“The kind of confidence we’re talking about really comes down to feeling good about your appearance and attractiveness,” says Craig Malkin, Ph.D., a Harvard psychologist. “Men and women both prefer a confident date, for a number of reasons.” For one, confident folks are natural salespeople. Research shows that confidence makes us seem more trustworthy—and when you’re out on the meat market, selling how great you are, confidence makes people accept your pitch.
Another important reason: Self-assured singles smile, flirt, make eye contact and speak with warmth and directness. They make it clear that they’re interested, and we return the favor—we tend to like those who like us (a concept psychologists call reciprocity). “Less confident daters may even unintentionally spoil the attraction,” Malkin says. “They avert their gaze, out of anxiety, are slow to respond in conversation, or offer brief answers—all of which signal dislike. As a result, they lose out on the reciprocity effect.” People with low self-esteem also tend to view other people through the same dark lens they use on themselves, focusing on the negatives of whomever they’re with.
Sure, anyone with a rudimentary grasp on evolutionary psychology would expect the Average Woman to love a confident man. Ladies want status, security, a good provider for their offspring — and confidence could signal value in those arenas, right? But while decades of research have confirmed this fact (women dig a confident guy), more recent research shows that confident women are a turn-on for men as well.
Researchers at Webster University camped out in a bar, cataloging in painful detail every flirtatious move the patrons made. (Oh, the life of a psychology research assistant.) One move emerged as the absolute best way for a girl to snag a guy: a smile with a direct gaze. “Amazingly, it didn’t matter what these women looked like!” Malkin says. The chicks who got the most approaches by men weren’t the prettiest—they were the hardest working. “A confident woman who sends signals will win out over a pretty, retiring one ever time,” he adds.
Story time: Researchers once asked a group of students to treat a “shy and homely” woman as though she were extremely attractive. (I’m not totally clear on the ethics of this research, or who deemed her uggo, but whatever.) Her confidence skyrocketed over the course of the semester, and other, male students (who had no idea she was the subject of guerrilla research) started asking her out. “The more self-assured she was, the more open she was with men—and the more attractive she became,” Malkin notes.
So remember: You really don’t need to be a hottie to be confident. You can raise your own self-esteem by hanging out with other confident people (it’s called “learning modeling”—their good habits will rub off on you), by asking lots of questions instead of ruminating over yourself (asking “Do you live around here?” and actually listening to the answer, vs. asking “Do you live around here?” and thinking “Oh my God why is this person talking to me all she can see is this zit on my nose I suck”), flirt by being friendly and keeping it simple (in one study, “Hello” was the best pick-up line men could use, with a—wait for it—100 percent success rate).
And lastly: Don’t be an arrogant jerk. “If your confidence takes the form of being condescending and disagreeable, you’re not likely to have much advantage in romance,” Malkin says, diplomatically. To that, we add: Mean people suck.