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Inside the Mating Psychology of Involuntary Celibates

Understanding their self-perception, mate preferences, and mind-reading biases.

Key points

  • Incels see many reasons for their singlehood, including social awkwardness, poor flirting skills, and not being good-looking enough.
  • Compared to non-incel single men, they have a lower self-perceived mate value and lower mate standards.
  • Incels overestimate the importance of good looks and status to women, and underestimate the importance of kindness and emotional stability.
  • These errors in cross-sex mind-reading are not unique to incels but they are exaggerated compared to non-incels.

In our most recent paper, we looked at the mating psychology of incels. There's a lot of media coverage and online discussion about what incels think and believe but very little primary data that supports this. This is problematic because it allows misinformation and bias to penetrate the public, which could lead to erroneous views of this large group of men.

To try to change that, we recruited 150 self-identified incels to participate in a study designed to help us understand their mating psychology. The study asked questions about their self-perceived mate value, partner preferences, and their views on what women want in a partner. Importantly, we also used a sample of non-incels, to help us distinguish between incel attitudes and beliefs and more ‘general’ ones held by single men. Here are some key things that we found.

Incels give more internal and external reasons for being single

When we gave incels a list of 37 reasons why they might be single, ranging from "love scares me" to "I haven’t achieved enough in life to be considered attractive", incels picked more internal and external reasons for their singlehood than non-incels. Internal reasons were far more common, with incels picking an average of eight vs. six for non-incel men. Incels also picked more external reasons, but there were fewer in number. Incels picked an average of two vs. one for non-incels. The top three reasons picked by incels were:

  1. Not being good at flirting
  2. Being socially awkward
  3. Not being good-looking enough

The view that social skills are a key factor driving incel singlehood might be an accurate one. We know that the incidence of autism, and its associated struggles with body language and social cues, is much higher among incels than the general population.

Incels score have low self-perceived mate value

Unsurprisingly, incels had a much lower self-perceived mate value than non-incels, rating themselves a score of about 3 out of 7 on average. This goes against the view that incels might have an inflated sense of self-worth.

Incels have lower partner standards

There was evidence that incels' view of their own mate value carries over into their mate preferences. Typically, those with lower self-esteem tend to have lower minimum mate preferences and this is also born out in the data. Except for being "loyal and dependable" and "kind and understanding" incels had lower minimum standards across 15 different mate characteristics. On average, using a 0 to 10 scale, incels set a minimum of 5 across the traits and were particularly willing to accept lower standards for fashion sense and social status.

Again, this calls into question the idea that incels set their standards too high, causing them to have difficulty in finding a mate. Rather, they adjust their minimum standards in line with what they feel they offer. It was also interesting to find that the traits that incels valued the most were those most important in long-term relationships, like kindness and emotional stability.

Incels overestimate women’s partner standards

In our study, we also recruited women to tell us what their minimum mate preferences were and asked incels to guess how they would respond. This is a form of cross-sex mind-reading and by looking at the differences between the two we were able to examine mate preference "gaps" where incels and non-incel men got things wrong.

We found that incel men underestimate the importance of "long-term relationship" traits to women, like kindness and emotional stability, while they overestimated the importance that women place on traits like physical attractiveness and social status, which are often emphasized as more important in short-term mating. This fits in with the incel rhetoric that you see online about what women want and the best way to enhance one's mating prospects (for example, looksmaxing). However, the interesting thing was that non-incel men made the exact same errors for every trait we looked at. There is a bias here that is not unique to incels but is somewhat exaggerated within their group.

The overall picture

Together, these findings paint a rich picture of incel mating psychology; one marked by a combination of low mate value and standards and a lack of social skills. Despite incels showing a tendency towards interpersonal victimhood, incels didn’t fully externalise their problems and blame others for them. They recognised that a lot of barriers they faced came from within.

Clear biases in incel perceptions of what the other sex wants in a mate show a failure in cross-sex mind-reading often explained away by the community as the product of women saying they want one thing but then going on to do another (stated vs. revealed preferences). Part of this confusion might be due to a lack of distinction between mating strategies. Incels might be assuming that the long-term mate preferences of women are similar to their short-term ones.

Ways to change

Research like this is important because understanding incel psychology can show us ways to help support them and enable change should they want it. One example could be to develop better self-esteem. Incel self-esteem seems to be locked in on their ability to function within the mating market, and while success in love and relationships is an important part of self-esteem, that doesn't mean it cannot be built in other ways. Similarly, inaccurate theory of mind, causing confusion about the wants and desires of the opposite sex, could be the focus of psycho-educational interventions to help incels develop a more nuanced view of what women want and under what circumstances. This includes a better understanding of how much variation there is in mate preferences from person to person, which doesn’t seem to feature in incel discourse at all and might be an example of unhealthy black-and-white thinking.


You can read more in the paper that is currently uploaded as a preprint here. Want more? Check out my earlier post What Do We Know About Incels?

Costello, W., Rolon, V., Thomas, A. G., & Schmitt, D. (2022). Levels of well-being among men who are incel (Involuntarily Celibate). Evolutionary Psychological Science, 8(4), 375-390.

Costello, W., Rolon, V., Thomas, A. G., & Schmitt, D. P. (2023). The Mating Psychology of Incels (involuntary Celibates): Misfortunes, Misperceptions and Misrepresentations.

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