Games Primates Play

The evolution and economics of human relationships.

Mating Markets: The Bald and the Beautiful

When you shop for mating partners, you can’t always get what you want

Walking on the streets of Bangkok a few years ago, I couldn't help but notice the high number of heterosexual "mixed" couples made up of a white Caucasian man and a Thai woman. In virtually all cases, the man was older and rather unattractive (bald, with a potbelly, and thick glasses), while the woman was young and good-looking. We see well-matched couples all the time: the young and the beautiful typically go with their own kind (like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), and average-looking middle-aged people are typically married to other average-looking middle-aged people. Occasionally, we run into a very attractive young woman accompanied by an older man, but the man is typically well groomed, in good physical shape, and wears an expensive Armani suit. In other words, he is wealthy and successful. In the United States or in Europe, you don't typically see unattractive and socially awkward middle-class men in the company of beautiful young women. So what's going on in Bangkok? Why do we see all these pairings that seem mismatched for age and looks, and all in the same direction? It turns out that many men travel to Bangkok from the United States or Europe, meet young and beautiful local women, marry them, and bring them back to their country. To understand this phenomenon it's necessary to describe mating markets and how they work.

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In a mating market everyone has certain endowments that others may find attractive, such as youth, physical attractiveness, wealth, and social status. Males and females differ, on average, in how they value the endowments of opposite-sex individuals. Men value youth and physical attractiveness very highly, while women value wealth and status (though they don't mind physical attractiveness too). Clearly there are not enough young, beautiful women for every man, so a few men get them and most don't. On the flip side, since young beautiful women are in short supply and high demand, they can select any partner they want (take Angelina Jolie, for example). Well-endowed men with good looks, lots of money, and high social or celebrity status are also rare and in high demand among women, so they too usually get what they want (take George Clooney, for example). But men with low endowments, such as low income or average looks - and there are many of them out there - have limited options. If they are nice and have good social skills, they can settle with a partner with similarly low endowments, but if they happen to be socially awkward or unpleasant to be around, they may not find anyone at all.

In the era of globalization, however, when it's easy to travel around the world and meet people through the Internet, the low-endowment men have another option: move into a different mating market, one in which their endowments are deemed more valuable. In Bangkok, where local people are quite poor, a middle-class American man is considered a billionaire. Marrying an American man offers a Thai woman the opportunity to climb out of poverty, leave her country, become a U.S. citizen, and maybe spend the rest of her life in a nice suburban house in Florida or California. Thus, in the Bangkok mating market, middle-class, middle-aged American men, despite their baldness, potbellies, and thick glasses, are considered by many Thai women to be more valuable as potential husbands than most Thai men. In this market, American men can pick and choose, and of course they all choose young, beautiful women.

Clearly, this is an oversimplification of how human mating markets work. What's considered valuable in a partner varies depending on whether one is looking for a short-term, mostly sexual relationship or a stable long-term relationship involving marriage and children. Women's preferences for men's traits vary depending on what stage of their menstrual cycle they are in: they value good looks and masculinity more around midcycle than at other times. Finally, there are cultural differences in partner valuation. People living in Manhattan may have a different idea of what is attractive in a potential partner than people living in rural villages in New Guinea.

The general point is that when people "shop" for a partner in a mating market, they can't always get what they want. What they can get depends on their own value and on the laws of supply and demand in the particular market in which they find themselves. The fact that most women and most men seem to value the same qualities in a partner does not contradict the observation that people often end up in relationships with individuals who were not at the top of their wish list. We would all like to live in big mansions, but in practice people live in houses they can afford. Similarly, although people generally agree on who are the most desirable mates, they end up with someone whose value is comparable with their own. Knowing whether one is a 2, a 6, or a 9 on the 1-10 scale of mate value is important, and that's not something one can figure out by looking in the mirror. It takes time as well as feedback from our fellow human beings.

Personal ads published in newspapers or posted on online dating sites such as Match.com serve to advertise both the posters' own characteristics as well as their needs: in other words, their offers and their demands. Ads can be viewed as bids that reflect both people's self-assessment of value and their knowledge of the market. Studies have shown that advertisers adjust their bids in light of their perceived market value. In highly competitive markets, individuals with a weak bargaining hand adjust their demands down, while those with a strong bargaining hand adjust them up.

We human beings may be the first animals to shop for partners on the Internet but we certainly didn't invent mating markets. A few years ago, primatologist Michael Gumert examined the mating market in long-tail macaques living in the forests of Indonesia. These monkeys live in large groups with many females and many males. Females are fertile during four or five days of their menstrual cycle and advertise their estrus with sexual swellings. The menstrual cycles of the other females are usually not synchronized, so they don't all become fertile at the same time. This means that when one female in the group is in estrus, her fertility is a valuable commodity that every male in the group wants. Males cannot sexually coerce the fertile female and cannot use force to prevent their male competitors from mating with her. Instead, they have to offer the fertile female another commodity and outbid their competitors to make sure that she will do business with them. This commodity is grooming. Receiving grooming increases one's hygiene and reduces tension. It's sort of like when a husband offers a back rub to his wife in hopes that she will consent to have sex. That macaques consider grooming a valuable commodity is suggested by studies showing that when subordinates groom high-ranking individuals they obtain tolerance and support in return. Does grooming also work as payment for sex?

Gumert observed that when there is a fertile female in the group, the males groom her much more than they groom the nonfertile females. He also observed that after a male grooms the fertile female, they often have sex. It turned out that male grooming before sex lasts longer than grooming not followed by sex, and that a female is more likely to have sex with a male after this male has groomed her for a while than if he just sits there and does nothing. So it seemed that being groomed by a male for a while puts the female in the right mood for sex. One interpretation of this is that males use grooming to pay fertile females for sex. In contrast, fertile females don't make any grooming payments to males in order to have sex with them. All fertile females have to do to get some romantic attention from males is to look pretty with their sexual swellings.

Gumert also noticed that not all males pay the same grooming price for sex, and not all females receive the same compensation for their availability. High-ranking males are generally more attractive than low-ranking ones as mating partners because they can provide better protection from other monkeys to females and their offspring. High-ranking females are more attractive as mating partners because they are generally healthier and more fertile than low-ranking ones. As would be expected in a mating market, the value of individuals influences the commodities they are able to obtain as well as the price they pay for them. High-ranking males groom fertile females less but mate with them more than low-ranking males do. Given that low-ranking males are less attractive, they have to work harder at gaining their favors. High-ranking females mate with high-ranking males more often and receive higher grooming payments from males for the same amount of sex as low-ranking females do. Finally, in accordance with the law of supply and demand, if there is only one fertile female and many males in the group at a particular time, the grooming payment made by the guy who gets lucky is very high. If there are more fertile females at the same time in the group, the grooming payment received by each fertile female is lower.

As you can imagine, Gumert's article, aptly titled "Payment for Sex in a Macaque Mating Market," made a big splash with the media. Newspapers, magazines, and Internet news sites played around with headlines that more or less explicitly hinted at the discovery of monkey prostitution. Spike TV ("The TV for Men") sent a crew to my office to interview me about this article and I tried to say something clever about it. Later, being unsure about my performance on camera, I was too scared to watch the interview.

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Dario Maestripieri, Ph.D., is a professor of comparative human development, evolutionary biology, and neurobiology at the University of Chicago.

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