In my doctoral dissertation, which I defended close to 19 years ago at Cornell University (I am getting old!), I explored the stopping strategies that individuals use when making a binary multi-attribute decision (i.e., choosing between two alternatives, each of which is defined along several attributes). Specifically, how do people decide when to stop acquiring additional information on two competing alternatives and commit to a final choice? This problem is highly relevant in that few if any of us will ever look at all of the relevant and available information prior to choosing a winning alternative. At the time, I was interested in studying the cognitive processes inherent to the stopping decision irrespective of the decisional domain (e.g., whether choosing between apartments to rent, cars to purchase, or job offers to choose from). Eventually, I decided to marry my research interests in psychology of decision making and evolutionary psychology by specifically focusing on mate search. Needless to say, mate choice constitutes perhaps the most important decision that most people will ever make. Furthermore, it is a decision that is rooted in fundamental evolutionary principles, especially when one explores differences in the extent to which men and women engage in mate search prior to choosing a mate or rejecting prospective suitors.
In 2009, I coauthored a paper with two of my former graduate students Aliza Eba and Richard Sejean, published in the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, in which we investigated this exact issue. Using computer process-tracing interfaces, we conducted two studies that allowed us to determine the amount of information that men and women acquired prior to choosing or rejecting mates. In the first study, the task was a binary sequential choice, namely participants could acquire anywhere from one up to 25 pieces of attribute information (e.g., income, attractiveness of face, kindness) on two competing mates. In other words, the number of suitors was fixed at two but the amount of information that could be acquired on them was not. At any point in the process, participants could request the next piece of information, stop and reject both suitors, or stop and choose one of the two competing mates. In the second study, the participants evaluated one suitor at a time on up to 24 attributes, and at each step of the process they could stop and reject this suitor in which case they would move on to the next suitor, or stop and choose the currently evaluated suitor in which case the task would end. Participants could evaluate up to 32 suitors albeit this information was unknown to them.
While we reported an exhaustive number of findings in the paper (e.g., in study 1, we investigated how the temporal context of the relationship, short-term versus long-term mating, affects search behavior), I shall restrict my focus here to two key results:
1. In study 1, women acquired lesser attribute information prior to rejecting a pair of mates (women = 4.69 and men = 6.97; p < .005). In other words, women reject prospective suitors much more quickly than men.
2. In study 2, women evaluated a greater number of suitors prior to choosing a mate (women = 11.89; men = 7.28; p < .02). In other words, women are more judicious when choosing a mate by sampling a larger number of mates prior to committing to one.
These sex differences are a manifestation of parental investment theory (Trivers, 1972), which states that in any given species the sex that bears the greater minimal obligatory parental investment (women in the human case) will be much more judicious when choosing a mate. Since the costs of making a suboptimal mate choice loom larger for women, we should expect them to be choosier, which in the current context makes women reject mates more quickly (by evaluating fewer attributes in study 1) and choose a winning mate more carefully (by sampling a greater number of prospective suitors in study 2). These two findings cast doubt on the selectivity hypothesis (see the work of Joan Meyers-Levy and her colleagues), which posits that generally speaking women are more comprehensive processors of information than men across decisional contexts. This can’t be correct, as there is no evolutionary argument that would explain why women should exhibit such an effect across all decisions. Our findings demonstrate that for this biologically important decision (mate choice), women might acquire more or less information than men as a function of the task at hand (choosing versus rejecting mates).
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