Research

Lovers’ heart rate research wins prestigious science award


Researchers who discovered that people on blind dates will synchronise heart rates when they feel attracted to one another have been recognised with one of science’s most sought-after awards: an Ig Nobel prize.

The study was performed by cognitive psychologists who built ‘dating cabins’ at music festivals and other events and found 140 young singles willing to go on a blind date in them.

During the date, the researchers tracked the participants’ eye movements and measured their skin conductance – the transpiration on their fingers– and heart rate. Like the heart rate, skin conductance is a measure of nervous system activation, they wrote in Nature Human Behaviour (link here).

The research showed that the heart rate of the singles who were attracted to their dating partner synchronised with that of their date.

If one person’s heart rate increased so too did their date’s, and if their heart rate decreased, so too did their partner’s. The skin conductance followed a similar pattern.

Receiving the prize for applied cardiology, the group was one of 10 recognised at this year’s Ig Nobel awards for research that “first makes you laugh, then makes you think” – not to be confused with the prestigious Nobel Prizes coming up next month (video below).

The awards, presented by a science humour magazine called the Annals of Improbable Research, have been given out annually for unusual or trivial achievements in scientific research since 1991.

At a virtual ceremony on Friday, each recipient received a paper trophy and a Zimbabwean $10-trillion note, no longer legal tender and currently trading for about $5.20 on eBay.

But the study’s lead author Dr Eliska Prochazkova (PhD) of Leiden University in The Netherlands insisted there was a serious side to the research, saying it helped to illuminate an important mechanism for social bonding.

“Our research really does fit the criteria,” she said.

“You may laugh at first but when you realise that a romantic click doesn’t come from arousal and body language alone, it gets you thinking.”

The research showed that the heart rate of the singles who were attracted to their dating partner synchronised with that of their date. If one person’s heart rate increased so too did their date’s, and if their heart rate decreased, so too did their partner’s. The skin conductance followed a similar pattern.

Co-author Professor Mariska Kret, from the same university, said the team was now planning a follow-up study.

“I’m really interested in the effects on human behaviour, decision making, trust and romantic interest,” she said.

“Humans synchronise on some many levels that they are not even aware of and it’s also influencing their decision processes so it’s quite fascinating.”

Other awards included the physics prize for showing why ducklings swim in a line formation, while a South American team received the biology prize for studying whether and how constipation effects the mating prospects of scorpions.

The medicine prize went to a Polish team who showed ice cream could relieve oral inflammation in cancer patients undergoing high-dose chemotherapy.

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