More college students hook up than actually date, but most prefer to date

By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2010

A new study by psychologists at James Madison University found -- not surprisingly -- that college students hooked up almost twice as often as they went on actual dates. The perplexing part? The majority of students from both genders said that given the choice, they preferred traditional dating.

All things being equal, 95 percent of female students said they would choose dating over hooking up, and 77.5 percent of men said the same.

So, uh, why don't they just date?

Arnie Kahn, one of three co-authors of the study, which grew out of undergraduate student Carolyn Bradshaw's thesis, says it comes down to something called "pluralistic ignorance." Essentially: Everybody's doing it, so it must be good.

One of Kahn's previous studies on the topic found that both men and women overestimated the degree to which the opposite gender enjoyed hooking up -- described in this study as "a sexual encounter, usually lasting only one night, between people who are strangers or brief acquaintances."

Furthermore, students overestimated how much members of their own gender liked hooking up. "Because everybody else is hooking up you assume that they do it because they like it. Whereas you know that you don't like it that much, but you do it to go along," Kahn explains. "College students are very conformist."

The new study, published in March, also helps explain why hooking up has become so prevalent. Trying to actually date seems too risky -- put yourself out there, and you might get hurt. "Men talk most about rejection," Kahn says. "When you're hooking up you're not going to get rejected, 'cause you're probably wasted anyway." (Previous studies have shown that most hookups are preceded by alcohol consumption.)

Both genders said the potential for a broken heart is one of the biggest drawbacks to traditional dating.

The study, based on surveys of 220 undergrads, found that students are plenty aware of the risks of hooking up, as well. Because hookups are not always planned and often not with a well-known partner, a majority of both male and female students said they saw the contraction of a sexually transmitted disease as a major risk. Almost 40 percent of women also said the potential for pregnancy was a big downside.

Kahn and his co-authors laid out different scenarios for dating vs. hooking up, and in only one instance did a majority of women prefer hooking up to dating: while out drinking with an attractive guy.

Take the alcohol away and a majority of both genders would still rather go on a date.

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