When You're in Love, Should You Watch Out for Rivals?

How we guard against rivals when we think our partner is more attractive.

Posted Aug 31, 2016

Source: StockLite/Shutterstock

They say that when you’re in love with a beautiful woman, you watch your friends. And by "they," I mean 70s musician Dr. Hook.*

Hook was not a real doctor, but he was a keen amateur psychologist. True, he shunned the normal scientific route of publishing his theory as a peer-reviewed academic paper and instead chose to disseminate it in the form of a 1970s disco smash, but that doesn’t make him any less insightful. His seminal theory was recently put to the test by Joshua Oltmanns, a Ph.D. student at the University of Kentucky who also has a B.A. in Music Business. Oltmanns teamed up with colleagues at Villanova University and Florida State University and together they recruited 73 male-female couples and had them complete the Mate Retention Inventory.

The Inventory is a questionnaire that measures how frequently a person performs various behaviors that might keep a relationship stable. Some of the behaviors aim to prevent one's partner from losing interest and rushing off to find someone new (e.g. giving them jewelry, or, if you’re a cad, phoning them to make sure they are where they said they would be). Other behaviors are geared toward heading off potential rivals (e.g. telling same-sex friends that you and your partner are in love, or giving a rival a slap across the chops).

Oltmanns also had 12 independent volunteers rate the physical attractiveness of the individuals in his couples. Then he tested whether the attractiveness of the men and women had an impact on their mate retention behavior.

Just as Dr. Hook predicted all those years ago, Oltmanns found that people who have more attractive partners perform more mate retention behaviors, directed both at the partner and at potential rivals. But it was when Oltmanns looked more closely at the difference between the attractiveness of the partners that he uncovered the most interesting results: When a person was lower in attractiveness than their partner, they mate-guarded most fervently.

Fair-Weather Friends and Faint-Hearted Lovers

Do men and women who are outshone by stunning partners keep a closer eye on “fair-weather friends” or their “faint-hearted lovers,” as Dr. Hook put it? In other words, how does a difference in attractiveness inspire more frequent intrasexual or intersexual mate retention behavior?

Unlike Dr. Hook, I’m not going to keep you hanging for 38 years in hopes of an answer: It’s intrasexual. Men keep a closer eye on other men; women keep their sights firmly fixed on other women. Oltmanns and his team suggest that this is because intersexual tactics (in same-sex couples, those are tactics aimed at the partner) are too risky: A troll dating a supermodel doesn’t need his or her partner to discover they're with a paranoid control freak. It's much safer to prevent more alluring competitors from muscling in.

So Dr. Hook was right: When you’re in love with a beautiful woman, “everybody wants to take your baby home,” or at least that’s what you’ll likely be most worried about. Give Dr. Hook an honorary doctorate.

     Note: Right after posting this blog, I read another just-published study that looked at virtually the same question. Yael Sela of Oakland University had couples complete the Mate Retention Inventory but, instead of having their photos rated by independent volunteers, he asked the couples to rate their own attractiveness—and as out turned out, partners who thought they were hot but that their partner was less so tended to perform fewer “benefit-provisioning” behaviors (i.e. giving gifts and being nice).

* I just checked Wikipedia and found out that Dr. Hook isn’t a real person: He is, in fact, a collective of 19 separate performers. Maybe Hook kept a close eye on his friends by inviting them all to join his band.

For an audio version of this story, see the 30 July 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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Oltmanns, J. R., Markey, P. M., & French, J. E. (in press). Dissimilarity in physical attractiveness within romantic dyads and mate retention behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. View summary Sela, Y., Mogilski, J. K., Shackelford, T. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Fink, B. (in press). Mate value discrepancy and mate retention behaviors of self and partner. Journal of Personality. View summary