Jon & Kate Plus Kate: Do Women Prefer Already Attached Men?

Study shows gender differences in mate poaching.

Posted Aug 26, 2009

Unless you've done your very best to shield yourself from all forms of media for the last few months, you have likely heard about the dissolving marriage between Jon & Kate Plus Eight stars Jon and Kate Gosselin. And you likely know that a contributing factor to their divorce was Jon's alleged affairs with several women, including another Kate (Kate Major). Although many questioned what motivated Jon to cheat on his wife, few questioned the fact that these women knowingly pursued an affair with a married man. The Jon and Kate situation is just the most recent example of women luring famously married men away from their partners. Sienna Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Claire Danes and Rachel Evan Wood have all engaged in what scientists refer to as mate poaching - the tendency to pursue someone who is already in a romantic relationship. And of course who can forget Brangelina, the most widely covered case of mate poaching in the media. But why would such beautiful, successful women pursue a man who is already taken? A recently published study with my graduate student offers some initial insights into this behavior.

Mate poaching appears to be a fairly common relationship strategy. According to a recent survey, 1 in 5 relationships begin with one or both partners involved with someone else. However, it does seem that some people are more likely than others to engage in this strategy. In our study, my coauthor Jessica Parker and I designed an experiment to see which gender is more likely to show mate poaching tendencies. Men and women who were either single or in a relationship completed a computer survey much like those seen in on-line dating websites, including questions about their likes, dislikes and romantic turn-ons. Next, they were told the computer would match them up with a student in the database who responded similarly. They then were provided with information about their opposite-sexed match and this included a photo of the attractive other. Half read their match was currently in a romantic relationship and half read their match was single. Finally, they answered a series of questions regarding their interest in this match (e.g., would you flirt with your match, would you pursue a romantic relationship with your match).

The findings: Single women in our study were more interested in their match when he was described as being attached (90%) than when he was described as single (59%). Men showed no difference in interest based on the two descriptions, and neither did women who were currently in a relationship themselves. So for men, interest in their match did not depend on whether she was single or in a relationship, but for single women, it did. Clearly not everyone will act on these intentions, but increased interest in a taken man is likely the first step in the mate poaching process.

So why are single women more attracted to unavailable men? There are likely several reasons why this is the case and future research is exploring these possibilities. For example, it could be that attached men have essentially been prescreened by other women and are therefore more desirable. Or it could be that these women feel they are being altruistic by "saving" him from a bad relationship. Or it could be that women see a taken man as a challenge, and if they are able to successfully poach him away from his partner, it demonstrates that she is the better female. This in turn could provide her with a boost in self-esteem. This last explanation is one that my student Jessica and I are exploring in a follow up study currently being conducted for her dissertation.

So what is the take home message from this study? First, it shows that both the cheater and the mistress play a role in the likely dissolution of the current relationship. While some affairs may start because the cheating husband is "out on the prowl" looking for a mistress, other affairs may start because a mistress is knowingly on the prowl for a married man. Second, this study shows that a man's taken status can attract, rather than deter, other women's affections. This helps explain why women would knowingly pursue married celebrities like Jon Gosselin and Brad Pitt. Third, hopefully this study causes women who do engage in mate poaching to stop and question the reasons for their behavior. In a recent Women's Health survey, most women who engaged in mate poaching did not think the attached status of the target played a role in their poaching decision, but our study shows this belief to be false. If these women were able to identify the real reasons why they poach, they may find there are other, less harmful ways of fulfilling these needs. After all, if he was able to be poached away once, what is to stop him from being poached again by someone else?

Our mate poaching study can be found in the July 2009 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.