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Yes, Women Do Compete for Men

Competition isn't only about getting a mate. It's about keeping the mate, too.

This post is in response to
The Game Theory of Female Competition

A week ago, fellow PT blogger Mark White wrote a post about the fact that "there are valuable insights that can be gleaned from basic economic principles applied to situations usually not regarded as economic in nature, especially marriage, family — and dating." To illustrate his point, he mentioned a post I had written about women's competition for "good men." He proposes that this competition could be seen as an application of the prisoner's dilemma (which he nicely describes).

Using the prisoner's dilemma, he shows that when women collectively spend resources, including time, money, and energy, in competing for the same good men, they are losing out collectively. As Dr. White states, reaching a collective effort so that all women stop competing would be difficult to obtain — to put it mildly. He suggests that an individual woman might find a way around this problem by broadening their views of what "good men" are, and indeed, that is a good solution.

Although there have been many successful (or at least profitable) books written about how to tell if someone is, or is not, romantically or sexually interested in oneself, I think we are all quite smart about mating. Mating is one of our core motivations, and we must be intelligent about it. I personally think these books address our confidence — they hold our hands in helping us pay attention to things we already know, but that's another blog post for another day.

Over the past decade or so, I've explored the various ways that women, and to a lesser extent, men, compete against same-sex rivals for mates. Much of this competition is unconscious, and some of it can be disguised under the context of doing something else.

Take for example self-promotion, which is when we try to make ourselves look great, compared to rivals. If you work out, dress fashionably, wear cosmetics, and practice good hygiene, are you doing this to make yourself look good? Is it for yourself, for others, or both? Using a competitive framework, I argue that often we do these behaviors to look good compared to rivals. The bonus side-effect is that it often increases our feeling of well being.

Another fellow blogger, Dr. Marcia Reynolds, commented on Dr. White's post by saying that her examination of high achieving women shows that they are redefining what "good men" are and that they are spending less time competing for mates. She states that these women just have more important things to do.

The feminist in me truly appreciates Dr. Reynolds' comment — after all, I'd love to believe that at some point women will realize that there is more to life than the competition for men. But the scientist in me has a problem with this claim.

I don't see how it's possible, at least from a scientific point of view. Why would women stop looking for love and romance — and if they have it, why wouldn't they try to keep it? If an attractive man expressed an interest in them, wouldn't most women pursue him, or the potential for a relationship? Yes, they might not be highly interested in it, and not actively compete via dressing up and going out on a Saturday night, but there are so many ways in which women compete that I think this is too narrow a perspective.

I should also be clear in that the research shows that women who are in a committed relationship and experience some satisfaction from that relationship are just as competitive as those who are single (e.g., Fisher, Tran & Voracek, 2008). Competition is not simply about getting a mate, it's about keeping the mate, too. Data shows that about 47% of men have been poached (compared to 32% of women) from a current partner by another woman! (Yes, poaching — in the literature we call it "mate poaching" when you steal someone's mate, or when your mate is stolen from you. Schmitt et al., 2004)

I agree that many women are conscious of the fact that they have to broaden their views of what it means to have a "good man." I think that's where the magic of individual differences really enters the picture. What I would find really fantastic in a mate is definitely not what most of my friends would want, for example. Although I think women tend to want the same basic characteristics in a mate — honesty, kindness, ambition — other characteristics are more negotiable, and when assembled together, they give us a narrower range of what we consider "good men."

Research also suggests that we are aware of our own "mate value" and that we tend to pick someone who is approximately the same as us, which again shifts things so we're not all competing for the same mates.

Another reader of Dr. White's post commented on how she (I assume she) made several life changes and has decided to not compete "for the few good men that are left around for women in their late 40s." She then states, "I've found that it's a lot more rewarding for me to look for nice and polite younger men who suffer at the hands of mean younger women. I'm very, if not extremely successful at this game, mostly because I'm sure that I don't want to marry again." I propose that she is competing — she is acquiring mates by adopting a strategy, and she is successful at it.

As an aside, I find it curious that there is the perception that there are only a "few good men out there." I've heard this said repeatedly from countless outlets. Mathematically, I don't see how this can be the case, given that divorce rates are high and such incredible differences exist in what women want in mates.

If your criteria for what a good men are is very narrow, then yes, chances are it will take a long time for you to find him — if you ever do. One strategy, returning to the wisdom of Dr. White's suggestion, is to broaden your definition. I don't mean you must settle, but instead, decide what your "necessities" are in a mate, versus the "luxuries" and go from there (see Li et al., 2002).


Fisher, M. & Cox, A. (2010). Man change thyself: Hero versus heroine development in Harlequin romance novels. Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 4, 305-316.

Fisher, M., Tran, U., & Voracek, M. (2008). The influence of relationship status, mate seeking and sex on intrasexual competition. Journal of Social Psychology, 148, 493-508.

Li, N., Kenrick, D., Bailey, M., & Linsenmeier, J. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the tradeoffs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 947-955.

Schmitt, D., ... , Fisher, M., et al. 1 (2004). Patterns and universals of adult romantic attachment across 62 cultural regions: Are models of self and other pancultural constructs? Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35, 367-402.