The Mating Game

Investigating the psychology underpinning human relationships

Why We Want Who We Want

The phenomenon of mate copying and how it affects our romantic choices.

Petrenko Andriy/Shutterstock
More and more of us are meeting our partners online. A 2011 worldwide study of 25,000 married or cohabitating people found that 15% of all relationships started online. In the group who were age 60-plus, 37% had met their partners through the internet.

When venturing into the world of online dating, some individuals consider methods to optimize their chances of finding a suitable mate. An element of self-promotion is essential. And perhaps paradoxically, evidence suggests that highlighting your previous relationship history to prospective partners may actually have a positive impact on securing a date.

Why is this? In the absence of any other information, humans tend to estimate the value of something by gauging the demand for it.

Mate copying is the idea that an individual’s decision to mate—or form a relationship with a potential partner—is impacted by observation of that person in a relationship with another, or knowledge of their romantic history. This phenomenon has been extensively documented in non-human animals, but in the last decade evidence has emerged to support its existence in humans.

The idea behind mate copying is information gain. Why go to the trouble of collecting data for yourself when you can let someone else do it and get it for free? Acquiring information this way may sound immoral, but is it immoral to pay less for something than someone else, or, put another way, to behave in a way that is economical, rational, or clever?

Imitation is a staple of human existence: People copy fashion styles, culinary preferences, and business strategies. This is considered perfectly normal—and in some cases essential. Utilizing the information choices of others to guide decisions makes sense, especially when the alternative is a time-and-resource-consuming trial-and-error approach, in which the risks of making the wrong decision are significant.

As an example in terms of relationships, if Sarah "recommends" John—as evidenced by her romantic association with him—maybe John is "valuable" enough to go out with. And if Sarah is particularly attractive (an appealing characteristic), surely there must be something about John that Sarah found appealing. Why did she choose John over other suitors? A woman considering whether or not to date John may benefit from paying attention to this information.

In many studies of mate copying to date, researchers have focused on females, reflecting the fact that mate selection in humans is predominantly at the discretion of women.

The evidence suggests that, in addition to physical characteristics, women seek additional qualities in a potential mate, such as socioeconomic status, ambition, and parental ability, which may be particularly difficult to readily discern. Is a man going to be a good provider? Will he make a good father? These are difficult questions to answer.

Evidence suggests, on he other hand, that male attraction centers around easily observable physical qualities that signal reproductive capacity, including skin and hair texture and quality (1). The need for additional information is not as great.

Due to this asymmetry, mate copying is more common among females than males. In studies where women are asked to rate the attractiveness of photographs of men posed with a female partner versus alone, men pictured with a partner are generally considered more attractive. This finding has been replicated when participants view speed-dating footage. Controlling for individual characteristics, men perceived to be more successful at the process were favored over those that were not (2).

This general finding does not hold for all ages. Younger females, due partly to their inexperience, appear to be more inclined to copy mate choices than their more mature counterparts. This is speculated to be due to younger females having less experience in making mate decisions. Older females are more practiced at the discrimination task, and hence may be more confident in the choices they make.

A caveat to these findings is that mate copying appears to only occur if the male’s previous female partner is considered attractive. In other words, men are considered more attractive only if their previous partner is regarded as beautiful. In socially monogamous societies, most men will become partnered at some point. A man with a highly physically attractive partner may have something desirable that a man with a less physically attractive partner does not.

Another important qualifier is that while having a previous partner appears to increase the attractiveness of a man, having too many partners is considered undesirable. In a recent Australian study, women rated the desirability of men with a varying number of ex-partners. Men with one or two ex-partners were considered very desirable. However, men with five or more ex-partners were considered highly undesirable (3). It would seem that although having a previous relationship signifies the presence of desirable traits, having a significantly large number of previous relationships sends messages of promiscuity and lack of commitment.

There exist companies that create the illusion that men have women interested in them (so called “wing-women” services). The idea here is that by feigning attraction to the male client, the wing-woman shows that he is desirable to women, which may increase his chances of securing a date.

On the topic of human relationships, the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera mused, “[it is] one of life’s great secrets: women don’t look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women” (4).

Here we present evidence for this assertion.

 

 

References

(1)   Feingold, A. (1992). Gender differences in mate selection preferences: a test of the parental investment model. Psychological bulletin, 112(1), 125-139.

(2) Place, S.S., Todd, P.M., Penke, l., & Asendorpf, J.B. (2010). Humans show mate copying after observing real mate choices. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 320-325.

(3) Anderson, R.C., A Surbey, M.K. (2014). I want what she’s having: Evidence of human mate copying. Human Nature, 25(3), 342-358.

(4) Kundera M. 1978. The book of laughter and forgetting. London: Penguin, 1980.

Ryan Anderson is a psychologist and zoologist. Malcolm Forbes is an Australian M.D. working in psychiatry and internal medicine.

more...

Subscribe to The Mating Game

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?