Dating Rorschach: Looking for Meaning in the Cold Shoulder

On a cross-country flight to California, I made the mistake of watching He’s Just Not That Into You. I actually thought I might enjoy it. I mean, the book is amusing, and the Sex and the City episode that inspired it all is one of my all-time favorites. But the women in the movie just seemed so desperate and, for lack of a better word, nuts.

Sure, I can think of countless occasions when I’ve sat down with my girlfriends to discuss the top 400 reasons why Guy X hasn’t called. And I can certainly think of many men who drove me to that point too.

But I know something that the writers apparently didn’t: Women are not insane. We are not desperate. We do lead full, wonderful lives, with or without a man. Contrary to popular belief.

A few months ago, I was sitting at dinner with a friend of mine. She was telling me about a guy she’d seen a couple of times, who she really wasn’t into. But she couldn’t get him out of her head because he wasn’t returning her calls. After several hours running through the reasons why he went AWOL, she sent him a text with this message: “When you don’t call, I think you’re dead.”

She never heard from him again.

Now, it would be easy to say that she’s crazy. I assure you: She is not. And I also assure you that her experience is pretty near universal. She just cuts to the chase much better than the rest.

If this reaction is so common, then is there a chance that this seemingly irrational response might be rational, or at least predictably irrational? I think there is.

In 2008, Science Magazine published a study on participants’ pattern perception based on perceived control. To test this, the researchers separated the participants into two groups: the in-control group and the out-of-control group. In the in-control group, the participants were given an intelligence test and were told that they were correct every time, regardless of their answers. In the out-of-control group, the participants were given the same intelligence test, but were told that they were correct only 50% of the time, regardless of their answers.

After each group was tested, they were shown meaningless images like television static. The researchers asked each group what they saw in the images. Those in the in-control group said, ‘Nothing.’ Those in the out-of-control group found all sorts of patterns, reading meaning into a meaningless picture.

With this study in mind, think of my friend, waiting for her date to call back, getting nothing but radio silence. Suddenly, her behavior makes a lot more sense.

Here, her date is in control. His call determines whether the date was a success, and whether he wants to go out again. Half the time he calls, half the time he doesn’t. Even though she doesn’t like him, she is out of control. Without feedback to hold onto, she searches for meaning and pattern.

But there’s a post-script to this study too.

In a follow-up study, the researchers asked the out-of-control group to recall a personal value that they think of as important. Afterward, when they were asked what they saw in the images, they also answered, ‘Nothing.’

One of the researchers notes in an NPR interview, “When you’re feeling powerless, maybe you should stop and think about what you really care about — something you do have control over.”

Maybe remembering the things that really matter will free you to remember: you’re just not that into him.


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