- According to Sexual Strategies Theory, humans possess two mating strategies: short-term and long-term.
- Understanding these strategies is vital for navigating the challenges of modern dating, such as dating apps.
- Self-awareness of strategies can help us align actions with goals to gain an advantage in the dating world.
In my view, one of the most important theories of sex and relationships is the Sexual Strategies Theory (SST). Developed by David Buss and David Schmitt in the 90’s, SST has a simple premise: Humans have two different “styles” of mating and have evolved a mating psychology that enables them.
This simple idea has a profound impact on how we view the mating behaviour of ourselves and others. Understand SST, and you can begin to understand the reasons why people struggle to find, attract, and hold onto mates.
A tale of two strategies
Long-term relationships are a massive part of the human experience. Enduring and committed relationships, such as marriage or cohabitation, have provided strong and stable foundations for our offspring for thousands of generations. To support us in forming these relationships, we evolved psychological adaptations that draw our attention to mates who would make good long-term partners, such as those most likely to be faithful, treat us kindly, and invest in us heavily. These adaptations form our long-term mating strategy.
But long-term relationships aren’t the full story. Humans have, can, and do reproduce via casual, short-term relationships. This can be risky, but there are some advantages from an evolutionary perspective. Men can gain offspring without having to invest in them, for example. Women, in contrast, can gain high-quality genes for their offspring, protection, and temporary access to resources from highly attractive but commitment-averse men. Of course, these benefits are weighed against the risk of being left “holding the baby,” which explains why men tend to be more interested in short-term mating than women.
To enable effective short-term mating, we also evolved a short-term mating strategy that’s somewhat different for each sex. For men, it draws their attention to cues of sexual access and fertility, while for women, it leads them to prioritise physical attractiveness and immediate access to resources. In both cases, those traits beneficial for ongoing relationships, such as kindness, a desire to have a family, and commitment are given less emphasis in short-term strategies.
Clarity through strategy
Once we understand the differences between short- and long-term mating strategies, some of the oddities and frustrations of dating make more sense. For example, to the outside observer, dating apps seem completely broken. Men can outnumber women by a ratio of three to one and struggle to match with women at all. On their side, women get inundated with superficial messages and have the laborious job of sifting through the junk mail—often by using strict and unrealistic criteria.
What causes these frustrations? A male singlehood epidemic? Strict social scripts about who approaches whom? When one understands sexual strategies theory, things become a lot clearer. Not everyone follows the same strategy, and so while many dating apps are sold on the idea that they will help someone find love, they also double up as tools to help those following a short-term strategy to find sex.
Thus, men following a short-term mating strategy flood these sites, adopting a scatter gun approach in an attempt to attract women for one-night stands. This leaves long-term strategists of both sexes confused and jaded.
The danger of overgeneralizing short-term strategies
An appreciation of sexual strategies theory can help soften attitudes towards each sex. Often, online rhetoric sees the actions of a small number of short-term strategists generalised to the entire sex. The idea that “men will sleep with anything” reflects the fact that men who use a short-term mating strategy lower their overall standards in a partner, caring more about sexual access. Similarly, the idea that “women only care about physically attractive chads” stems from women following a short-term mating strategy, having an extremely high bar for attractiveness and status that males need to pass.
To someone wanting to find a committed partner, drawing these conclusions about the other sex could lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings about the opposite sex, and feelings that long-term relationships are a non-starter. But the reality is that these observations only apply in the context of short-term mating. People are much more concerned with having a well-rounded partner with good interpersonal traits if commitment is in the cards.
Talking the talk but not walking the walk
SST can also help us understand ourselves. In my research, we find that most people follow some kind of mixed strategy. That is, they are looking for long-term partners but are also open to short-term ones. They have their long- and short-term mating strategies activated at the same time, like having two different coloured lamps turned on in the same room.
This can sometimes cause problems through "strategy confusion." I have met several people caught in a loop of trying to start long-term relationships only to find themselves in a pattern of one-night stands. When I ask them to describe their ideal partner, it becomes clear early on that they are trying to apply their short-term strategy (Who do I want to sleep with?) to their goal of having a committed relationship. I call this strategy incongruency. If it’s something that rings true, it’s worth asking yourself a more long-term orientated question (Who could I build a life with?).
Understanding sexual strategies can help us choose the right contexts for meeting people. A nightclub—where anonymity, physical attractiveness, and cues of sexual access run rampant—is a great place to implement a short-term strategy. But, if you are looking for a long-term partner, finding someone in a nightclub is trying to use your long-term mating strategy on hard mode. It’s a setting that prevents people from fully exploring others. The natural enemy of the nightclub is the speed dating event or a blind date set up through friends—situations that require more investment and give ample opportunity to assess someone holistically.
Red flags to avoid
Finally, an awareness of sexual strategies theory can help you avoid people following a different strategy from your own (another type of strategy incongruency). If you’re looking for a long-term partner, and a prospective partner says the same, it’s worth paying attention to whether their actions match their words.
An emphasis on sex or large extravagant gifts early on and an overemphasis on physical attractiveness could be a sign that someone is more short-term orientated than they let on. For those happily pursuing casual sex with a willing partner, mentions of dates, meeting the family, and plans for the future might be signs they see you as more than just a fling. Heartbreak can follow if you’re not on the same page.
There are enough interesting applications of sexual strategies theory to fill a book, never mind a blog. But hopefully, you’ve seen that by helping us to pay attention to our mate preferences, develop a better understanding of the opposite sex, choose the right places to meet people, and figure out who is on the same page as us, an awareness of SST might just give us an advantage in the dating world.
Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual Strategies Theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100(2).
Thomas, A. G., & Stewart-Williams, S. (2018). Mating strategy flexibility in the laboratory: Preferences for long-and short-term mating change in response to evolutionarily relevant variables. Evolution and Human Behavior, 39(1), 82-93.