If you are a hopeless romantic like me, Valentine's Day conjures erotic images of neurotransmitters, hormones, and evolutionarily-derived mate selection strategies. The deeply romantic among us will ask themselves this simple question: did fate bless me with my partner-for-life, or was I influenced by the choices of 10,000 generations who preceded me?
Evolutionary psychology suggests (and any excursion to a singles bar will substantiate) that women are the choosier of the genders. The reason is fairly straightforward: reproduction is a much larger investment for women than it is for men, and women have more to lose by making bad choices.
A 2007 study on mate selection strategies (Todd, et al. 2007) produced some interesting findings about the singles scene. While most people report that they choose mates based largely on personality preferences and similarity to themselves, there may be other factors at work.
The authors watched men and women during a speed-dating event - ideal for observing selection strategies within the first few minutes of meeting potential mates. Before the experiment, men reported that they tend to choose mates based on personality preferences and the degree to which a woman is similar in attractiveness to themselves. But during the experiment, they did something quite different. Their initial choices appeared to be based mainly on physical attractiveness. Men were also less choosy than women, asking for more second meetings than did the women.
Women's choices also went against their stated interests. Interestingly, women tended to take their own physical attractiveness into account when asking for a second meeting with a man. They aimed for men who were similarly attractive to themselves - unlike men, who appeared to ask for a second meeting with any woman above a certain physical attractiveness threshold.
The authors believe that the behavior of both genders was in line with evolutionary theory. For both men and women, physical attractiveness is an indicator good genes. But women historically have a second major concern when selecting a man: will he provide for his children?
This might explain why women, and not men, would consider their own physical attractiveness when choosing a mate. The authors theorize that it helps ensure that their chosen mate will be a good provider: "It is more adaptive for women to take into account how likely potential mates are to be committed to them and hence aim for mates of similar quality, instead of simply aiming for the most attractive mates."
Such cold pragmatism on the eve of Valentine's Day, I realize. But I do believe that the heartless process of evolution has left us with something warm and fuzzy. That's here, if you are interested.
For now, I'll leave you with this, lest you think I lack romance:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue.
You possess indicators of good genetic material and provisional ability.
That's why I chose you.
Happy Valentine's Day.
Todd, P.M., Penke, L., Fasolo, B., & Lenton, A.P. (2007). Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences. PNAS (The National Academy of Sciences of the USA), 104(38), 15011-15016.
For an interesting set of numbers on the comings and goings of our species, go here. (I haven't verified any of the data, but it seems reasonable at first glance.)
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Dr. Smith is a psychologist in Denver, Colorado and the author of The User's Guide to the Human Mind: Why Our Brains Make Us Unhappy, Anxious, and Neurotic and What We Can Do about It. You can read the introduction and find other goodies at guidetothemind.com.