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A sex researcher shares the number of people your brain can handle dating at once

Sure, the concept of playing the field is no new thing, but I think anyone who’s dabbled in or is at least aware of swipe culture via dating apps can agree that the advent has made the practice oh-so common. Two leading sex pros have noticed, at least: During a recent episode of the Sex with Emily podcast, host Emily Morse, PhD, chatted with sex researcher and chief scientific advisor to Match.com Helen Fisher, PhD, who really illuminated the experience of dating multiple people at once when it means messaging a seemingly unending number of potential mates simultaneously. “The problem is, the human brain is not built to even cope with so many choices,” Dr. Fisher says. “The brain has a sweet spot, apparently between five and nine alternatives, and after that, you don’t choose any.”

And though even the wildest chapters of my diary (when I fancied myself a modern Mae West circa winter 2017) don’t include me rotating nine people at once, that number here doesn’t need to reflect…well, official dating. Rather, the range could also point to people you’re “talking to” or “texting with,” with a strong emphasis on the quotation marks. (Don’t play coy, you know what I mean.)

And be honest, it does seem possible (and even likely, perhaps) that you could keep five or so conversations at a time going on Bumble, Hinge, or whatever else, right? Well, that overload, coupled with the unspoken but highly experienced paradox of choice looming in your headspace may lead you to pick “D. None of the above” since you believe, even if subconsciously, that there’s always someone better out there.

“After you meet nine people, STOP, and get to know at least one. The more you get to know somebody, the more you like them, and the more that you think that they like you.” —sex researcher Helen Fisher, PhD

Dr. Fisher’s advice? First limit your options, then try to find at least one thread of potential. “After you meet nine people, STOP, and get to know at least one of those people more,” Fisher says. “The more you get to know somebody, the more you like them, and the more that you think that they like you.”

The other love hack is to curb your selectivity, just a little bit. Dr. Fisher encourages us to “think of reasons to say ‘yes’” because “the brain is built to say ‘no.’” This is based on a phenomenon of zeroing in on the negatives among the positives. For instance, let’s say you go to a party, and everyone says your jumpsuit is great, but one lady says it “sure looks comfortable.” Guess which part you’re most likely to remember later on? That’s called “negativity bias.” The adaptive trait is to help highlight those who don’t like you because, once upon a time, the knowledge was essential for survival.

Of course, dating can sometimes be cruel and call upon survival instincts—and, obviously don’t engage in conversation if you feel your safety has been compromised. But otherwise, try to focus on big-level pros instead of superficial cons. If someone seems like a great catch but is tad shorter than you’d prefer or is, like, really passionate about The Big Lebowski, try and look past that for now. “If it’s a maybe, go out again,” Dr. Fisher says.

And remember, if you’re pursuing something monogamous (or even monogamish), remember that working five to nine is a good way to see yourself get romantically burnt out.

Speaking of which, here’s how to deal when being on a dating app feels like a part-time job. And once you’re out IRL, here’s how to tone down unintentional negative body language.