Meet, Catch, and Keep

A scientific look at the complexities of romantic relationships

The Evolution of the Wingman

Master the time-tested playbook for success.

Ladies and gentleman, may I introduce the wingman. He (or she!) is smooth, stylish, generous with a compliment, and quick with a smile. The wingman is the single person’s best friend. Forget about his or her own love life, the wingman’s primary concern is laying the groundwork to help needing friends navigate the murky and confusing world of attraction and dating. A good wingman is a valuable asset, but where did the idea for this role come from? Is it an evolutionary adaptation or a socially-learned solution to the modern courtship puzzle? And what actually makes a successful wingman?

Opposable thumbs are great, but as humans have adapted to our incredibly complex social environment, the wingman is another major evolutionary triumph. A growing body of evidence suggests that friends who help friends succeed in the dating game are enacting a social ritual grounded in an evolutionary explanation (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). This perspective is gaining more traction than the idea that the wingman is simply a socially-learned phenomenon. The story begins like this: compared to men, women have a larger biologically-based investment in any offspring that might result from a sexual encounter. As a result, women tend to be highly selective when choosing their romantic partners (Kenrick, Sadalla, Groth, & Trost, 1990).

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So, how does this play out on a Friday night in a busy bar?  Women often enter a social scene with invisible barriers that help them uphold certain thresholds defining who is and isn’t an acceptable partner. Men, meanwhile are often looking specifically for a short-term liaison (not a long-term relationship) and they tend to be less picky about with whom they have that liaison, preferring of course, those who are highly attractive (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Schmitt, Shackelford, & Buss, 2001). Enter: the wingman.

The term “cooperative courtship” captures the mission of the wingman. To be successful, he or she must be a prosocially-motivated person who advances the specific relationship-formation goals of a friend (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). The evolutionary perspective defines the criteria that we can all use to assess our own skill as a wingman and the ability of our friends to successfully serve in this capacity.

Good wingmen know their job. Are you looking for long-term love or a short-term fling? An effective wingman knows the romantic ambitions of his or her friends. Men tend to seek short-term relationships at a greater rate than women (Buss & Schmitt, 1993; Schmitt et al., 2001), but women too can prioritize short-term over long-term relationships particularly when they encounter highly desirable men (i.e., the “good-genes” hypothesis; Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). Further, men and women seeking long-term relationships generally have similarly high standards on dimensions like warmth, intelligence, and physical attractiveness (Li & Kenrick, 2006). Knowing the goals of a friend will help the wingman know where to set the threshold for a potentially acceptable match.

Good wingmen often remove barriers. For men, a wingman is valuable primarily to the extent that he or she can break down the invisible barriers that women establish to keep less desirable men at bay (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). They might do the difficult work of initiating contact with a woman or they might strike up a conversation that creates a positive impression of their friend, an impression that hopefully will shape the quality of the friend’s eventual interaction with that woman. 

Good wingmen sometimes build barriers. You’ve probably had that experience of being in a bar or club and suddenly finding yourself caught in a conversation with a stranger, but not a stranger who you believe offers you any type of desirable romantic opportunity. Women, more than men, value wingmen that help them build rather than remove barriers of interaction (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). For women, a good wingman (male or female) is the cooperative friend who helps women avoid undesirable social interactions. Create a distraction, change the conversation, help free her from the nets of this unwelcomed interaction! It seems that a “good” wingman is often based on how well he or she creates access for men but builds walls for women.

Good wingmen have tactics. Whether creating opportunities or protecting a friend from unwanted attention, the wingman needs skills. Humor, for example, when used strategically, can enhance romantic interest (DiDonato, Bedminster, & Machel, 2012). Successful wingmen might allude to a friend’s good sense of humor to talk up the friend’s favorable qualities. The wingman might also benefit from knowing which characteristics people look for in a desirable dating partner (e.g., intelligence, warmth). He and she might skillfully weave references to their friend having such traits into a conversation. 

A a good wingman also has the social savviness that enables him or her to break up undesired interactions. He might “take one for the team” and occupy the attention of an attractive woman’s girlfriend so that his friend has the opportunity to connect with the attractive woman. He might also play the role of “counterfeit boyfriend” to help a friend escape the mating maneuvers of an undesirable potential partner (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009).

Good wingmen don’t steal your potential partner. Pick your wingman carefully, because you don’t want to watch your wingman walk out the door with your love interest. If you have a choice, forget your single guy friends. Instead, get your guy friends who are already in relationships to be your support. Single men tend to be less effective wingmen than attached men (Ackerman & Kenrick, 2009). It seems that when men themselves are looking for love, the quality of their wingmen work suffers. Single women, meanwhile, are often better wingmen than their attached counterparts, perhaps because they can relate to the need to avoid unwanted attention.

 

Other reads: Seven Fashion Secrets for Romance

Ackerman, J. M., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). Cooperative courtship: Helping friends raise and raze relationship barriers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1285-1300.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: an evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological review, 100, 204-232.

DiDonato, T. E., Bedminster, M. C., & Machel, J. J. (2013). My funny valentine: How humor styles affect romantic interest. Personal Relationships, 20, 374-390.

Kenrick, D. T., Sadalla, E. K., Groth, G., & Trost, M. R. (1990). Evolution, traits, and the stages of human courtship: Qualifying the parental investment model. Journal of Personality, 58, 97-116.

Li, N. P., & Kenrick, D. T. (2006). Sex similarities and differences in preferences for short-term mates: what, whether, and why. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 468-489.

Shackelford, T. K., Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2005). Universal dimensions of human mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 39, 447-458.

Theresa DiDonato, Ph.D. is a social psychologist and assistant professor at Loyola University Maryland.

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