nate C.

I think there's a huge missing piece here: what is the end goal of the first date or the online dating conversation? We could split the test data into two scenarios: pursuit of long-term relationship or pursuit of sex/instant gratification.

I agree that the food/weather equilibrium is undesirable in the event of long-term relationship pursuit. Eventually two people who are looking for love will have to move beyond simple topics and discuss things that actually matter.

For the instant gratification set, this "bad equilibrium" may actually be good. If the goal is sex, there's a fairly low barrier for entry. People in this set want to make sure they're with someone with reasonable intelligence and sanity, and beyond that they don't particularly care. Talking about food and the weather ensures that no undue surprises are forthcoming.

Drill-Baby-Drill Drill Team

Avoid talking politics and religion with new friends and potential spouses--unless you really want an opportunity to exit.

Stick to the weather, geology, the curiosity of dogs, or the wetness of water. If you want to risk it and break the ice, these two questions are gurannteed to to kick it up a notch:
1. When did you first lose your virginity?
2. How many sex partners have you had?

If you are still talking after 5 minutes, there probably is some chemistry that may be worth pursuing. And a very funny story to tell your grandchildren.

Ian Kemmish

That's why my online profile features a video of me playing the harpsichord. By the time we even get to the first date we've a;ready explored some pretty recherche and hopefully shared interests. I didn't need an behavioural economist to tell me to do that, though - maybe they themselves need to get out more?

Mike S.

"more generally this suggests that some restricted marketplaces can yield more desirable outcomes"
It suggests not such thing. First dates are actually nothing like marketplaces. People on first dates and people engaging in economic transactions are looking for entirely different things. Anyone who really think first dates are like economic transactions, has some seriously awful social skills. This is far and away the most risible attempt at justifying regulation I have ever seen.

In any case, this experiment does not prove what it claims it proves. All that it demonstrated is that people can be forced to have more interesting conversations by making them play party games. Junior high schools girls across the country are rolling their eyes at Dr. Ariely at this very moment.

But people on first dates are not primarily looking for interesting conversations. They are evaluating their opposite number as a potential romantic partner, not as a raconteur. This entails considering a host of factors and provocative conversation may not be that high on the list. Not saying the wrong thing often gets more weight than saying the right thing.

To put it another way, quizzing someone on a first date about their sexual history and their opinion on abortion might make for an interesting conversation but it might not make for a successful date. To even be evidence of what this study claims to prove, it would have to demonstrate that people following this strategy ended up in more relationhips than those who did not.

Stronly opinionated people with poor boundaries might spark interesting conversations on first dates but there is reason to doubt that they get all that many second ones.


Dino Dogan

I love Don. I just finished his Upside book. Great stuff. He talks about dating in that book as well which I found insightful.

Regarding this experiment, well...

Its not what you say, its what you communicate. There are well defined attraction mechanisms female of the species responds to (as well as male). There are relatively well understood and one could be talking nonsense and still attract a date. I've tried it. It works :-)

Great stuff tho. Great topic.


Another bizarrely contrived 'experiment' and equally contrived conclusion to add to the 'Predictably Irrational' stock.

Eric M. Jones

Everything ever said about first dates has been said at:

(google) Best of Craig's List

chris Hauser

after 4 responses from men, no responses from women. an unsuccessful first date, methinks.


Isn't this sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy? Starting by characterizing a first date as "awkward and boring" means, ab initio, ruling out anything else.

From a female viewpoint (sadly underrepresented in these econ discussions), men seem to want to date somewhat crazy women, because they're entertaining, then they don't want to be in a relationship with them, because they're crazy.

People seek lots of different, often conflicting things from a first date: running away from being alone with themselves; feeling desirable enough to date/be dateworthy; stories to tell friends; curiosity; immediate sex; next date; relationship etc. So, forcing all of these things into one mold of a first date is not analytically helpful. It would be better to first sort out the main purpose(s) of the date, and then analyze different strategies.

I think a first date is successful if you've learned something nice or interesting about another person. That's a pretty low threshold, which is just fine for a first date. If you can't be bothered with a second date, why overdo it on a first date?



Another over-analyzed topic. Just be yourself... don't pull any punches... be liked or not liked for being yourself... you know where you stand... and never havveto worry about maintaining the BS persona that so many people start the process out with.

Eric M. Jones





Totally used this advice on okcupid a couple weeks ago (I originally read this on dan ariely's blog) and am totally dating some cool hottie girl who I met from okcupid.

I just started asking questions like

- tell me what you are proud of
- tell me some super interesting/weird stuff
- what was a major set back
- what are you terrible at

(I offered some deep info of me as well)

In an online dating format people have time to contemplate these tough questions as on the spot its a little tough to think about these things.

I think there are some really good benefits of asking these questions

- it gave us much more interesting stuff to discuss
- I felt like she knew the real 'me' not the one I try to sell. There is very little to lose by being super honest to someone online about some deep life goals or accomplishments or limitations. The hard part is moving the discussion to these topics and these questions facilitated moving past superficial topics. The reason the original post worked is because people were constrained to controversial topics. One can't just blurt these things out in general or they would be seen as crazy. What I tried to do was constantly nudge the conversation beyond stuff Id normally talk about with someone I met .

- Lastly I felt that this honestly lead to additional honesty thus quickly deepening the connection.

So yeah I cant believe Im dating someone I met online but whatever we are totally both into each other and its pretty awesome.



Yikes, this sounds complicated. Best argument so far against blind / online dates. Back when I was single I avoided this torture by meeting people at my regular cafe hangout, classes, etc so I already knew the guy was wonderful and our date conversations were not nearly as stilted.