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What Does the Science of Mating Reveal?

As psychology and all the sciences see it, mating is the entire repertoire of behaviors that animals—including humans—engage in in pursuit of finding a partner for intimacy or reproduction. It encompasses acts from flirting to one-night stands to marriage and more. Some mating behaviors are deeply ingrained, hard-wired into the nervous system, and operate without conscious awareness—attractions, for example—and some, like marriage ceremonies, are highly scripted, with every detail worked out in advance.

Humans thrive in social relationships, and a great deal of enterprise and energy are generally devoted to mating—seeking potential partners, courting them, gauging the compatibility and suitability of partner candidates, maintaining the bonds that develop—because nothing less than the continuation of the species depends on it. Around the world, finding a mate is regarded as one of the primary tasks of adulthood.

Mating behavior is influenced by many factors, some within individuals, some within the culture or the community that people are embedded in. Scientists as diverse as biologists and economists, demographers and anthropologists, psychologists and sociologists devote much research to understanding all the factors that influence mating and contribute to stable human relationships.

There is evidence, for example, that the very desire to pair off—and especially on what terms—changes dramatically as the number of available candidates changes. Researchers have found that men are more apt to be single when men are rare in a geographical area than when men are abundant. Although they. may be surrounded by potential partners, they have little interest in committing to or marrying them; they turn promiscuous, preferring casual sex and engaging in multiple relationships. They spawn babies out of wedlock, and sexual assault rates rise. When males are abundant, they invest considerable effort into finding a mate and settling down.

As the average human lifespan lengthens, debate rages as to whether people were meant to mate with one partner for life or to have multiple partners, serially or even simultaneously. No one knows what the answer is, but most people in the modern world seek a partner for emotional closeness, however fragile a foundation that might be for a lifetime of companionship or establishing a family.

What Is Dating and Why Does It Matter?


Dating is a kind of experiment, a process of trial and error, of setting up appointments for spending time with mate candidates, getting to know them inside and out, and assessing their suitability. Some desirable qualities in a mate are highly visible, such as beauty, but qualities that tend to be more important to the quality and durability of a relationship, such as a person's character, take time to reveal themselves.

While much of attraction is beyond conscious control, research has demonstrated the value of assortative mating—finding a partner who is a rough match in attractiveness, intelligence, and other qualities. Such partners are more likely to stay together for the long term. In addition, studies show that relationships tend to be more stable when partners share similar values and life goals.

Finding a mate suitable in an array of qualities is a matching task tailor-made for computers, and computers have been applied to human mating since they first left the laboratory in the 1950s. In the U.S., approximately 40 percent of couples now meet online.

Online dating has helped fuel the belief in a "soulmate"—that somewhere there exists someone who is the one and only perfect match for a person. Some surveys show that the majority of adults subscribe to such a belief. Nevertheless, most relationship research demonstrates that the most reliable element of compatibility is partners sharing and supporting each other's life dreams.

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