March 24, 2011 -- Francesca is a smart, accomplished attractive woman in her mid-30s. A professor of art history and archeology at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., she's the last person you'd expect to act like an insecure middle schooler over some boy she likes.
You'd be wrong.
"I obsess. I use the quantity of contact with my partner as an index of my self-esteem for the day," she said, asking that her last name not be used. "It is rather creepy, now that I think about it, but I'll look to see where someone checked in on [the social network site] Foursquare to find a justification for their silence."
She's not alone. Women, it turns out, tend to find men more attractive the less sure they are about how much the men like them.
Uncertainty itself -- not the thrill of the chase -- might rank among the greatest aphrodisiacs, according to a new study by Erin R. Whitchurch and Timothy D. Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard.
Women are apt to find men who might like them more attractive than men who definitely do, according to their paper, "He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not ... Uncertainty Can Increase Romantic Attraction."
"Uncertainty affects our thoughts in general," Whitchurch, who led the research as part of her dissertation, said. "If you can get a person to think about you, you can make that person think they're attracted to you. Uncertainty is one way to get them to think about you."
The experiment was conducted on female undergraduates, although Whitchurch believes, she said, the findings would hold true for men as well. The female subjects were told that the experiment was testing whether Facebook could be used as a dating site.
One group of women were told that four phony male profiles belonged to men that liked them the most. A second group was told they were liked an average amount. A third group was ambiguously told that they were liked either the most or an average amount by the men.
The results: Women did tend to like the men who found them most attractive. The men who were deemed most attractive of all, however, were the ones who were ambiguous on whether they liked the women a lot or just an average amount.
Technology Makes It Worse
"You're going to think a lot about the uncertainty of that situation," Whitchurch said. As a result, your brain misinterprets its own thinking -- which can lead to obsessing -- as attraction.
Single and successful at 31, Whitchurch herself is no stranger to the phenomenon.
"I hate it," she said. "Obviously, I know the research. But it's still one of those things. And it's annoying."
Technology, she said, only makes things worse for women already prone to stress out over ambiguity. With much of our communication being both easily accessible and virtually instantaneous, the question isn't so much, "Did he get my text yet" but, "Why hasn't he responded?" she said.
"Not only that," she wrote in an email, "but we've increased the way we communicate now too so whereas before there was the good old letter and land-line phone, now we have cell phones that are with people 24/7, emails, texts, FB messages."
It's enough to drive a poor girl to distraction. Just ask Francesca.
She says she knows better, or at least acknowledges that she should. But her most recent relationship was long distance, and the amount of interaction she had with her boyfriend was never good enough.
"He would go five days without responding to an email or a text," she said. "I felt it lowered my expectations of what the level of communications should be. If I got a text that just said, 'Hi,' that would be fine.
"And I'm shaking my head saying that out loud. I'm hella interesting! I have things to talk about."
Fellas, do yourselves a favor: Pick up a phone and see for yourself.