How to explain a bad date, with help from psychology

How you view a bad date might color your perspective on future dates

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What went wrong on your last date? The way you answer could change everything about how you approach your next one.

Psychologists Martin Seligman and Gregory McClell Buchanan have studied how people explain life events. How might we explain the man who was rude to us on the bus? Or the results of the “cutest dog” photo contest we answered? Or the date that ended in awkward silence?

We might gather input from past events, our knowledge of the people involved, or friends and family members. But when it comes down to it, Seligman and Buchanan developed three parameters in which we explain certain events. Together, they make up our “explanatory styles,” which determine the way we reflect on failure, success and the occasional awkward date.

If you’re interested in reading more about this, the books “Learned Optimism” and “Explanatory Style” are two great places to start.

According to the parameters Seligman and Buchanan have developed, we make assumptions about what the next event, i.e. date, will look like. Let’s take a look at these explanatory styles. You may find that shifting your perspective makes your next date a lot more exciting.

Stable vs. unstable (permanence)

Let’s say you go on a date and it ends poorly. You text friends, who aren’t encouraging. They say things like, “dating sucks.” “Dating is never fun.” “Men will always be immature.” You’re not going to look forward to the next date if you think you’re always going to run into bad dates.

We can see an event as stable, meaning that it’s permanent. Or, we can see an event as unstable, which means it’s temporary. People who believe situations are stable may have a fixed mindset, in which growth is limited and things rarely change.

In reality, your dating life can change as you grow and learn about yourself. So really, is the status of your dating life ever permanent?

Global vs. local (pervasiveness)

Let’s say you go on a date with a person who is interested in video games. They’re slow to text back, not great at communicating before your date, and spend the evening talking only about video games. How do you explain this dud of a date? Do all people who play video games act like this, or is this one person’s inability to take their mind off their Xbox?

We can see an event as global, or applicable everywhere, or we can see it as local, something that takes place in only one location, one area of your life, or on one date with one person. People with a global perspective of failure may get rejected from a person and believe all people will reject them.

This can lead people to make fascinating, puzzling and downright disturbing assumptions about people they go on dates with and those who share something in common with them. “All atheists have no morals.” “Anyone who has never been married has commitment issues.” “All people of [insert race] are too culturally different from me.” I know these statements are hard to read, but they are things I’ve heard from clients.

Does this mean all my clients have prejudices and unfair biases? Of course not. We all make different choices, live different lifestyles and see the world differently. If we can attribute one or two bad dates to individuals, rather than an entire population, suddenly the dating pool becomes more bearable … and even exciting.

Internal vs. external (personalization)

Let’s say you are excited to go on a date, but on the way, you encounter bad traffic. Then, the doorman at the bar gives you a hard time about your ID. You realize gum is stuck to your shoe and you forgot your umbrella, and it’s pouring. Are you still going to be excited?

We can attribute a person’s behavior on a date to internal factors, like their disposition and character, or we can attribute it to external factors, like the weather or time of day or an infinite number of other events that play into getting ready for a date. We can also look internally for the cause of a bad date (i.e. we did something wrong on the date; there is something wrong with us). Or, we can look externally.

Depending on how you view a bad date, you could walk away feeling terrible about yourself, terrible about the other person, or terrible about the conditions that made the date bad. How you think about your bad date is all in how you explain it to yourself.

In the end, we might not know what caused a bad date. We do know we have control over how we approach dating in the future.

The next time you find yourself coming home from a date, come back to this article and reflect on the different explanatory styles. What are the different ways you can explain a bad date? And as you look at the different styles, think about how the explanations make you feel more or less optimistic about future dates. Optimists see events as having unstable, local, and external causes. Pessimists see events as having stable, global, and internal causes.

Are you feeling more hopeful, open to opportunity, and optimistic? That means you’re on the right track.

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Erika Ettin is the founder of A Little Nudge, where she helps others navigate the often intimidating world of online dating.