Posts Tagged ‘evolutionary psychology’

Interesting research on mate selection

Sunday, August 23rd, 2009

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.

Principles of Evolutionary Psychology

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

What is evolutionary psychology and why is it interesting in a discourse about gender issues? Marriam Webster defines evolutionary psychology as the study of human cognition and behavior with respect to their evolutionary origins. In other words, the way we think and behave nowadays, may well be adaptations to solve recurrent problems in human ancestral environments.

A simplified way of putting it is that if a behavior or way of thinking was advantageous for thousands of years (for example during the stone age), then it may well have been hardwired into the human brain. We are not born as blank slates, and it makes sense that the programming that we are born with be useful for our survival and reproduction. However, what was useful in the past, may not be useful nowadays, even though the programming remains in our brains.

Evolutionary psychology can be a controversial field. Its proponents want to explain all human behavior using this theory, while its detractors emphasize the importance of human flexibility and continuous biological adaptation to the current cultural climate. In my opinion, the truth is somewhere in between those two polarities, and I leave it up to you to determine what importance you want to allot to each stance.

Let’s have a look at some of the basic principles of evolutionary biology and how they relate to gender issues:

  • Since women are the ones who get pregnant (since times immemorial…), women have always been forced to choose a man carefully. A woman can only carry one child at a time, and a pregnancy takes nine months, which means that she’d better choose a man with good genes, because she won’t get very many chances to pass on her own genes. She also needs a man around who’s willing to protect and provide for the child, be it the father or a man who thinks he is the father. This means that the emotional connection to the man is crucial for a women, because the emotional connection is a good indicator of whether he’ll stick around or if he’s only interested in sex.
  • The principle above changed with the introduction of the female birth control pill, which enabled women to have sex without risking pregnancy. However, the old dynamics are still part of female nature, competing with the new dynamics that the pill introduced. This means that to some extent women are still looking for a confident man who can be a good protector, and preferably a man who can provide for the child – even if she’s only interested in a sexual relationship, and not in having children.
  • Men, however, do not get pregnant and therefore don’t need to choose their sexual partners as carefully. Fathering a bastard child could potentially be done at a very low cost, if you don’t have to assume the role of father for that child. However, being a committed father has always been a very good option for men, since in past eras the survival rate of your children was much higher if you stuck around.
  • Since men can father a child at a very low cost while women cannot, women end up being the sexual selectors more often than men.
  • Men are attracted to beautiful women. Beauty in this case is not some kind of esoteric concept, it is simply another word for proportional and symmetric facial features. Since women instinctively know that their looks are important when attracting a man, we have a whole cosmetic and plastic surgery industry catering to the needs of women. Evolutionary speaking, men are attracted to female beauty, due to symmetric facial features being a predictor of good health in the past, and good health is crucial if a woman is to survive a pregnancy, and pass on the man’s genes.
  • Gay men generally care more about their looks than straight men, and know more about grooming and skin care. The reason for this is simple: gay men are looking to attract other men, and even if those other men are also gay, they are still 100 percent men – and therefore attracted to good looks. Lesbian women, on the other hand, are often more relaxed about their looks, since they are attempting to attract other women, and women care less about good looks (even though good looks are still far from unimportant).