The Mating Game is a Team Sport

How does cooperation help us achieve our romantic goals?

Posted Sep 17, 2009

The idea that other people often factor into our search for romance is not new. Overbearing parents and desirable-but-pompous peers are two classic archetypes of history, literature and Hollywood movies (think Egeus in A Midsummer Night's Dream or Iceman in Top Gun). In scientific research, the role these other people play has by and large been restricted to competition. If you're a guy, other men represent people to trump in status or best in fights. If you're a girl, being more attractive or popular than other women is the name of the game. However, this other-people-as-competition framework misses a huge chunk of how we interact socially within romantic situations. We also: talk about potential romantic partners with people, find people to date by socially networking, and even directly help each other perform better on the mating market. You've probably done such things with your friends and family members. You may even have actively refrained from competing over the same guy or girl. These more cooperative forms of courtship behavior emerge through successful coordination of our own romantic interests with the interests of people with whom we share close, platonic relationships.

These behaviors may be immediately familiar, but research is now examining the evolutionary basis for "cooperative courtship" and identifying its differential appeal for women and men. Evolutionarily, the mating behavior of males and females (in all species) tends to be influenced by the physical and resource-based costs of pregnancy. Pregnancy is expensive, on the body as well as the pocketbook. The biological sex that spends the most effort gestating and rearing kids has the most to invest, and thus tends to be the most picky about choosing romantic partners (i.e., if you have to pay the cost, make sure to get a good deal). In many animals, including people, females are relatively more choosy. When it comes to cooperative courtship, therefore, females help each other to evaluate potential mates and avoid mates who don't make the grade. Males, on the other hand, tend to help each other get chosen. We see evidence for these strategies in animals, as when male turkeys help each other attract mates and when female bonobo chimpanzees form alliances to reduce sexual coercion.

People use very similar strategies, even though birth control has lowered the actual chance of unintended pregnancy. With my colleague Douglas Kenrick, I conducted several studies looking at how people coordinate their romantic interests. In one study, we showed people drawings of flirtatious scenes (see one in the image below) and asked them to identify who was a woman and who was a man.

Who would you guess? In other studies, we asked people about what kind of help people give to their friends and what kind of help they want to receive. We consistently found that everyone wants to help-competition is not the inevitable outcome. And though everyone helped in multiple ways, we found that women tended to help their friends build romantic barriers (weeding out the undesirable guys and testing the desirable ones), and men tended to help their friends break down those barriers (attempting to counter women's strategies). People used all sorts of techniques to do this, including having friends pose as counterfeit romantic partners (this worked for women AND men). Not only that, people also switched the kind of help they gave to their opposite-sex friends-now men helped women build barriers and women helped men break down barriers.

We even set up a Dating Game experiment in which people came to the lab expecting to be a contestant on a game show. The show wasn't all about competition though. At one point in the game, contestants had the option to act cooperatively with other contestants. Interestingly, in this "real-world" environment, women still gave more help when the potential date was an undesirable guy (suggesting barrier-building) and men still gave more help when the potential date was a desirable woman (suggesting barrier-breaking). We concluded that many of the romantic behaviors we think of as unique to our time and culture actually have their roots in universal biological principles.

There is still a lot of research to be done. I'd love to hear from people who have observed cooperative courtship in other cultures. Not all of the behaviors I mentioned will be cross-culturally identical, but I expect that people everywhere are helping each other achieve their romantic goals (e.g., in some cultures, family might provide more help than friends). I also think these findings are interesting because of their implications for cooperation in other contexts. For instance, how do people cooperate in business negotiations or in non-romantic social networking, and might women and men be better at certain negotiation and networking strategies than at others? Leave some comments below and let me know your thoughts.

You can read more about these studies here:
Ackerman, J. M., & Kenrick, D. T. (2009). Cooperative Courtship: Helping Friends Raise and Raze Relationship Barriers. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 1285-1300.