STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And keep in mind that sometimes personal appearance really matters, especially when there're a lot of people to choose from. NPR's Patti Neighmond explains.
PATTI NEIGHMOND: People today can be overwhelmed by choice - electronics, soap detergent, even chocolate. But psychologist Alison Lenton wanted to find out what happens if people are overwhelmed with options when choosing someone to date.
Dr. ALISON LENTON (Psychologist): It's also a choice for which people have an idea about what they want, what it is they're looking for. So maybe under those circumstances, a great deal of choice wouldn't be overwhelming.
NEIGHMOND: To find out, Lenton and colleagues at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland looked at records of speed dating, where choice abounds. These highly organized events are held at clubs or bars. They give singles about three to five minutes to talk with each person to decide whether they want to see anyone again.
Typically, participants meet anywhere between 15 and 35 people in a night. What Lenton found was, the number of people matters. When there were more people to choose from, it was more likely that men and women would make judgments about whether to see someone again based on looks.
Dr. LENTON: We found that with more choice, people tended to pay attention to visual cues, such as their dates' height and weight.
NEIGHMOND: At smaller speed dating events, where participants saw fewer people, Lenton says both men and women were more likely to make the effort to find out about the person and there was more focus on meaningful attributes that were not physical.
Dr. LENTON: Such as their dates' occupation or his or her level of education.
NEIGHMOND: Lenton says the findings show the importance of the environment where people meet. Speed dating isn't the only place where judgments are made quickly. The tendency to make choices on appearance alone is exacerbated, says Lenton, by online dating, where people can literally sift through thousands of photos and profiles.
Psychologist Sheena Iyengar is a professor at Columbia Business School who's just written a book about choice. She says all this matters a great deal because people need to have real experiences with each other if they want to make any kind of real connection.
Professor SHEENA IYENGAR (Columbia Business School; Author, "The Art of Choosing"): We're constantly moving jobs. We're working much longer hours, and so we're not having time to really develop friends. So what I'm suggesting here is that the moment in our life when we do have time to develop friends - which is mainly when we're in college and in the early stages of our career - it's really important to make those good friends and hang onto them.
NEIGHMOND: But for those who like speed dating, New York psychiatrist Philip Muskin says there can be significant meaning in interactions that happen in just three minutes.
Professor PHILIP MUSKIN (Psychiatrist): Everyone's had that experience - being at a party or being in a meeting or being on a subway, you see someone across the platform or you see someone across the room, and your eyes lock for an instant, and you want to talk to that person.
NEIGHMOND: For a variety of mostly unconscious reasons.
Prof. MUSKIN: The person is reminiscent of important people in our past -reminiscent of a parent, reminiscent of a sibling, reminiscent of a friend, reminiscent of a former relationship.
NEIGHMOND: And that moment may be so profound, it transforms into the beginning of a real connection.
Patti Neighmond, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.