One of the most fundamental principles of evolutionary psychology is that women are much more selective than men in their mate choice. Because women pay far greater reproductive costs by making the wrong choice, women have been designed by evolution to be more cautious and choosier than men in mate selection. Hence the “coy” female, and the sexually aggressive male, in every human society ever found (as well as in most other mammalian species). In a forthcoming article in Psychological Science, however, Eli J. Finkel and Paul Eastwick of Northwestern University have overturned this long-standing consensus in evolutionary psychology and shown that, under some circumstances, women can be just as aggressive as men, or men can be just as coy as women, in mate selection.
Finkel and Eastwick, known to PT blog readers as The Attractionologists, employ the popular speed-dating format in their study of mate selection, as do many experimental psychologists today. They knew that, in these speed-dating events, men are far less selective than women in their mate choice; after meeting all of the potential dates, men check “yes” for a far larger number of women (indicating their desire to see them again) than women do for men. This is not surprising, as it mirrors most real-life dating situations where men come on to women far more frequently and aggressively than women come on to men.
The genius of Finkel and Eastwick began when they made one seemingly minor, almost irrelevant observation. In all the speed-dating events (both commercial and scientific), all the women remain seated at their respective tables, while men go around the room to meet each woman at her table at the beginning of their brief “date.” According to one executive of a speed-dating service quoted in Finkel and Eastwick’s article, this is a practical decision. Women typically carry more things with them (such as a purse and pieces of clothing) than men do, so it is physically easier for men to go around the room quickly than it is for women. For this reason, the format where women remain seated and men go around the room has become universal in all speed-dating events.
Finkel and Eastwick wondered, “What if we changed that? What happens if we reverse the arrangement, and have men seated at their tables while women go around the room meeting men at their tables for their brief dates?” So they went about to see what happens if the universal institutional arrangement is reversed. In their experiment, they hosted 15 heterosexual speed-dating events, with about 12 men and 12 women for each event. In eight of them, men rotated among women while women remained seated (in the manner of universally observed speed-dating format), and in the other seven, women rotated among men while men remained seated. Everything else was held constant between the two conditions.
What they discovered was truly astonishing. In the traditional “men rotate, women sit” arrangement, men were significantly less selective in their mate choice; they checked “yes” for a larger number of women than women did for men, and they experienced greater sexual attraction and romantic chemistry with the women than women did with men. This is not at all surprising, as it is what evolutionary psychology would predict and it is what we normally observe in real life (less selective, more aggressive men, and choosier and more coy women). In sharp contrast, in the novel “women rotate, men sit” arrangement, women were just as aggressive and, as a result, less selective, as men were in their mate choice; they checked as many “yeses” for men as men did for women, and they experienced as much sexual attraction and romantic chemistry for the men as men did for women.
Finkel and Eastwick explain the reversal of the pattern with their embodied cognition hypothesis. Research on embodied cognition has uncovered some pretty interesting (if wholly mysterious) findings. For example, seated experimental subjects who place their palms on the bottom of a table and press up (a gesture associated with approach) rate neutral Chinese ideographs as more appealing than those who place their palms on the top of the table and press down (a gesture associated with avoidance). In other words, because they view the ideographs while they are engaged in the approaching gesture, they come to view them more positively. Similarly, non-black participants who have been trained to pull a joystick toward themselves (a gesture associated with approach) when a picture of a black person appears subliminally on a computer screen and to push the joystick away from themselves (a gesture associated with avoidance) when a picture of a white person appears, subsequently exhibit more positive attitudes toward blacks and behave more warmly toward them than do non-black participants who perform either the opposite joystick task or a side-to-side (neutral) joystick task.
Finkel and Eastwick reason similarly to explain their findings. The mere act of physically approaching their potential romantic partner, behavior far more typical of men than women, makes people more confident and increases their attraction to their potential partner. In other words, by acting more like men (by physically approaching their dates), they begin to think more like them as well (by being more confident, aggressive, and less selective). In support of their embodied cognition hypothesis, Finkel and Eastwick show that, whether they are men or women, “rotators,” who approach their dates, have greater self-confidence than “sitters,” who are approached, and once they statistically control for self-confidence, the institutional arrangement (whether men or women rotate) ceases to have any effect on whether men or women were more selective.
Finkel and Eastwick’s finding in their experiment is truly stunning and potentially devastating for evolutionary psychology. Women’s greater selectivity in mate choice ultimately stems from the sexual asymmetry in reproductive biology, which has remained constant for millions of years, long before we were humans or even apes. Simply put, women are choosier than men in mate choice because they are the ones who get pregnant and must nurse the offspring for years afterwards. That has always been the case, without exception, and that is why the sex differences in mate selectivity are deeply genetically encoded in male and female human nature, which is why it is culturally universal. How can evolutionary psychology account for Finkel and Eastwick’s novel findings? Or do they spell the end of evolutionary psychology? Is evolutionary psychology dead? Should I quit being an evolutionary psychologist and get a real job, perhaps working for my uncle’s bakery in Fresno?
P.S. Heartfelt thanks to Eli J. Finkel and Paul Eastwick for the discussion about their article, and, especially, for allowing me to talk about it in my blog rather than insisting on doing so themselves in theirs.