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The Hidden Purpose of Chat-up Lines

The Hidden Purpose of Chat-up Lines post image

New research suggests men’s choice of chat-up line may help quickly select for women with particular personalities.

When it comes to the human mating game, men are often portrayed as having little power or guile. Research finds it is women that control early interactions, from first signalling the man to approach to deciding whether to engage in sex. One area in which men are popularly seen as especially inept is in their choice of chat-up lines. Leading the field in crass openings are sexually-loaded remarks.

Indeed, a study by Chris Bale from the University of Central Lancashire found that sexually-loaded remarks were the type of openers least likely to lead to further interaction (Bale, 2006). Which begs the question: why do men still use them?

Chat-up lines as selection tool

An ingeniously simple answer is suggested by both Bale (2006) and Cooper et al. (2007), with some evidence to back it up. Chat-up lines may be a way for men to select for a particular type of woman. In other words, men using sexually-loaded remarks are looking for a certain type of woman (an easy one). Similarly, at the other end of the scale, men who use character-revealing or culture-based openers are probably trying to show they are a good mate looking for a long-term partner.

That’s the theory and here’s how Cooper and colleagues searched for evidence.

The study first asked participants to consider a series of scenarios in which men tried to strike up a conversation with a woman. In each the man used a different type of approach. Participants were then asked to rate how likely it was the conversation would continue on the basis of that opener.

These ‘lines’ were collated from a variety of sources and clustered into the following categories:

  1. Good mate – these included comments that made reference to culture, character or wealth. E.g. “You know I saw this fantastic piece in the Tate Modern”.
  2. Compliments. E.g. “You remind me of a parking ticket because you’ve got fine written all over you.” (Please. No!)
  3. Sex. E.g. “I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I can sure make your bedrock.” (Club to the head.)
  4. Humour. “Can I buy you an island?” (Nice.)

So, now we know, generally speaking, how our female participants react to these four broad types of male approaches. Next we need to find out what types of men the female participants prefer.

Four types of men

For this they complete the Dating Partner Preference Test. An analysis of these results suggests women see men as generally falling into one of four types:

  1. Nice guy. Yes, he’s helpful, he’s considerate, he’s appreciative. He’s a puppy.
  2. Provider. Man go into woods, kill pig. Bring fire. Build log cabin. All warm and fed.
  3. Leader. He’s chatty, confident and strong-willed – a captain of your heart?
  4. Bad mate. Fickle, conceited, dependent. All wrong for you. But there’s something about him…

Along with these vignettes and the Dating Partner Preference Test, participants were asked to fill in personality measures of their psychoticism (tendency for inappropriate emotional responses and recklessness), extraversion (being outgoing, gregarious, externally oriented) and neuroticism (the tendency to experience negative emotional states). Now we’ve got all the information we need to see if there’s any connection.


Looking at the correlations shows there is support for the idea that chat-up lines select for women with particular personalities.

  • Women high in extraversion preferred the male ‘leaders’.
  • Women high in neuroticism preferred the ‘nice guys’.
  • Women high in psychoticism rejected ‘nice guys’, preferring the ‘bad mate’.

It does seem, then, that the type of chat-up lines men choose does have a measurable effect on the types of women who respond to them. This can effectively allow men to make a quick assessment of a woman’s personality by their response to a particular type of approach. Those looking for a ‘bad mate’ might use a sexually-loaded remark or a compliment, while those wanting an extrovert should use a joke.

Men’s perceptions of women’s lines

I have focussed on women’s perceptions of male chat-up lines as in most cultures it’s mostly the men using the lines, although this is changing. Perhaps to reflect this men’s perceptions of women’s chat-up lines were also included in this study.

The results for men’s perceptions showed that in comparison to women, men were more likely to prefer chat-up lines involving sex (surprise surprise!) as opposed to women who preferred humour. Men also tended to be worse than women at judging what types of chat-up lines women prefer. The types of chat-up lines whose effectiveness was under-estimated by men were those involving offers of help to women, handing control of the interaction to women and (subtly) displaying wealth (surprise surprise!).


The correlations seen between personality measures and ratings of chat-up lines were not particularly high (between 0.2 to 0.4). This means that only a small proportion of the change in personality measures is associated with the chat-up lines (between 4% and 16%). So, it’s far from the only thing affecting chat-up line responses, but there is still some effect.

Cooper, M., O’Donnell, D., Caryl, P. G., Morrison, M., & Bale, C. (2007) Chat-up lines as male displays: Effects of content, sex, and personality. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 1075-1085

Bale, C., Morrison, R., & Caryl, P. G. (2006). Chat-up lines as male sexual displays. Personality and Individual Differences, 40, 655-664.

Image credit: Farfarm



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