- The observation that men desire more sexual partners than women do is known as the "Coolidge effect."
- Under certain limited conditions, women display the Coolidge effect as well.
- The desire for multiple sex partners appears to increase as men get older.
President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933) was a glum, quiet person, and this trait earned him the nickname “Silent Cal.” His emotionless countenance was so famous that when his death was announced, the satirist Dorothy Parker quipped: “How can they tell?”
Yet underneath that cool demeanor raged a voracious sexual appetite. One day the Coolidges were touring a chicken farm when Mrs. Coolidge noticed that the rooster was mating frequently with the hens. “How many times a day does he mate?” she asked the guide. “Dozens,” he replied. “Tell that to Mr. Coolidge,” she insisted.
On hearing of this exchange, Mr. Coolidge asked, “Each time with the same hen or a different one?” The guide told him it was always with a different hen. “Tell that to Mrs. Coolidge,” the president replied.
This story is attributed to the noted animal behaviorist Frank Beach in the mid-twentieth century, but nowadays it’s become a staple of psychology textbooks when introducing what has become known as the “Coolidge effect.”
The Coolidge Effect in Mice and Men
Put a male rat in a cage with a receptive female, and he’ll mate with her. He may even mate with her several times, but he’ll soon get bored. Swap her out for a different female, though, and he’s ready for action again. In other words, males soon tire of sex with the same female but are quickly aroused again by a new mate.
The Coolidge effect has been successfully demonstrated in a wide range of species—at least for males. However, females tend to show much less interest in multiple mates. Generally, this is attributed to the fact that a female is limited by pregnancy to the number of offspring she can bear in a given period of time, whereas a male’s reproductive capacity is limited only to the number of mates he can find.
While there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence for the Coolidge effect in humans, it’s hard to test in the laboratory for obvious ethical reasons. However, if we define the Coolidge effect in terms of an expressed desire for sexual novelty, there may be a way to experimentally verify the Coolidge effect in humans. This is the approach that Albright College (Pennsylvania) psychologist Susan Hughes and her colleagues took in a study they recently published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior.
The Coolidge Effect in Men and Women
For this study, the researchers solicited over 600 young adults through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a website commonly used for collecting data from the general population. These participants consisted of roughly equal numbers of heterosexual men and women.
The experimental design involved a setup similar to the dating app Tinder. Participants were shown an array of photos of opposite-sex persons and asked to choose which ones they’d like to hook up with. They were told that they had ten dating opportunities, which they could distribute among the available persons. In other words, they could have sex one time each with ten different partners, ten times with one partner, or any other combination, as long as the total number of dates added up to ten.
In line with the Coolidge effect, the men selected more potential sex partners than the women did. However, two interesting findings also emerged from the data analysis.
First, the women did show some evidence of a Coolidge effect under certain conditions. In most cases, the women allotted all ten dates to only one or two men. However, when all of the men were highly attractive, the women showed an interest in dating more of them.
This finding is in line with evolutionary theories of human mating. That is, people engage in both short- and long-term sexual relationships, but the qualities they seek in a partner depend on the type of relationship. Women tend to prefer resources (wealth, status) over looks when it comes to long-term partners, but they prefer looks over resources in short-term encounters. Perhaps a wide array of very good-looking men to choose from triggered a short-term mating strategy in this case.
Second, as men grow older, their desire for multiple sex partners increases, and they also become less picky about looks—as long as they’re young! In other words, older men want more sexual variety than younger men do.
Age Differences in the Coolidge Effect
The authors speculate that these age differences could be due to the fact that men tend to gather more resources as they get older, and they can use these resources to attract more mates than younger men can. Cross-culturally, we see that older men of higher status and greater wealth do attract more mates, either as wives or as mistresses. I think this explanation is fine as far as it goes, but I suspect there’s more to the story.
Younger people may also be more susceptible to the social norm that sex should only take place within a committed relationship. Studies show that a small minority of young adults regularly engage in the hookup culture, but the vast majority are only sexually active within “steady” relationships.
As people grow older and more experienced, they tend to have greater self-awareness of their own sexuality. My guess is that the older men in this study have come to terms with the fact that their biology drives them to desire many young sex partners, and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. After all, this was a hypothetical dating scenario, not one they would necessarily act out in reality, where there would be consequences to pay.
It’s also interesting that older men are less picky about looks. This too is in line with evolutionary theories of human mating. That is to say, men tend to show the opposite pattern of mate preferences to females. When it comes to long-term relationships, looks are of the utmost importance for men, but they’re much less so for one-night stands.
In this experiment, the younger men distributed their dates among fewer women. That is, they tended toward a long-term strategy, in which looks are paramount. But the older men distributed their dates among more women. Since they were pursuing a clear short-term strategy, looks were less important.
Although we can’t test for the Coolidge effect in humans the way that we do with rats and other animals, the design that Hughes and colleagues came up with is a good proxy. The results of this study do seem to confirm the observation that men tend to want many more sex partners than women do. Of course, it's just what we would expect when we think of sex from an evolutionary perspective.
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Hughes, S. M., Aung, T., Harrison, M. A., LaFayette, J. N., & Gallup, G. G., Jr. (2021). Experimental evidence for sex differences in sexual variety preferences: Support for the Coolidge effect in humans. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 50, 495-509.