By Kaja Perina, published on January 1, 2007 - last reviewed on November 20, 2015
Let's talk about the most important interview you'll ever be granted. Seated at a well-appointed table, you mull the choice between crab cakes and seared tuna, but truly you are sorting through a mental repertoire of wisecracks and war stories. If you are secure in your improvisational charms, you might use this moment to appraise the cleavage or cufflinks of the woman or man across the table. There's no predicting discussion topics, but you can be sure they'll pertain to your marital status, extracurricular activities, and your job. (There are no verboten questions at this interview.) You are applying for a new and expanded life. Or, you simply want a one-night pass that can be renewed indefinitely. And you need to know whether your dining companion is up to the task.
A date makes us both spectator and performer at a two-ring circus: We troll for wit, kindness, curiosity, and "chemistry," hoping that we radiate these same attributes in the right amounts. From strategic winks and blinks to elaborate grooming to gifts of gorgeous baubles, men and women employ an arsenal of tricks in their romantic lives, all in the service of a demanding master at the far reaches of conscious awareness. Eons of evolution have honed our behavior to aid and abet a reproductive payoff. The sum of the stratagems we employ, and the wisdom of nature in crafting them without our explicit awareness, are now the subject of intense study by evolutionary psychologists.
Our sexual calculations and character reconnaissance, it turns out, call for smart, but not always accurate, judgments. That's because mating intelligence is as oxymoronic as the term suggests. We routinely bring both cold reason and outsized misconceptions to a relationship. Both serve a purpose. A woman will accurately gauge her date's personality on first meeting, but she will grow more convinced of his good humor and charm if they stick together. To woo a woman, a guy will grossly exaggerate his income, commitment, and affection for cuddly creatures. But he may have to correctly read microgestures as fine as tea leaves to discern whether she's truly impressed.
Male and female mating intelligence part ways when it comes to each sex's competing procreative goals. Inscrutable though our machinations may be to our partners (and to ourselves), romantic behavior is driven by a deep logic. Our minds have evolved to warp reality. Even so, we have unique skews in the mating realm. We've all got blind spots about the opposite sex. And sometimes that's for the best.
Jane Austen nailed women's intricate courtship calculus, but The Onion has the beat on simple male arithmetic: "Area Man Going to Go Ahead and Consider That a Date." The article in the satirical rag details a man's random encounter with a woman that blossomed into a 45-minute conversation. "It wasn't official or anything, but if I had asked her to have coffee with me, and she were to have said yes, the result would have been exactly the same," he says. "It's pretty clear that she's really into me."
Men have a notoriously elastic take on women's romantic receptivity. You might call it a "take-all-prisoners" approach to flirting, so frequently do men presume sexual interest on the part of a potentially available woman. The "She Wants Me" bias serves a convenient purpose for men—it actually increases their sexual opportunities. Because men invest less of themselves in offspring relative to women, it is in their genetic interests to reproduce as much as possible. Therefore, perceptions that promote sexual assertiveness tend to be functional. This inclination doesn't mean the average guy is delusional about his sex appeal, it just means that if he has a great date he will probably report more interest on the part of his consort than she herself reports.
Women, for their part, are biased right back. They skittishly insist that men are more keen on no-strings-attached sex than is the case. This "men are pigs" bias pits suspicious women against oversolicitous men in what Geoffrey Miller, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, labels a "never-ending arms race of romantic skepticism and excess." It could lead to great repartee: Think Bacall and Bogie, Josephine and Napoleon, Condi and Kim Jong Il.
Glenn Geher, an associate professor of psychology at SUNY at New Paltz, who, with Miller, edited a forthcoming volume on mating intelligence, is developing a mathematical model to demonstrate what many a grandmother has long cautioned: Women who are de facto skeptical of a man's intentions are almost always better off than women who spend hours deconstructing the first date. ("He gave me his home number, he asked about my family, he mentioned a concert this spring—he must be into me!") Geher found that if a woman cannot accurately judge a man's romantic designs at least 90 percent of the time, she's better off being biased. "Women using a 'men are always pigs' decision-making rule may be more likely to actually end up with honest, committed, and long-term-seeking males," insists Geher.
We have a radar for opposite-sex interest and intentions that has its own unique calibrations. And it follows Darwinian, rather than Aristotelian, logic, because the very survival of our genes is at stake. Men and women need to minimize reproductive mistakes that could thwart their mating goals: For men, missing a chance to score constitutes an error. For women it is dangerous to trust a man who simply wishes to score and move on.
Martie Haselton of UCLA and David Buss of the University of Texas, Austin, have empirically demonstrated the existence of these error-management strategies in men and women. Haselton likens a biased decision pathway to a smoke alarm that can make one of two errors. It can go off in the absence of fire—a false positive: irritating, but far from lethal. The more dangerous error is the false negative, which fails to signal a real fire. "Engineers can't minimize both errors, because there's a trade-off," explains Haselton. "If you lower the threshold for noting fires, you're going to have more false alarms. Natural selection created decision-making adaptations not to maximize accuracy but to minimize the more costly error." Faced with uncertainty about people and predators throughout human history, we again and again took the safe road.
Seeing the world through our own warped force field is standard operating procedure. "Biased mechanisms are not design defects of the human mind, but rather design features," says Haselton. We don't commit them just in mating mode. They're present in our everyday perceptions, protecting our egos and all types of relationships. We imbue the powerful and beautiful with personal and intellectual qualities that they likely don't possess, overestimate our own abilities, and downgrade the importance of skills that elude us. We're also paranoiacally primed to detect threats to our status, to our children—any domain in which the stakes are high. This is why women are fiercely protective of their newborns, why we agonize if the boss idly snaps at us.
Biases are human universals: A Park Avenue socialite may be as guarded around her suitors, or as worried about her husband's fidelity, as a Chinese field hand, though each woman will filter the concern through her own cultural prism. But the intensity of a bias may vary from person to person. Geher found that smart men are more likely to exhibit the "She Wants Me" bias. To discern this, Geher asked male subjects how they thought women would respond to personal ads in which men sought a short-term partner. He found that the most intelligent men grossly overestimated women's interest in ads offering explicit no-strings-attached sex. (Geher quips that among his research findings, this is the gem that his wife likes the least.)
It's a fact that women are more likely to have one-night stands with bright, creative men, so it's possible that Geher's smart male subjects were simply projecting their actual success onto the ads. But since overestimating a woman's interest in a short-term fling is smart insofar as it increases sexual opportunities, it's also possible that over millennia, intelligent men have unconsciously honed the bias for that purpose. Geher expects that both possibilities probably operate in the real world, and that future research will show that while smart men have more short-term success with women, they also display more bias.
Bright women, for their part, misread men in one key area. When Geher asked men and women to rate how upset their mates would be about sexual or emotional infidelity, he found that sharper people are better at the task, but smart women exhibit a markedly conservative bent: They assume men will be more distraught over a sexual affair than is in fact the case. This is beneficial, argues Geher, because "women who think that infidelity bothers men even more than it does (which is a lot), may be less likely to be the victims of relationship violence." These women may be more likely to avoid affairs and be more covert when they do engage in them.
Men are excellent judges of what women want in a long-term partner, exhibiting keen mind reading abilities on limited display in other areas of their lives. A guy who is clueless about his friends' opinions of him and oblivious to his wife's sulking can still craft a potent profile on Match.com. That's because millennia of avid pursuit have honed masculine minds into fine-tuned sensors of female interest. "Heterosexual men have a discriminating clientele," says Geher. "They need to know women's desires."
Men and women selectively tune into the noisy channel of opposite-sex interest depending on their own gender-specific needs: Men scan for sexiness and availability; women scavenge for clues to personality and commitment readiness. The errors of engagement we make in the early stages of courtship, before we're certain of opposite-sex intentions, might appear to set men and women on a permanent collision course. But each one of us is evidence that men and women do in fact connect. The sexes actually have overlapping, if not identical, goals: Men and women both want stable relationships in which to raise children. Women just tend to rally for an earlier commitment. The result: When our tracks finally converge in commitment, our biases overlap as well, because we now share important goals. The most important of these is preserving the relationship.
If you never experience a twinge of jealousy or concern about your relationship, you may want to take a hard look at it. Established couples often reboot their emotional smoke detectors to make them extra sensitive to relationship threats. For example, both men and women who have offended a lover tend to remain overly convinced that the partner harbors resentment about the act. This "negative forgiveness" bias nudges us to err on the side of caution, rather than risk further offense by assuming we're off the hook. This bias is even stronger among men and women already in rocky romances.
Couples also grow hyperattuned to potential rivals. That's why if we see our partner in a heated exchange with an attractive member of the opposite sex, we're far more likely to assume something's afoot than is a third party observing the exchange.
Skewed thinking doesn't just make us suspicious about our lovers; some biases have a noble goal—they embellish our perception of a mate. Positive illusions turn up the volume on the traits you love: Everyone agrees that your husband comes from attractive stock, but you insist that he's the best-looking guy in the family. Your wife is no slouch, but you're convinced she's the unheralded star of the office. Faby Gagne, a research consultant and visiting scholar at Wellesley College, found that 95 percent of people think their paramour is above average in appearance, intelligence, warmth, and sense of humor. There's deep wisdom in these sunny views: People who believe they've struck romantic gold are more satisfied with their relationship and more committed to their mate.
Romantic illusions are so critical that they may actually balloon during key decision-making phases of a relationship, such as whether to get married, or when to have children. That's because, says Gagne, biases can buffer us against the angst of dicey deliberations. You might unconsciously offset your ambivalence about becoming a father by focusing on what a great mother your wife will be. I may be terrified to accept a job that keeps me on the road, but at least I know my husband will remain faithful.
When Gagne first investigated biased thinking and decision making, she assumed that tough choices would dampen positive illusions. To her surprise, she found the opposite: People are especially motivated to enhance their lover's stellar qualities at key junctures, while simultaneously becoming more accurate in judgments related to the decision. "When you enter deliberation mode, the goal is to be accurate. This accuracy can be unsettling. To cope with the anxiety, you increase your biased evaluation of a partner. But in a deliberative frame of mind, accuracy and bias do not seem to contaminate one another. So intimates gain the capacity to be accurate because of their positive bias, rather than despite their positive bias," explains Gagne. It sounds paradoxical, but reason and bias readily co-exist in every corridor of our thinking. Illusion alone makes life a dangerous joyride, but unchecked accuracy leads to a seriously depressurized flight.
Positive illusions help us marvel at our mates; biased thinking places safe bets on their behavior. But there's a type of mating intelligence that's even more paradoxical. Self-deception softens the conjugally unpalatable and pushes the envelope on what constitutes an intelligent strategy. When it comes to defending a relationship to ourselves, we're like lawyers who routinely manipulate—but outright lie when the need arises.
Sometimes we just give irritating actions a pass: Her rudeness to telephone solicitors has an upside (decisiveness). His tax returns don't add up? OK, he massaged the numbers after one bad year, and he'll surely make up for it in charitable donations. But God help his thieving brother, who took one deduction too many.
Most people who offend us in life will be deemed thoroughly flawed rather than temporarily challenged. This rush to judge a person's disposition, rather than considering the context surrounding their actions, is known as the fundamental attribution error. This bias likely evolved to keep our ancestors from aligning with dangerous individuals, a sort of one-strike-and-you're-out law of character judgment. But for a beloved partner we will make an exception, suspending censure like a president on an executive-pardon binge.
Chronic self-deception is more complicated. Hillary Clinton's admission that she believed Bill's early protestations about Monica engendered a global eye roll. But to some, this quiet acknowledgment of her own casuistry humanized her and made her more sympathetic. She was, after all, declaring her membership in one of the oldest women's leagues: Wives Who Are the Last to Know.
Women can be highly motivated to stay in relationships, and that often means overlooking noxious male behavior, especially if a split jeopardizes children, finances, or status. Turning a blind eye to infidelity is the Faustian pact many a First Lady has made. (Among the myriad reasons women tolerate cheating husbands, a stint in the White House is surely the best payoff.) Here, too, mating intelligence is at work.
All-or-nothing thinking about infidelity (your own or your mate's), divorce, or any act that will destabilize a relationship is often a smart—if unconscious—gambit. Consider the alternative: Uncertainty, distrust, and fractured loyalties make for paranoia, heartache, and paralysis. Miller suggests that one of the very functions of mating intelligence may be to navigate the emotional tipping points at which a decision can be made or a behavior acknowledged. "If you have to settle for one strategy or another, and if in-between strategies just aren't viable, then the emotions that motivate those strategies will also have tipping points." In other words, before we make a move, we are better off if we can avoid tormenting ourselves about the signs of an affair, or equivocating about ditching a spouse. Black-or-white thinking protects us from such protracted agony. It may also make our eventual decision (to leave, to cheat) appear rapid and fickle to a perplexed partner. And it explains why, when the light finally goes on, a betrayed spouse is quickly out the door.
Self-deception is an equal opportunity bias. It's a core feature of mating intelligence both for males and females. But women display more self-serving beliefs about their own behavior in relationships. When Maureen O'Sullivan, a professor of psychology at the University of San Francisco, queried college students about their lies to the opposite sex, she found that women assert that they themselves lie less than do other women. Men have no corresponding illusions about their mendacity relative to other guys. O'Sullivan sees the gap between women's self-reported lies versus their beliefs about other women's lies as evidence of internal sophistry. Self-deception makes sense for a woman who needs male resources, even if the guy himself isn't optimally committed. "Women have to put more of their central processing units into maintaining a relationship," says O'Sullivan. "It's easier to do that emotional work if you have a certain amount of self-deception." For some women, the skepticism that comes so naturally during courtship switches off once a commitment's been made, and they may overestimate a man's investment in the relationship or the odds that he's being faithful.
Battered women may be an extreme example of self-deception, points out O'Sullivan. Women who remain convinced of an abusive partner's devotion are arguably lying to themselves with an intensity that can appear delusional. But such women may be acting on a runaway impulse to ignore objectionable male behavior, an impulse that in effect prevents them from leaving when it's clearly to their advantage.
The emotional benefits of giving men a pass also explain why females are so quick to blame the "other woman" for a partner's infidelity. "If a man is susceptible to the flirtations of another woman, it's economically and emotionally easier to think that this other woman is a slut than that your husband's a slimeball," notes O'Sullivan.
Infidelity highlights the ultimate challenge to mating intelligence: staying sexually engaged in a long-term relationship. People differ greatly in the degree to which they can dazzle during courtship or retain a plum mate. But the Hollywood glitterati struggle as epically as your local minister and postman to keep a long-term union romantically vibrant. No one is immune to habituation. This is not to say that everyone simply lusts after new partners. Humans are a moderately monogamous species: We treasure our mates and guard them assiduously. At the same time, we've inherited the tendency to have a roving eye.
Plus, our ancestors barely lived until middle age, and those who survived had more to worry about than endless seduction on the savannah. The duration of today's relationships, and our heated expectations for them, depart radically from the unions of most couples who ever walked the earth. The golden anniversary is virtually as new as air travel. And just as a plane's oxygenated cabin allows us to zip around the globe, couples need to introduce novelty into a long-term relationship to simulate a state of courtship.
If you've clocked enough years (or months) as a couple to begin taking one another for granted, you may pine for the giddy perplexity with which you first approached your relationship. That doesn't mean hot pursuit always felt good. Recall your 14-year-old self attempting big-screen seduction moves while stationed at an overflowing locker, or enduring merciless teasing for physical attributes that barely compute as your own. Such humiliation was hardly for naught: Teen angst serves a purpose.
We need reality checks to figure out how the opposite sex perceives us and how we measure up relative to the competition. Adolescence is just that gauge. Teens pull no punches in acclimating their peers to the mating market. Mating intelligence is perhaps the most important life skill cultivated during junior high and high school—the grand rollout of the traits we hope will attract partners, with an emphasis on the splashy and superficial. That's why being dateless for a dance or relegated to Friendster Siberia can be torturous; peer judgments of our social standing are the first honest appraisal of our market value. They can endure. Because self-esteem roars to life during adolescence, when rejection begins to matter in a new way, our early opposite-sex encounters can influence our self-appraisal for years to come.
Peer judgments may be supremely influential in today's world. Traditionally, teens mixed more with adults and extended family, so they received feedback on their mate value from their clan as much as from their clique. But today teens are schooled and socialized in lockstep, creating an unprecedented separation from adults that Miller argues may warp accurate self-appraisal. A 17-year-old girl, he contends, compares herself mercilessly to her equally nubile peers; she doesn't mingle with adults enough to realize that she and her friends are all in the top-10 percent of women, reproductively speaking. "Forty years ago," says Miller, "a girl might have entered the workforce at age 18 and gotten a lot of attention in the office relative to the 28-year old 'spinster.' " Today, she'll enter college, still socializing and competing with a gaggle of equally young, pretty girls.
Boys also rank themselves heavily against peers. But because high school shelters them from the status wars waged among professional men, Miller believes boys actually overestimate their mate value during adolescence, and none more so than jocks. "Young men who were captains of the football team graduate thinking they're God's gift to women, and women respond, 'I'm interested in corporate attorneys and well-cited professors. Who the hell are you?' " The bottom line, he says, is that the longer you extend age-segregated higher education, the more you delay accurate calibration to the overall mating market.
Glenn Geher argues that health class would do well to teach the rudiments of opposite-sex mind reading and mate preferences, not just opposite-sex plumbing. Miller agrees: "It would help enormously if boys were told, 'your sense of humor and ability to be interesting matter.' It would help if girls heard, 'No, you don't have to be ultrathin. If you're best friends with a guy, he might make a good boyfriend.' There's so much misunderstanding between the sexes, and adults seem unwilling to take a stand."
Teens are often equally clueless about the character strengths that make for a good partner. It takes a few years of experimental hookups and baffling breakups to learn the value of conscientiousness, trustworthiness, and emotional stability. Indeed, it is thanks in part to the cheek-scorching travails of young love that personality becomes by and large a spin-free zone. Adults' snap judgments about emotionally healthy individuals are amazingly accurate. (The personality-disordered are a more complex challenge to mating intelligence.)
Still, no personality type makes for a superior mate. Context, not character, is destiny. The extroverted dervish may have an exhausting aversion to downtime. And chances are you're not the only person drawn to a woman with an operatic ability to connect. Because they're highly sought after, extroverts tend to have more affairs and end relationships more often, reports Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle. An agreeable man may be a helpmate, power-listener, and faithful husband, but he is also less likely to be an alpha earner than is his hard-charging, narcissistic brother. Yes, highly creative men are more attractive—Nettle's colleague Helen Clegg found that artists who amassed the most gallery exhibitions also racked up the most sexual partners—but they're not always prize mates. "I'm not sure many people want to marry Salvador Dali," says Nettle. "For me that's a bad job to get."
Yet Dali was married, to a diva named Gala. The Russian-emigree, 10 years his senior, ditched surrealist poet Paul Éluard to take up with the painter. Gala, one might presume, sat in a left-bank cafe and weighed the evidence ("attractive but acutely flamboyant, warped sense of time...") before accepting the tempestuous gig. It may be impossible to fully grasp the weird logic of any one person's romantic choices. But thanks to evolution, all relationships share the canny subterfuge and emotional acrobatics of mating intelligence to which, in some measure, they owe their success.