The Science Of Hitting On Women

... or lack thereof

Image: barney_nanpa The "spotlight bias" in action.

If you're a heterosexual guy, how much would you pay to meet women? Not a woman, but women in general. 700 bucks?

I belong to a mailing list where occasionally I'm informed about "boot camps", which are sessions held by guys who claim to be experts in the art of meeting women, where they teach their wisdom to hopefuls. I just got a mail today where they are charging 70,000 yen for one of them, which at today's exchange is about 800 US$. Holy shit, that's a ton of money.

What do you get for that investment? Over the course of a weekend, you spend several hours at a time with a couple of expert pick up artists who will meet you somewhere, like a coffee shop, to discuss strategy and principles, and then go for a few hours out on the streets or in bars and nightclubs where the learning is applied. You're looking at about three 6 hour sessions, but you might spend additional hours at a club, so it could be up to 24 hours of total time.

Now, consider that, as far as I know, here in Tokyo you can go to an establishment of ill repute and pay 6000 yen (~70 US$) for a blowjob. You can almost certainly pay for full penetration for twice to four times that amount, but the law in Japan prohibits explicitly selling penetration as a service, so the numbers are less clear. Anyway, the point is that the market is telling us that guys would rather spend a day of labour and 70,000 yen to meet women in general that they may very well not sleep with, when they could spend about eight percent of the money and two percent of the time to get guaranteed sexual action.

Of course, those who hold these boot camps promise results, but let's put that aside for the moment. The larger point here is that we all know the hopeful men at these kinds of workshops are not just paying for the potential of sex. They are paying for the pride of not having to pay a hooker. They are paying for the sense of control over their lives in the form of salvation from what a lot of men perceive as the hopelessly shadowy mystery world of dealing with women. And, possibly the most positive spin on it, they are paying for the potential to meet women that they can have fuller relationships with, where sex is only one part of the picture. Relationships that are mutually beneficial to both parties, in all dimensions.

The "Pick Up Artist", or "PUA" community, gets a bad rap on this front, in that a lot of people assume that all there is to it is men trying to learn tricks to manipulate women into having sex with them. However, the truth is not quite so simple. The fact is that a lot of men who read the books or go so far as to take the workshops, are basically normal and nice guys who want the kind of reciprocal relationship that most women and men would agree is a perfectly noble aim. The problem is that it doesn't matter how nice a guy you are or how noble your aims are if you feel completely at a loss to make the first step of actually talking to a woman.

Often when I talk to women, they can't believe the degree to which guys struggle with making an initial move. That women just don't get this is no surprise, because women are humans, and as humans, they are prone to the " spotlight fallacy ", which is simply that humans are really bad at taking into account the factors they don't experience. In other words, women only interact with the guys that do manage to come up and speak to them. For every one of those guys, though, there were ten who were too nervous to make a move, but, since women don't interact with them, they are unaware of their presence and discount their existence. As a result, women, as far as I've experienced the topic, pretty much take it for granted that all men are perfectly capable of talking to women when they want to, because a hundred percent of the men they've talked to did so. Not to mention movies and television make it seem like meeting women is either a matter of course for men, or that even the bumbling and inept will always find a way.

However, if you stop and think that there is a market for men who will pay 70,000 yen to learn how to do this, maybe that can help shed some light on the reality of how men struggle with interacting with women. Of course, I think a lot of women will probably still think that the norm is for men to have the ability to talk to women and it's only the truly dysfunctional men who would sign up for this kind of workshop. I can only counter that claim by clinging to my experience of talking with men when women are not around, and being there within groups of men trying to help a buddy out by psyching him up to go talk to that girl that he's been watching across the room all night. The reality is most men do not feel sure enough of themselves in making a first move on a woman, and actually what makes the men who will pay 70,000 yen for a "boot camp" rare is their level of drive and investment in order to solve the problem.

I'm not defending the PUA community wholesale on the basis that it is a misunderstood but well meaning movement among men to get nice shy guys the ability to talk to women. No, like anything, there is good and bad. The dark side of the PUA community is that there are men who want to simply learn how to manipulate as many women as possible into having sex, who want to just keep score of how many vaginas they've put their penis in, and are willing to apply any kind of tactic, no matter how deceitful or mechanical, in order to achieve that goal. And there are other men who will want to exploit that desire by offering all manner of products, from books to online courses to whatever else, in order to make a buck off that. I've seen some seriously creepy shit on this end of the spectrum, things like ads that claim to give you the ability to fuck any woman you want, such as the sister of your girlfriend or your friend's wife, using mind manipulation techniques developed at the CIA. That's the bottom end, though similarly bullshit threads wind their way up into even more respectable PUA thinking, such as the pervasive appearance of the absolute dumbass pseudoscience known as neurolinguistic programming , or NLP. NLP is just jackassery, and that's all I'll say about that.

That's the dark side, but there is also a light side. A lot, actually maybe most, of PUA material is about making yourself more appealing to women by making yourself a better person, which seems like perfectly legit advice. For example, one tenet I've read in PUA literature is the idea that when asking women out, don't just rely on the old dinner and a movie thing. Take them to something you are genuinely interested in, something you might be going to anyway. Just for example, a concert for a band you really like. It's not that this is more interesting than a dinner and a movie, it's that if you don't have those things, if your schedule is devoid of activities that are interesting to you, then maybe you need to look at yourself and ask some questions about who you are and why you have nothing going on in your life. Really, the ideal situation is that you have shit to do, and then when you meet a woman, not only do you already have something to invite her to, there are all sorts of other benefits. Like, if she wants to go, then odds are better that she's your type, because she's interested in the same things. And if she doesn't want to go, then that's fine, because you were going anyway, so it's not like your life is lacking without her. It's about being more honest and aligned with who you are as a person, having a life of your own, and then letting the women you meet orient themselves around that.

In PUA terminology, this is called having "inner game", qualities that improve you as a person. "Outer game" is the stuff that is more mechanical, like having ready-to-go opening lines to break the ice. Insofar as PUA stuff helps with inner game, then it's a positive thing. Outer game isn't necessarily bad, either. Some guys who have severe shyness can be helped along by just having something ready to say. In the best case, it's not that the words are meant to manipulate the woman, it's that the words help the guy overcome his shyness by removing one level of pressure, the need to come up with something to say. It's pushing the outer game boundaries to extremes, when pick up lines go beyond being helpful crutches for men working on their confidence into being weapons of attempted manipulation where we slip into dark territory.

If we can separate out evil PUA bullshit from well meaning PUA guidance, what are we left with? Probably the biggest help of PUA advice is that it helps you not fuck up. What I mean is, out of all the women you meet, some you have a chance with, and some you just don't. I don't care if you're the best looking dude on the planet with the world's best "game" when it comes to hitting on women, if you try to hit on a woman who just came back from the gynecologist, and she just found out she's two weeks pregnant, but she's not sure if she should keep the child because the guy she has been deeply in love with for the last ten years, and is still in love with, is dying of cancer and probably won't live to see the child be born, and so she's sitting there at a coffee shop because she needs a moment to think about the implications of all this for the rest of her life... you are not going to pick up that woman no matter how fucking smooth you are. She is not in a place where she is in the mood to be hit on by any man in this universe or any other. It's crazy, but women are not simply mechanical beings programmed to respond to the right inputs so long as you know the secret codes. They have lives. Lives which might not have an opening for you right now.

That said, while there are some women who are simply not in a place to be hit on, some are, and the whole PUA thing, in it's best light, simply helps you not fuck things up with the women who are in that place. And this is actually quite a huge help. I've known many men in my life who are stuck in a rut of not knowing how to talk to women. It's a rut because the longer they go without talking to women, the harder it gets, because without previous experience, the next interaction is almost guaranteed to be awkward. Either they know that, and so they don't try and the rut continues, or, they make the Herculean effort of making the attempt, and it is awkward, and so their fears are confirmed, and here as well the rut continues. For a guy in this position, giving him pointers about how to make an approach so that, if he does have a chance, that he doesn't trip over himself and blow it, then I think that's a good thing. I've actually applied PUA techniques in my life to see how they play out, and I have slept with women as a result. But, I believe that these were women I had the chance to sleep with anyway, and the PUA techniques simply created one avenue so that I didn't repel her. They didn't create an opportunity where there wasn't one already.

Also, I've learned some concepts from PUA literature that I think has some merit. Like the concept of "approach anxiety". This is a term PUA people use to describe the fact that most, if not all, men feel a visceral tension and fear, an actual physical reaction in their gut, before talking to a new woman. The idea behind approach anxiety is that it there is an evolutionary cause for it, and I think the idea holds water. It's an interesting topic and I might get into it more sometime, but it's too much for right now. The important point is that they have some interesting speculations on what causes difficulties when meeting women and what solutions might exist for them.

However, even in this, there is good and bad. One of my main criticisms of most PUA hypothesizing is that there is a heavy undercurrent of biological determinism, the idea that people are prone to certain behaviours built into us. And it's within this vein of thinking that we see some hypocrisy at work. For example, when talking about male approach anxiety, they say that while approach anxiety never fully goes away, since it's built into our DNA, one can manage and work with it or around it by doing X, Y, and Z. In other words, yes, men have certain biological issues, but they can be helped. You can leverage your human capacity for thinking and understanding to train yourself into behaviours that overcome the limitations of your biology. You can learn how to go up and talk to that woman even though the tension in your gut feels overpowering.

However, when speaking about women, I notice that the assumptions are a little different. For example, one tenet in some PUA techniques is that when on a date with a woman, one should take her to multiple locations. The idea being that women respond positively to a sense of stability in a man. Stability, almost by definition, is something that usually takes time to establish. But by changing locations, you sort of simulate a passing of time, by showing this woman how you are in multiple contexts. I'm skimming over details here, but the point being that this is a thing you do in order to appeal to a woman's hypothetical biological urge to find mates that will stick around.

Now, if a man can work with and overcome the biological impulses that cause "approach anxiety", then surely a woman can work with her urges and impulses to manage how she feels about men and whether or not she desires one that is going to stick around to rear her children. I'm not saying that a woman would be motivated to reject a guy who projected stability, and there's definitely nothing wrong with doing a variety of things on a date. I'm just saying that it's entirely possible, in fact almost certainly likely, that women, being people living in a modern context just like men, for a variety of reasons are negotiating with and overcoming the biological impulses that impact them. For any number of reasons or motivations, their behaviours and what appeals to them might not be so simple. And yet, that level of complexity on the side of women is almost never taken into account in PUA writings. The message seems to be that men can learn to manage their biology, but women are assumed to always be responsive to predictable biological patterns. I think this point of view isn't so much promoted by the men who create and sell PUA literature because they can't imagine that women are capable of more complicated behaviour, it's that they're economically motivated to not acknowledge it. You can sell a book that appeals to men's desire for control by promising secret codes to women's unintentional behaviours. It's a lot harder to market an idea that admits it's more complicated than that.

Do these criticisms mean I think no one should waste 70,000 yen on a "boot camp". Actually, no, not really. There are upsides to going to a "boot camp" which come in the form of the proactivity of getting off your ass and actually doing stuff to solve the problem of meeting women, if this is something you feel you need to solve. Also, it's got a good community aspect to it. Most of the men I've met who are involved in PUA type of activities are actually very supportive people who are the kind of dudes who read a lot of self help books on how to pursue personal excellence, so they're generally pretty positive, maybe even a little weirdly so. Also, because they either believe themselves to be in control of their dating opportunities, or want you to believe that about them, they are not jealously competing with you for the women around you. They'll be your pep squad to go and introduce yourself that girl you've been looking at.

It's basically just committing the time and the effort to going to meet women with some support from some guys, and that's worth something. It's not worth 70,000 yen to me, but I wouldn't blame a guy for wanting to lay down that cash. After all, giving the benefit of the doubt that this is in support of guys who just want to do that most human of all things, to connect with other people, I can't really imagine anything more worthwhile to spend your money on if it's something you think you need help with.

However, all that said, there is one, massive, huge, "buyer beware" factor that one must consider before laying down that kind of cash for this endeavour.

There is no science here, at all, anywhere.

All the guys saying they are masters of this craft, from the local groups all the way up to the guys in the book The Game , who claim to have the ability to teach you, have only anecdotal evidence to back that up, which is really no back up at all. There are no independently verified studies, no double blind tests, no control groups, no statistical analysis... absolutely no data at all anywhere that really verifies that any of this PUA stuff works.

Image: mystery Not a scientist.

Seriously, I can't stress this enough. These guys say they are pick up artists, and they go on at length about their successes and merits. And there are countless hopefuls who want to believe that a Holy Grail of how to talk to women with total control of the interaction exists. But there is absolutely no concrete evidence at all , nothing that could be described as "empirical evidence", that any of this PUA stuff works. Nothing. Zip. Nada. To the best of my knowledge, no reputable university or scientific group has ever done or released a study that measures any PUA claims. If I'm wrong about that, definitely let me know.

No, all we have are dudes with their claims that they're having sex with all the hottest models, and they've had so many women in the past that you wouldn't believe it, and look, they've even brought this one hot chick to stand beside him, so you know it's all true!

I'm not saying that anecdotal evidence and personal observations are worth zero, I'm just saying that if you are going to lay down nearly a thousand bucks on a guy who claims that he is totally awesome at picking up chicks, just have your eyes wide open to the fact that all you have to go on is that he says he is. That's all he's got.

What about testimonials? Don't look to those for any kind of objectivity. People who pay money for things are more likely to sell themselves on an idea than anyone else. In fact, the more people spend on something, the more they psych themselves into believing it was worth it. No one wants to believe they wasted 70,000 yen on nothing. So the people who went to "boot camps" before who rave about it are the least objective sources for evaluating its merits.

No, there is no objectivity anywhere at all in this whole process. We have reportage, anecdotes, and hypothesis. We don't have independent observation, controlled studies, or theories (despite the word "theory" being abused, as it often is in every day vernacular). For me, spending that kind of cash, I'd need more certainty than what's being offered.

In the end, I'm not passing judgment on the PUA thing in entirety for this complete lack of science, though I do pass judgment on some proponents of PUA for their appropriation of scientific terminology to create an air of credibility. No, I actually think that anything that can help men and women talk to each other better is a good thing, and there's some of that mixed in with the PUA stuff, as well as the aforementioned trends towards trying to achieve personal excellence, so really it's a matter of being able to highgrade out the good from the bad.

One time I was at a party where I and another guy who happened to be there at that moment were talking to a woman, and he started to do things that are known as "compliance techniques", little actions one can do to test to see if a woman is receptive, for example by touching her hand at the right time to see if she pulls away or not. I didn't know this guy, but from those actions I recognized that he was a PUA type guy, and I quickly grew tired of his company. You see, before I mentioned that PUA guys can be very supportive of each other. However, that's generally more true when they are working within their own in-groups. They refer to guys outside of the PUA community as "AFCs", as in "Average Frustrated Chump", the guys who don't know what they are doing. It's not that they hate on AFCs, it's just that they see them generally as incidental obstacles in the path of getting with their target women. So when this guy started rigidly adhering to PUA techniques, I knew that me just talking with this woman, what PUAs refer to as "natural game", was going to be derailed.

So I called him out on it, simply by mentioning how he was doing "compliance techniques", and he got kind of huffy with me as if I was transgressing some kind of code by shining a light on what he was doing. Personally, I can't see that I did anything wrong there, because if one is engaging in an interaction that can't be honestly identified for risk of negating its objectives, then one is being knowingly deceptive, and I don't think I can ever automatically be expected to assist in someone else's deception.

On later reflection, though, I realized that the poor guy was just doing his best to try and cope with his own issues. It comes down to this, in PUA terminology, that the more inner game you have, the less outer game you need. Relying on all the phrases and techniques is a sign that one doesn't have the self confidence to just be oneself and let that propel you forward. I blew him out of his "set" (yes, I've read enough of this stuff to be way more hip to the lingo than I'd like to be), and that was maybe harsh of me, but hopefully he can learn from that to try and develop a more honest form of interaction with women, to just be himself. Not because I think it's more ethical or anything, but just that we're all more successful coming from a base of honesty.

Which brings me back to the "boot camps". I suspect it's a lot of work on "outer game", especially as they market it in terms of being able to fuck all the women one always wanted to. Hey, I get it, it's a lot easier to sell guys on the promise of sex than on self realization. However, I hope some guys who go to it will be able to draw from it the ability to relax enough to eventually just talk to women, to be themselves and find out that women are also just people who can be talked to. And that is a possibility here, because, remember, if all they wanted was sex they could do that for a fraction of the cost.

If one could go from being too shy to talk to women and get to the point of having enough self worth to not judge themselves by women's reactions, then that would actually be worth 70,000 yen.

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