The 4 Ways We Compete for Mates

The Dating Game is very real.

Posted Mar 07, 2014

A common metaphor for courtship is that dating is a game. Such a metaphor immediately evokes images of competition, and introduces the idea that we may compete for the attention of a potential (or current) mate. Consider the early seasons of the old TV show Saved By The Bell in which Zack and Slater competed for the affections of their classmate Kelly. Even when Zack started dating Kelly, there was an ongoing competition for her attention between the two males. Today, reality shows based on mating competition, like The Bachelor, can be found across the weekly TV lineup, helping to socialize us into an understanding of mate competition.

Formally referred to as intrasexual mate competition, the concept applies to situations in which two people compete for the same potential mate, or two people are in a relationship and person A needs to keep the attention of person B away from a potential rival, C—a situation one can readily identify in many romantic comedy films.

Interesting recent work by Fisher and Cox (2011) addressed the strategies we utilize during heterosexual intrasexual mate competition.

Participants were asked, “How do you compete with others of the same sex (e.g., for dating partners or attention)?” Four types of strategies were identified: self-promotion, competitor derogation, competitor manipulation, and mate manipulation.

As the name indicates, self-promotion involved promoting one’s body or athleticism, personality, and/or appearance. Examples of these behaviors included wearing sexy or revealing clothing, working out, displaying one’s body, flirting, and appearing socially attractive.

The second strategy, competitor derogation, involved attacking a sexual rival, directly or indirectly. Examples included acting aggressively toward the rival, indirectly insulting the person, spreading gossip about him or her, or portraying him or her as sexually promiscuous.

The third strategy, competitor manipulation, involved maneuvering the attention of the competitor away from the desired mate toward an alternative mate. This could also involve indirectly manipulating the competitor to appear less desirable in front of the desired mate.

Finally, mate manipulation involved expressing interest to the desired mate, enhancing perceptions of similarity and shared interests, and spending increased one-on-one time with him or her.

Fisher and Cox’s study indicated that self-promotion and competitor derogation were the most commonly used strategies. In another finding, which was consistent with other research, males and females employed the four strategies at roughly the same rate.

The above information provides us with a better understanding of how we engage in mate competition. A number of other factors may explain how, why, and how often we utilize such strategies—concepts like attachment styles and the Dark Triad of personality structures (Machiavellianism, subclinical narcissism, and subclinical psychopathy).

Future studies will offer an even more precise understanding of the source orientations driving mate competition behaviors. For one, further research is necessary to explore intrasexual mate competition in same-sex courtship.

Follow me on Twitter @therealdrsean for relationship commentary/links, complaints about mass transit, and support for WVU Athletics. Continue to follow this blog for future entries about deception, online dating, using affection to lie, workplace romance, and other issues that make obtaining and retaining a mate oh so interesting.   

Fisher, M., & Cox, A. (2011). Four strategies used during intrasexual competition for mates. Personal Relationships, 18, 20-38. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-6811.2010.01307.x

Images from the movie Brown Sugar – plot is relevant to the topic (in case you have not seen it).