Interesting research on mate selection

August 23rd, 2009 by Pelle Billing

New Scientist recently published a very interesting article about mate selection, and whether people perceive single or attached potential partners as more attractive. The quoted research supports what many of us have long suspected (and that so called pick-up artists have been saying for years):

“The single women really, really liked the guy when he was taken,” says Melissa Burkley of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, who conducted the “mate-poaching” study with her colleague Jessica Parker.

For some reason (straight) women, but not men, find a potential partner to be more attractive if he’s already attached to another woman, even though “logically” it would be better to be interested in someone who’s not already in a relationship. But perhaps that is the key to why a taken man is more attractive? Wanting that which is forbidden?

The difference between how a single woman feels about a single man and a taken man is suprisingly large:

The most striking result was in the responses of single women. Offered a single man, 59 per cent were interested in pursuing a relationship. But when he was attached, 90 per cent said they were up for the chase.

The researchers themselves offer an intriguing explanation as to why men who are already in a relationship appear so attractive to single women:

Burkley and Parker speculate that single women may be more drawn to attached men because they’ve already been “pre-screened” by other women and found to be satisfactory as a mate, whereas single men are more of an unknown quantity.

This explanation seems very reasonable to me, however, it does not explain why men don’t have the same pattern when choosing a partner. Unless, of course, we turn to evolutionary psychology for an explanation…

Evolutionary psychology informs us that men are attracted to youth and beauty in a woman, since those factors–in the past–were related to health and the likelihood of surviving a pregnancy. Men who had a mating strategy that included pursuing this category of women, were more likely to pass on their genes, and therefore the men of today still have that tendency built in. And if you place a lot of value on external appearances, then you don’t care as much about social cues; for example who another man is interested in.

Women, on the other hand, are attracted to men with high status or who appear to be capable of attaining high status in society (or so evolutionary psychology informs us, it still needs to be validated further). If this is true, then it would make perfect sense to want the man that another woman has already preselected. After all, she wouldn’t have selected him if he wasn’t a man capable of attaining high status, right?

Anyhow, whether the research presented by Burkley and Parker can be explained by evolutionary psychology is still an open question. What we do know though, is that their research is yet another piece in the puzzle that supports the basic theoretical framework that evolutionary psychology puts forward.

Personally I do believe that evolutionary psychology has some material that cannot be ignored, and that’s the reason I write about it sometimes. However, I do not believe it to be the only relevant framework when analyzing male-female dynamics in society (or same gender dynamics for homosexuals); it is one important perspective that needs to co-exist with many other important perspectives.

Tags:

17 Responses to “Interesting research on mate selection”

  1. Patrick Brown Says:

    Another possible evolutionary-psychological explanation: a man who pursues a woman who’s already spoken for risks her already being pregnant with another man’s child, which, if he wins her, he’ll have to bring up. A woman who pursues a man who’s spoken for doesn’t take that risk – if he’s already impregnated his current partner, that doesn’t stop him also impregnating her.

  2. unomi Says:

    Not sure about this. Presumably the mother would have wanted a young, strong man who she thought would be around (alive) long enough to take care of the child/provide for them, etc. And remember life expectancy was a lot shorter back then.

    Evolutionary psychology informs us that men are attracted to youth and beauty in a woman, since those factors–in the past–were related to health and the likelihood of surviving a pregnancy.

    Youth, perhaps. Although again, can’t see the logic behind her choosing a 30 year old who’s about to kick the bucket. Beauty is subjective. I would certainly have thought that men went for women with significantly more body fat than what we’re seeing today.

  3. Pelle Billing Says:

    Unomi,

    I’m glad you raise these points because it enables us to go deeper.

    A strong man was certainly no disadvantage – but faced with the choice between such a man who has high status or low status – what would the woman choose? Also, a strong man (physically and/or mentally) would be much more likely to be high status under primitive settings.

    When you say “young” you assume a keen awareness of life expectancy, which likely did not exist back then. What’s also important to remember is that abstract thinking and a clear awareness of the future likely did not exist either in human beings back then.

    Regarding women, youth and beauty were both indicators of being able to bear a child to full term. Beauty was an indication of health, since symmetrical features indicated a lack of disease. And beauty is not subjective, as long as we are talking about symmetrical features. Body fat is a whole other business, as you say. The fact that you only see skinny women in the media is likely a cultural thing.

  4. Pelle Billing Says:

    A clarification:

    Women who chose young men instead of high status men likely were not rewarded for their choice (since high status can mean advantages even after the man dies), unlike the men who chose young women (because these women produced more offspring).

  5. Danny Says:

    Not sure about this. Presumably the mother would have wanted a young, strong man who she thought would be around (alive) long enough to take care of the child/provide for them, etc. And remember life expectancy was a lot shorter back then.
    But I would think that picking a young, strong man back then (as it is today to some extent) was a gamble on whether or not that young, strong man would attain high status and power. On the other hand a man that is older may not have as long to live but he has already attained the power and status that she is looking for in a mate.

    You can see this a bit today in how young women go for older guys. They can claim its because older men are “more mature” all they want but deep down part of the selection process has to do with those older men already having power and status. Just like back then (but to a smaller degree due to women having much more access to their own power and status than in the past) its a matter of if said woman is willing to gamble on a young man who might gain power and status or try for an older man who already has it. (You can see the opposite of this at work in older women going for younger men. Most of the time said older women are secure financially and by other means which means their selection standards are different from their younger counterparts.)

    unomi:
    I would certainly have thought that men went for women with significantly more body fat than what we’re seeing today.
    Well if you go by what men actually say about their tastes in women you will find this to be true very often (but no always). The thin women that you see being passed off as “beautiful” are pushed by the magazine, designer clothing, and weight loss industries. Magazines benefit by way of not actually having to find out what the public likes to see because it is much easier (and cheaper) to dictate what we like. Clothing designers get off with this because the smaller the clothes the less they spend in materials. The weight loss pushers obviously benefit by way of pushing their pills, diets, exercise machines, etc… to all the people who are trying to match what the magazines look like and fit the tiny clothes they see on the runway.

  6. hampus Says:

    There is an interesting input from our mathematicians, popularly expanded by “illustrerad vetenskap” in sweden regarding mating options.

  7. hampus Says:

    Follow up:

    their weakness relies only in their assumptions, which could be verified by statistical analysis, but for the broader public i would assume their axioms to be acceptable.

  8. Jim Says:

    “I would certainly have thought that men went for women with significantly more body fat than what we’re seeing today.”

    I think they still do go for women with more body fat than than what we are shown today, as opposed to what we are seeing. There’s an unbridgeable chasm between fashion publications – porn directed at women, and then on the other hand porn directed at straight men. The porn directed at women is more socially accpetable, natrurally, and that’s what we are shown.

    Then again, the question may be what you mean by “go for”. Men may be going for skinny women for one thing, and more substantial women for another – the Whore/Madonna divide.

  9. Jim Says:

    But if you are referring to depictions of women in art and so on, yeah, I think it’s pretty indisputable that modern depictions are much skinnier than in the past, as recently as the 50′s.

  10. Pelle Billing Says:

    I agree with what Danny and Jim say about women and body fat. The ideal women in the media, is not the ideal woman for a company producing porn. And since porn producers are in the business of trying to connect to the most primal sex drive in men, perhaps they are less influenced by cultural tides than the mainstream media. I don’t know whether that last part is true, but I do know that symmetrical facial features seem to be universally attractive, while desirable amounts of body fat varies between cultures.

  11. hieronemus Says:

    The female models shown in mainstream media are meant to appeal to other women. Therefore they are chosen to be “boyish” without too much body fat.

  12. Jim Says:

    “Therefore they are chosen to be “boyish” without too much body fat.”

    I think they are chosen to be girlish, in line with the current obsession with youthfulness. Girlishness plays into claims of victimhood and pleas for provison and protection, so it can be a very attractive and high pay-off pose to adopt.

    I don’t think any of these modesl look especially boyish, at least not like boys that most boys would recognoze as boyish.

  13. Jim Says:

    “Burkley and Parker speculate that single women may be more drawn to attached men because they’ve already been “pre-screened” by other women and found to be satisfactory as a mate, whereas single men are more of an unknown quantity.”

    Sure thing. And then again it just may be the psychological equivalent of group sex.

  14. ProudMisanthrope Says:

    Men have to stay healthy too. Poor health and insane risk taking eventually make sperm retarded or completely inept. Men also have their own standards of beauty because why would a woman, say in biblical times, want to marry a leper man?

  15. Pelle Billing Says:

    Agreed, but there’s a difference in degree, which is significant.

  16. andrea Says:

    But, did women in “biblical times”, or any other era before the modern one, really have much of an opportunity to even practice mate selection? I was under the impression that marriage was more a matter of the transferal of property between a girl’s father and another man or as an alliance builder between two families ( in which case neither party has much choice).

    I’m rather new to the evolutionary psych conversation, but I find it very interesting. I’d love to know how you all think arranged marriages fit into the whole equation.

    I also just stumbled onto this blog this morning. Nice work, Pelle.

  17. Pelle Billing Says:

    Thanks Andrea.

    Sure, arranged marriages would not reinforce the tendencies we’re talking about. But let’s remember that humanity has been around for 200,000 years, and arranged marriages only make sense once you have some property to look out for. Agrarian farming arose 5-7000 years ago, and it was then that humanity started creating a significant surplus for the first time.

    Humans may also have inherited characteristics from earlier hominids, and then we’re talking several hundreds of thousands years more of forming our “attraction blueprints” – without any arranged marriages present.


Google