Mate Poaching: Are Friends a Threat?

Friendship as a factor in mate poaching.

Posted Sep 18, 2020

 Just Dance/Shuttertock
Male mate poaching.
Source: Just Dance/Shuttertock

Vatsyayan’s Kama Sutra, which is one of the early classic manuals dedicated to love, sex, and attraction, gives advice on how to seduce other men’s wives. Today, such behaviour which can also involve sexually luring males, is referred to as mate poaching and is defined as behaving in a way as to try to romantically attract someone who is currently in a relationship with someone else, for the purpose of either a brief affair or a long-term relationship (Schmitt & Bus (2001).

Numerous studies have confirmed the prevalence of mate poaching, with anything between thirty to 50 percent of people engaging in this behaviour on at least one occasion (Davies, Shackelford & Hass, 2007). Other evidence suggests that some 60 percent of men and 40 percent of women have reported pursuing someone else already in a relationship, and of those pursued, 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women have succumbed to the advances of their pursuers (Schmitt and the International Sexuality Description Project, 2004).

Tactics in mate poaching

The Kama Sutra suggests sending presents and an indication of affection for a woman’s children as a seduction technique. More recent research has uncovered other strategies and tactics employed in mate poaching attempts. For men this includes using humour, being generous or giving compliments, whereas for women, in the short-term mate poaching may include providing easy sexual access and for a long-term mate poaching, might include overtly mentioning seeking a replacement mate (Schmitt & Shackelford, 2003).  

Furthermore, friendship is generally a prerequisite in initiating a romantic liaison, and therefore in their study Justin Mogilski and Joel Wade, investigated the role of friendship as a tactic in mate poaching (Mogilski & Wade, 2023). Fundamentally, they predicted that a poacher would be judged as more likely to be successful if they were close friends with the target of the poaching attempt, and further that the poacher and target would be judged more favourably by others if they were friends as opposed to being acquaintances. Furthermore, they predicted that poachers who were friends with their poaching target would be seen as motivated by efforts to sustain a long-term relationship than poachers who were acquaintances.

Participants in their study were presented with four scenarios describing a mate poaching situation, which described the poacher, (the person attempting the poaching), the poached (the target), and the "poachee" (the person in a relationship with the poached).

The scenarios differed in terms of the gender of the characters described, (man poaching woman or woman poaching man), and whether the relationship between poacher and poached were described as close friends or acquaintances.

Following this, participants were required to judge the poacher’s likelihood of being successful, suffering any future costs from their poaching attempt, the future success of any potential relationship between the poacher and the poached, and approval for any future relationship between them. The researchers also asked participants whether they approved of the poaching attempt, and what type of relationship they thought that the poacher intended to pursue, (a one-night stand, a short-term affair a long-term relationship). 

Finally, participants were asked to rate the poacher and poached in terms of intelligence, physical attractiveness, sexual attractiveness, warmth, dominance, friendliness, masculinity, nurturance, social skills, and whether they would be a good parent or mate. 

The role of friendship

The researchers did indeed find that poachers who were close friends with the person who was the target of the poaching attempt, to be rated as more likely to be successful than poachers who were just acquaintances. Furthermore, any relationship between poacher and the target of the poaching attempt was rated as more likely to last for over a year if they were previously friends as opposed to being mere acquaintances. Finally, if they were described as friends, the target of the poacher was rated as less likely to cheat on the poacher in the future. The researchers interpreted this in terms of friendship being an indication of future investment in the relationship, which supports previous research that friendship is a significant prerequisite for initiating relationships and maintaining them.

Interestingly, however, when the poacher was portrayed as an acquaintance as opposed to a friend, they were rated as more intelligent, friendly, warm and nurturant. Poachers who were friends may have been judged more negatively on these characteristics because ordinarily, friends would not attempt to poach a target for their own ends. No differences were observed between the characteristics of the target of the poaching attempt for warmth, nurturance, friendliness or intelligence between the friendship poaching or the acquaintance poaching conditions. 

In terms of gender differences, when the poacher was described as a man attempting to poach a woman, he was rated as more sexually attractive and intelligent, when the poacher was portrayed as a female attempting to poach a male. 

Motivations of the poacher

Participants were also asked about the motivation of the poaching attempt, that is whether they thought the poacher wanted to have a one-night stand with the target a short-term relationship, or a long-term relationship.

There was no difference in the number of participants who judged the motivation as a one-night stand between friend and acquaintance conditions. However, more people said that acquaintance poachers were motivated by short-term relationships, compared to friend poachers. Whereas, poachers who were friends were judged to be motivated more by long-term relationships compared to poachers who were acquaintances, possibly because initial friendship indicates longer-term relationship motivations.

The overall findings from this study would seem to indicate that people judge poachers who are friends to be more likely to be successful than those who are acquaintances in their poaching attempts probably because friendship is seen as important for future relationship investment, and the poacher may be viewed as a realistic substitute for the target’s current relationship partner. However, the findings also highlight the function of friendship as a realistic relationship infiltration tactic.

References

Davies, A. P. C., Shackelford, T. K., & Hass, G. R. (2007) ‘When a “poach” is not a poach: Re-defining human mate poaching and re-estimating its frequency’ Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 702-716.

Mogilski, J. K. & Wade, T. J. (2023) ‘Friendship as a Relationship Infiltration Tactic during Human Mate Poaching’ Evolutionary Psychology, 11 (4), 926-943.

Schmitt, D. P., International Sexuality Description Project (2004) ‘Patterns and Universals of Mate Poaching Across 53 Nations: The Effects of Sex, Culture, and Personality on Romantically Attracting Another Person's Partner.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86(4), 560-584.

Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (2001) ‘Human mate poaching: Tactics and temptations for infiltrating existing mateships’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 894-917.

Schmitt, D. P., & Shackelford, T. K. (2003) ‘Nifty ways to leave your lover: The tactics people use to entice and disguise the process of human mate poaching’ Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29, 1018-1035.