There's intelligence involved in mating? Well, maybe not much in actual sex acts-but surely everything leading up to that point takes up quite a lot of mental space. If only mating behavior in humans were as easy as it is in other animals! In many species without advanced cognitive capabilities, two animals become attracted to each other and have sex. End of story. Courtship in other animals looks very different than it does in humans.
You don't see many turtles singing a love ballad to the objects of their affection, or many orangutans going on dates, and engaging in hours and hours of conversation about personal values, musical taste, job, income, and so forth in order to assess whether the person is a good mate in general, and a good mate for them in particular.
Evolutionary psychologists are interested in understanding human nature- and up to this point, work on mating from an evolutionary perspective has largely focused on aspects of human mating behavior that are similar to other animals. They tend to paint a picture of human mating as visceral, animalistic, and instinctual by highlighting findings on topics such as the role of pheromones in human mate selection, physical features that are universally desired in potential mates, factors that elicit jealousy in relationships, the effects of hormone levels of promiscuity, and so on. The evolutionary perspective has been successful in showing that our intimate relations are, in many ways, no different from the sexual relationship of critters across the animal kingdom.
But that's not the whole story. The notion of Mating Intelligence (MI) offers a fresh angle. Recently, a few evolutionary psychologists have started to seriously consider the fact that human mating may well be a bit more complex than the mating of, say scorpionflies, barnswallows, or fruit flies. In fact, given how unique our intelligence is in the animal kingdom, several recent researchers have started to think about how our advanced intelligence may have something to do with our mating behavior.
Mating Intelligence consists of the entire set of psychological abilities designed for sexual reproduction. MI includes the mental capacity for courtship and display, sexual competition and rivalry. It is at work in our efforts to form, maintain, coordinate, and terminate relationships. Mating Intelligence guides us in flirtation, foreplay, and copulation; in mate-search, mate-choice, mate-guarding, and mate-switching; and in many other behaviors that may have reproductive payoffs.
As a first pass at measuring MI, we came up with an MI survey. The survey is sex differentiated, and includes the following components, each one influenced by specific scientific research:
Cognitive Courtship Display- Psychologist Geoffrey Miller, the second editor of Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind's Reproductive System, argues that uniquely human creative qualities, such as our penchants for language, theatre, music, humor, sculpture, architecture, morality, and yes-even kindness-did not solely evolve because these qualities conferred survival-based benefits to people (how's playing a mean bongo supposed to save you from a saber-tooth tiger?). These qualities evolved through sexual selection - they conferred reproductive benefits because they led to success in courtship - because they were sexy!
Cross Sex Mind-Reading - Awareness of a potential mate's interest or lack thereof. Imagine a guy who misses each and every flirtatious cue that comes his way. Women express interest in him, but he never accurately detects such interest when expressed. Perhaps just as bad, imagine that this guy seems to think that several other women - with no interest in Joe Clueless - actually have the hots for him. Joe Clueless might not fare as well in the struggle to reproduce compared with someone with more accurate cross-sex mind-reading skills.
Mating-relevant self-deception-General confidence in one's value as a mate, whether reasonable or baseless, may typify human mating behavior due to reproductive benefits. Imagine Overconfident Carl versus Low-esteem Lenny. In fact, these guys may well be matched in terms of all kinds of important mating-relevant factors - height, build, facial attractiveness, sense of humor, etc. But Carl's tendency to think his mate value is a bit higher than it actually is will undoubtedly encourage Carl to get right into the mating pool relative to poor Lenny. Adaptive self-deception may be an integral part of human mating intelligence.
Mating-relevant other-deception- In her take on MI, social psychologist Maureen O'Sullivan argues that deceptive strategies may be most effective in the initial phase of short term dating or mating relationships. When it comes to mating, people deceive! Men use their credit cards to come across as having more money than they do. Women use makeup to make themselves appear youthful - thereby appearing as having larger window of fertility than is truthful. While lying is definitely not a great thing - abilities to present oneself to others adaptively in the domain of mating are crucial to success.
Our research on Mating Intelligence reveals the following important sex-specific patterns of biased thought:
Sexual Over-estimation (Males)- Males consistently overestimate sexual interest on the part of women - a finding that's been replicated in many studies since the early 1980s. While such overestimation is often totally unwarranted, it likely helps guide males successfully in the mating domain. A guy who thinks a woman's interested is way more likely to talk to her compared with a guy who, by default, assumes she has no sexual interest at all.
Commitment Skepticism (Females)- For women, different evolutionary pressures have acted, and, accordingly, turning up casual sex partners is considerably more costly than it is for men. As such, women high in MI tend to display commitment skepticism - setting the bar high for believing whether a guy is "really faithful." A woman who makes a guy demonstrate signs of faithfulness over a long period before consenting to sex is much more likely to end up with a dad instead of a cad - and given the high costs of raising offspring in this species, commitment skepticism is, evolutionarily speaking, downright smart.
This Valentine's Day, please use a little Mating Intelligence. Want to know what components need some fine-tuning? Take the quiz.
Scott would like to dedicate this post to his Valentine, Dr. Ruth.
Glenn would like to dedicate this post to his Valentine, Kathy Geher.
Happy Valentines Day!
This post was co-written with Glenn Geher, co-editor of Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind's Reproductive System (see glenngeher.com).