By Glenn Geher and Gökçe Sancak Aydın
When it comes to the psychology of long-term mating (see Kaufman & Geher, 2013), there are important differences and similarities that characterize the wants and desires of males and females. Based on extensive past research on the nature of human mating, it turns out that the sexes are more similar than portrayals of the recent research in this area often suggests. So in thinking about how to woo your partner this year, you may first want to think about what people across the globe want in long-term mates (see Buss et al., 1990). To this point, that men and women so often want the same things in mates, a sub-heading in our recent book on Mating Intelligence (Geher & Kaufman, 2013) is titled “Men are from Springfield, Women are from Springfield.” Think about it. At the end of the day, the things that men and women want in relationships overlap across the sexes enormously.
According to the findings of large-scale cross-cultural data, which asked adult participants from around the world what they value in potential mates (Buss et al., 1990), people everywhere (men and women) seem to want love—and someone who loves them back and loves them genuinely, putting “your” interests above “his or hers”—expressions of true love are expressions of altruism—signaling the basic idea of “I’m doing something that is primarily for YOU at some kind of COST to myself.” Love is often expressed as altruism across the sexes across the globe—and it is appreciated and valued by both males and females—perhaps more than any other features that you could bring to the mating table.
So express love—or, perhaps from an evolutionary psychology perspective, more simply, express altruism. Give to your partner—and do it in a way that shows some self-sacrifice.
And (getting back to our Springfield allusion ...), don’t do what Homer Simpson did for Marge’s birthday! In a renowned episode of the Simpsons, Homer was seemingly thoughtful in that he had gotten his loving wife Marge a wrapped present. As she picked it up, she found it to be heavier than expected. She opened it, to find that it was a bowling ball—with Homer’s name on it!
When you’re trying to show your mate your love and commitment to the relationship, don’t do what Homer did! That just wasn’t very altruistic or loving, now, was it?
Evolutionary Psychology and the Human Universals of Mating
When academics think of human evolutionary psychology, they often think immediately of the well-documented literature on the nature of human behavioral sex differences (see Buss, 2003) and think of a field that largely and, perhaps, primarily, provides an evolution-based explanation of why men and women behave differently. Granted, research to this point is exhaustive and there is something to it! But human evolutionary psychology is largely about human universals—universals that often cut across gender (see Geher, 2014)—and the nature of human mating intelligence is also, in many ways, sex-homogeneous as opposed to sex-differentiated.
A Little Empathy Goes a Long Way
On this point, consider empathy. Who does not want an empathic romantic partner (or even friend or parent)? The appeal for someone who is sympathetic and kind (high in agreeableness) is one of the most desired qualities in potential mates (Nettle & Clegg, 2008). Empathy is seen as a positive and desired personality characteristic for cultivating harmonious relationships in several social fields (Caprara, Barbaranelli, & Zimbardo, 1996; Suls, Martin, & David, 1998). It is an essential factor that affects interpersonal processes. Empathy is described as the ability to enter one’s world to correctly perceive his/her feelings and their meanings. Research shows that people desire highly agreeable people (as a personality trait which contains empathy) in a potential mate (Buss et al., 1990; Goodwin, 1990) and in long-term relationships more generally (Sprecher & Regan, 2002). Demonstrating deep and genuine empathy, then, is attractive and should be appreciated by your partner.
Empathy is not only seen as an essential factor for mate preference, it also has a tremendous effect on long term-relationships. Firstly, relationship-maintaining responses are predicted by empathy (Pinkus, Lockwood, Marshall & Min Yoon, 2012). Empathic individuals tend to invest their time and energy into their partners and relationships for the long term (Nettle & Clegg, 2008). Thus, empathy has the power of making a relationship more compatible. It contributes to adult relationships with some positive outcomes such as higher ratings of marital adjustment, better communication, high relationship satisfaction, less conflict, and less depression (Cramer & Jowet, 2010). Empathy has been noted by many researchers as a key aspect of couple interaction and a predictor of marital satisfaction and functioning (e.g., Weiss & Heyman, 1990). High agreeableness (a significant trait that overlaps with empathy) corresponds to low levels of infidelity, relatively few sexual partners, and high levels of commitment to one’s mate (Schmitt, 2004; Schmitt & Buss, 2001).
A key element of human mating intelligence, then, is true and even conspicuous empathy—including such features as sympathetic emotions in response to others, genuine listening to what others have to say, anticipating the thoughts of another (e.g., cross-sex mind-reading), and knowing the stages that relationships can go through (Geher & Kaufman, 2013). This Valentine’s Day, if you want to show a little mating intelligence, start by showing a little empathy toward your partner.
Improving Mating Intelligence
Want some good relationship news this Valentine’s Day? Then think of mating intelligence as a set of cognitive attributes that can be improved! According to a recent meta-analysis (i.e., a large-scale study that examines the findings of several other studies) on the topic of life regrets, it turns out that education, career, and romance are the three most-cited areas in life where regrets arise in the minds of adults (Roese & Summerville, 2005). You don’t need to look back years from now and regret your romantic choices of today! According to many findings documented in our recent book (Geher & Kaufman, 2013), we can take several steps to enhance our mating intelligence. Individuals use different strategies consciously or unconsciously, to improve their mating intelligence. According to Geher, Camargo, and O’Rourke (2008), learning about the nature of mating issues via modern media (such as music or magazines or movies) may help people learn about the nature of relationships, and what partners may want out of relationships—taking such an empathic approach to the many stories and images we see in the media may actually help people develop some important elements of mating intelligence.
As with other forms of intelligence, such as social intelligence, and emotional intelligence, few individuals seem to reach to their maximum limit (Geher et. al., 2008). In other words, if you don’t feel like a mating genius, don’t worry, it’s not just you who feels this way!
While mating is everywhere, we can understand ourselves and others better in our social worlds by boosting Mating Intelligence (Geher & Kaufman, 2013). Taking an open and empathic approach to understanding one’s partner—and to understanding the world more generally, may be a key to cultivating one’s mating intelligence.
This Valentine's Day, don’t be Homer Simpson! Rather, display some of the core elements of human mating intelligence. Demonstrate love and altruism, taking your time, money, or energy, and “spending it” on observable displays of affection to your partner. Be empathic—genuinely listen to what you partner has to say. By doing so, you can make your partner feel loved, validated, and appreciated. Along the way, you’re likely help both you and your partner remember why you started this long-term bond in the first place!
Buss, D. M., Abbott, M., Angleitner, A., Asherian, A., Biaggio, A., & et al. (1990). International preferences in selecting mates. A study of 37 cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 21, 5-47.
Caprara, G. V., Barbaranelli, C., & Zimbardo, P. (1996). Understanding the complexity of human aggression: affective, cognitive and social dimensions of individual differences. European Journal of Personality, 10, 133-155.
Cramer, D., & Jowett, S. (2010). Perceived empathy, accurate empathy and relationship satisfaction in heterosexual couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 27(3), 327-349.
Geher, G., Camargo, M. A. & O’Rourke, S. D. (2008). Mating Intelligence: An integrative model and future research directions. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 121-135). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Goodwin, R. (1990). Sex differences among partner preferences: Are the sexes really very similar. Sex Roles, 23, 501-513.
Miller, G. (2011). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. Random House Digital, Inc.
Nettle, D. & Clegg, H. (2008). Personality, mating strategies and mating intelligence. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 121-135). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Pinkus, R. T., Lockwood, P., Marshall, T. C., & Yoon, H. M. (2012). Responses to comparisons in romantic relationships: Empathy, shared fate, and contrast. Personal Relationships, 19(1), 182-201.
Schmitt, D. P., Alcalay, L., Allensworth, M., Allik, J., Ault, L., Austers, I., et al. (2004). Patterns and Universals of Adult Romantic Attachment Across 62 Cultural Regions: Are Models of Self and of Other Pancultural Constructs? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(4), 367-402.
Roese, N. J., & Summerville, A. (2005). What we regret most ... and why. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1273-1285.
Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2001). Human mate poaching: Tactics and temptations
for infiltrating existing relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 894-917.
Sprecher, S., & Regan, P. C. (2002). Liking some things (in some people) more than others: Partner preferences in romantic relationships and friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 19, 463-481.
Suls, J., Martin, R., & David, J. P. (1998). Person-environment fit and its limits: agreeableness, neuroticism, and emotional reactivity to interpersonal conflicts. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 24, 88-98.
Weiss, R., & Heyman, R. (1990). Observation of marital interaction. In F. Fincham & T. Bradbury (Eds.), The psychology of marriage: Basic issues and applications (pp. 87–117). New York: Guilford.
Glenn Geher, State University of New York at New Paltz (Director of Evolutionary Studies) and Gökçe Sancak Aydın, doctoral student in Psychological Counseling and Guidance Department at Middle East Technical University. She is also a visiting researcher of the Evolutionary Psychology Lab at the State University of New York at New Paltz.