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The Science Behind Pick-Up Lines: Here's Why They Work

Head and shoulders photograph of Suzannah Weiss
A young man and woman sitting on a bench talking to one another happily
You often hear about people using pick-up lines in bars or other social settings, but what are pick-up lines? In their most basic form, pick-up lines are things people say to initiate a conversation with a stranger they're attracted to. They may be used to get a date or hookup or just get to know a person better to see if they'd like to pursue something.

When entering the dating scene, pick-up lines can be great conversation-starters. Whether you plan on finding your match on a dating app, or you want to take a crack at dating without apps and need something other than a right-swipe to indicate your interest in someone, you'll need something to start with. Some pick-up lines involve asking people simple questions about themselves (e.g., "What's your sign?"), while others involve jokes or wordplay (like the cliché "did it hurt when you fell from heaven?").

Pick-up lines are different from pick-up artistry, a set of practices mostly used by men to get women to sleep with them. Pick-up lines should be used in a fun and lighthearted way without manipulating or putting pressure on the other person. Some people find them cheesy, some find them funny, and some find them off-putting; for many, they're all of the above.

Are Pick-Up Lines Worth Using?

Whether a pick-up line works depends on which lines you use and who you use them on. When you use a pick-up line, you risk coming off disingenuous or like you have a hidden agenda, so tread carefully and don't use pick-up lines dishonestly. For example, don't say "I swear I know you from somewhere" when you don't.

Pick-up lines are best delivered with a sense of humor and a desire to entertain, not with the idea that it'll convince someone to go out or sleep with you. One line likely won't sway them either way, so don't get too caught up about it.

Fortunately, there's some research on which pick-up lines actually work. In one study, researchers asked men what lines they'd be most responsive to. They found that the most effective pick-up lines were direct instead of silly and subtle. For example, a saying, “You're hot. Can I have your number?" is better than “Can I get a picture of you so I can show Santa what I want for Christmas?”

Women, on the other hand, tend to respond well to subtle pick-up lines from men. That being said, the study found that someone's perceived attractiveness plays a more significant role in their success with pick-up lines than the lines themselves.

What Makes Pick-Up Lines Actually Work?

Pick-up lines work because they help break the ice and may even provide an opportunity for laughter when used correctly. Research has shown that people are attracted to those who can make them laugh. Pick-up lines are also a very overt way to show your interest in someone, which is the first step to see if it's reciprocated.

Before using a pick-up line, you need to gauge how comfortable you are with rejection. If you want to do something low-risk, you can choose a very basic pick-up line like "What's your name?" or "Have you been here before?"

If you want to put it all out there and are willing to risk rejection, you can up the ante and use a line that makes your intentions clear, like, "Hey, you're cute. Mind if I sit next to you?" And if you want to make someone laugh, you can go with a silly one like, "I hope you know CPR because you just took my breath away!"

When Is the Right Time to Use a Pick-Up Line?

Pick-up lines are typically used when you first meet someone; they're literally for picking someone up. However, there's no right or wrong time to use pick-up lines. You could use one before you've even introduced yourself to the person, once you've started getting to know them, or after talking all night. If there is a moment in which you would like to give them a laugh or indication of your interest, that is a perfect time.

For instance, let's say you see someone attractive at a bar. You can go up to them right off the bat and use a simple line like, "Hey, what's your name?" If you've been chatting for a while and want to convey that you're attracted to them, you can go in with a bolder line like, "Is it hot in here, or is it just you?" In general, the riskier the line, the more time you'll want to establish rapport before using it.

The Most Effective Way to Use Pick-Up Lines

The most effective pick-up lines are ones that effortlessly form part of a natural conversation. So, if you're still confused about how to use pick-up lines, stick to simple ones you might use if you were just looking for a friend: "How are you today?" or "What's your favorite thing to order here?"

Nowadays, pick-up lines aren't only used in person. Using pickup lines as a first message on a dating site is also common. The benefit of using pick-up lines in written communication is that you can insert silly emojis to acknowledge the line's cheesiness and laugh at yourself. Besides that, the rules for using pick-up lines online are similar to in person.

You can try downloading Zoosk, eharmony, or one of the best gay dating sites to test some out. The best way to see if a line works is to test it out on a few people.

Try to stay lighthearted about whatever line or lines you end up using, and remember that pick-up lines are just a fun way to get things started. What matters more is the conversation you have afterward. Be true to yourself, don't say anything you don't mean, and remember that the person you've approached has to win you over too. The goal is not to show off but to see if there's a genuine connection.

Head and shoulders photograph of Suzannah Weiss
Suzannah Weiss is a feminist writer, certified sex educator, and Brown University graduate in Cognitive Neuroscience and Gender and Sexuality Studies. In addition to writing for Top10.com, Suzannah written for major publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan. Weiss' writing about feminist issues and sexuality has also been discussed on The Today Show, The View, and C-SPAN.