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Human mating strategies

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People seek out a mate for an intimate relationship

In evolutionary psychology and behavioral ecology, human mating strategies are a set of behaviors used by individuals to attract, select, and retain mates. Mating strategies overlap with reproductive strategies, which encompass a broader set of behaviors involving the timing of reproduction and the trade-off between quantity and quality of offspring (see life history theory).

Relative to other animals, human mating strategies are unique in their relationship with cultural variables such as the institution of marriage.[1] Humans may seek out individuals with the intention of forming a long-term intimate relationship, marriage, casual relationship, or friendship. The human desire for companionship is one of the strongest human drives. It is an innate feature of human nature, and may be related to the sex drive. The human mating process encompasses the social and cultural processes whereby one person may meet another to assess suitability, the courtship process and the process of forming an interpersonal relationship. Commonalities, however, can be found between humans and nonhuman animals in mating behavior (see animal sexual behavior).


Social occasionsEdit

People at a birthday party in the United States.

Social gatherings are frequently arranged to enable people looking for a partner to meet. Such occasions may be parties of all types and social dances. Sometimes attendance at churches or similar venues would also act as occasions for people to meet. Schools and colleges are also common places for people to meet and form long-term relationships. It is not unknown for couples to form over alcohol or drugs.


In order to bond or to express sexual interest, people flirt. According to Kate Fox, a social anthropologist, there are two main types of flirting: flirting for fun and flirting with intent. Flirting for fun can take place between friends, co-workers, or total strangers that wish to get to know each other. This type of flirting does not intend to lead to sexual intercourse or romantic relationship, but increases the bonds between two people.

Flirting with intent plays a role in the mate-selection process. The person flirting will send out signals of sexual availability to another, and expects to see the interest returned in order to continue flirting. Flirting can involve non-verbal signs, such as an exchange of glances, hand-touching, hair-touching, or verbal signs, such as chatting up, flattering comments, and exchange of telephone numbers in order to initiate further contact.


People date to assess each other's suitability as a partner in an intimate relationship or as a spouse. Dating rules may vary across different cultures, and some societies may even replace the dating process by a courtship instead.


In many cultural traditions, a date may be arranged by a third party, who may be a family member, acquaintance, or professional matchmaker. In some cultures, a marriage may be arranged by the couple's parents or an outside party. Recently, internet dating has become popular.

Theoretical backgroundEdit

Research on human mating strategies is guided by the theory of sexual selection, and in particular, Robert Trivers' concept of Parental Investment. Trivers defines parental investment as “any investment by the parent in an individual offspring that increases the offspring's chance of surviving (and hence reproductive success) at the cost of the parent's ability to invest in other offspring.” Trivers posited that differential parental investment between males and females drives the process of sexual selection, which leads to the evolution of sexual dimorphism in mate choice, competitive ability, and courtship displays (see also secondary sex characteristics). In humans, females make a larger parental investment than males (i.e. nine months of gestation followed by childbirth and lactation). While human males invest heavily in their offspring as well, their minimum parental investment is still lower than that of females. Hence, evolutionary psychologists have predicted a number of sex differences in human mating strategies.

Gender differencesEdit

Sexual desireEdit

One theory states that because of their lower minimum parental investment, men can achieve greater reproductive success by mating with multiple women than women can achieve by mating with multiple men.[citation needed] Evolutionary psychologists therefore argue that ancestral men who possessed a desire for multiple short-term sex partners, to the extent that they were capable of attracting them, would have left more descendants than men without such a desire. Ancestral women, by contrast, would have maximized reproductive success not by mating with as many men as possible, but by selectively mating with those men who were most able and willing to invest resources in their offspring. Gradually in a bid to compete in order to obtain resources from potential men, women have evolved to show extended sexuality. One classic study found that when college students were approached on campus by opposite-sex confederates and asked if they wanted to “go to bed” with him/her, 75% of the men said yes while 0% percent of the women said yes.[2] Evidence also indicates that, across cultures, men report a greater openness to casual sex,[3] a larger desired number of sexual partners,[4] and a greater desire to have sex sooner in a relationship.[4] These sex differences have been shown to be reliable across various studies and methodologies.[5][6] However, there is some controversy as to the scope and interpretation of these sex differences.[7][8]

Evolutionary research often states that men have a strong desire for casual sex, unlike women. Men are often depicted as wanting numerous female sexual partners in order to maximise their reproductive success.[9] Evolutionary mechanisms for short-term mating are evident today. Mate-guarding behaviours and sexual jealousy point to an evolutionary history in which sexual relations with multiple partners became a recurrent adaptive problem,[10] whilst the willingness of modern-day men to have sex with attractive strangers,[11] and the prevalence of extramarital affairs in similar frequencies cross-culturally, are evidence of an ancestral past in which polygamous mating strategies were adopted.[12]

However, as Flanagan and Cardwell note,[9] men could not pursue this ideology, without willing female partners. Every time a man has a new sexual partner, the woman also has a new sexual partner. It has been proposed, therefore, that casual sex and numerous sexual partners may also confer some benefit to females. That is, they would produce more genetically diverse offspring as a result, which would increase their chances of successfully rearing children to adolescence, or independence.[9]

Sexual attractionsEdit

Evolutionary psychologists have predicted that men will generally place a greater value on youth and physical attractiveness in a mate than will women. Youth is associated with reproductive value in women, and features that men find physically attractive in women are thought to signal health and fertility.[13] Men who preferentially mated with healthy, fertile, and reproductively valuable women would have left more descendants than men who did not. Since men’s reproductive value does not decline as steeply with age as does women’s, women are not expected to exhibit as strong of a preference for youth in a mate. Evolutionary psychologists have also predicted that women will be relatively more attracted to ambition and social status in a mate because these characteristics are associated with men’s access to resources. Women who preferentially mated with men capable of investing resources in their offspring, thereby ensuring their offsprings' survival, would have left more descendants than women who did not. Evolutionary psychologists have tested these predictions across cultures, confirming that men tend to report a greater preference for youth and physical attractiveness in a mate than do women, and that women tend to report a greater preference for ambition and social status in a mate than do men.[14][15] Some sex differences in mate preferences may be attenuated by national levels of gender equity and gender empowerment.[16][17] The specific role that culture plays in modulating sex differences in mate preferences is subject to debate.[18][19] Cultural variations in mate preference can be due to the evolved differences between males and females of a culture. For example, as women gain more access to resources their mate preferences change. Finding a mate with resources becomes less of a priority and a mate with domestic skills is more important. As women’s access to resources varies between cultures, so does mate preference.[20]

Individual differencesEdit

Sociosexual Orientation InventoryEdit

Average differences in mating strategies between the sexes do not entail uniformity in mating strategies within the sexes, and in humans, such within-sex variation is substantial.[21] Individual differences in mating strategies are commonly measured using the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI), a questionnaire that includes items assessing past sexual behavior, anticipated future sexual behavior, and openness to casual sex.[22] Higher scores on the SOI indicate a sexually unrestricted mating strategy, and lower scores on the SOI indicate a sexually restricted mating strategy. Several studies have found that scores on the SOI are related to mate preferences, with more sexually restricted individuals preferring personal/parenting qualities in a mate (e.g. responsibility and loyalty), and with less sexual restricted individual preferring qualities related to physical attractiveness and social visibility.[23] Other studies have shown that SOI scores are related to personality traits (i.e. extraversion, erotophilia, and low agreeableness),[24] conspicuous consumption in men as a means to attract women,[25] and increased allocation of visual attention to attractive opposite-sex faces.[26]

Short-term vs. long-term matingEdit

Evolutionary psychologists have proposed that individuals may adopt conditional mating strategies in which they adjust their mating tactics to relevant environmental or internal conditions.[21] To the extent that ancestral men were capable of pursuing short-term mating strategies with multiple women, the evolutionary benefits are relatively straightforward. Less clear, however, are the evolutionary benefits that women might have received from pursuing short-term mating strategies. One prominent hypothesis is that ancestral women selectively engaged in short-term mating with men capable of transmitting genetic benefits to their offspring such as health, disease resistance, or attractiveness (see good genes theory and sexy son hypothesis). Since women cannot inspect men's genes directly, they may have evolved to infer genetic quality from certain observable characteristics (see indicator traits). One prominent candidate for a "good genes" indicator includes fluctuating asymmetry, or the degree to which men deviate from perfect bodily symmetry. Other candidates include masculine facial features,[27] behavioral dominance,[28] and low vocal pitch.[29] Evolutionary psychologists have therefore predicted that women pursuing a short-term mating strategy will have higher preferences for these good genes indicators, and men who possess good genes indicators will be more successful in pursuing short-term mating strategies than men who do not. Indeed, research indicates that self-perceived physical attractiveness,[30] fluctuating asymmetry,[31] and low vocal pitch[32] are positively related to short-term mating success in men but not in women. Women prefer purported good genes indicators more for a short-term mate than for a long-term mate, and a related line of research shows that women’s preferences for good genes indicators in short-term mates tends to increase during peak fertility in the menstrual cycle just prior to ovulation.[33]

Women are thought to seek long-term partners with resources (such as shelter and food) in order to aid her, and her offspring's survival.[34] In order to achieve women are thought to have evolved extended sexuality.

Environmental predictorsEdit

In 2005, the evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt conducted a multinational survey of sexual attitudes and behaviors involving 48 countries called the International Sexual Description Project (ISSR).[3] Schmitt assessed relationships between several societal-level variables and average scores on the SOI. One variable that was shown to significantly predict a nation’s average SOI score was the Operational Sex Ratio (OSR), which was defined by Schmitt as “the relative balance of marriage-age men versus marriage-age women in the local mating pool.” When one sex is scarce relative to the other sex, the less-scarce sex may compete more intensely for access to the scarcer sex. One way in which the more numerous sex might compete is by displaying the attributes that are most desired by the scarcer sex. Since men have a greater desire for casual sex (see above), societies with more women relative to men were predicted to exhibit higher scores on the SOI than societies with more balanced or male-biased sex ratios. This prediction was confirmed: OSR was significantly positively correlated with national SOI scores.[3] Another variable that Schmitt predicted would influence SOI scores was the need for biparental care. In societies where extensive care from both parents is needed to ensure offspring survival, the costs of having sex with an uncommitted partner are much higher. Schmitt found significant negative correlations between several indices of need for biparental care (e.g. infant mortality, child malnutrition, and low birth-weight infants) and national SOI scores.

Another important societal variable for mating strategies is the threat of infectious disease or pathogen prevalence. Since physical attractiveness is thought to signal health and disease resistance, evolutionary psychologists have predicted that, in societies high in pathogen prevalence, people will value attractiveness more in a mate. Indeed, research has confirmed that pathogen prevalence is associated with preferences for attractiveness across nations.[35] Women in nations with high pathogen prevalence also show greater preferences for facial masculinity.[36] Researchers have also reasoned that sexual contact with multiple individuals increases the risk of disease transmission, thereby increasing the costs of pursuing a short-term mating strategy. Consistent with this reasoning, higher pathogen prevalence is associated with lower national SOI scores.[37] Finally, several studies have found that experimentally manipulating disease salience has a causal influence on attractiveness preferences and SOI scores in predicted directions.[38][39][40]

Political attitudesEdit

Some evolutionary psychologists have argued that mating strategies can influence political attitudes. According to this perspective, different mating strategies are in direct strategic conflict. For instance, the stability of long-term partnerships may be threatened by the availability of short-term sexual opportunities. Therefore, public policy measures that impose costs on casual sex may benefit people pursuing long-term mating strategies by reducing the availability of short-term mating opportunities outside of committed relationships. One public policy measure that imposes costs on people pursuing short-term mating strategies, and may thereby appeal to sexually restricted individuals, is the banning of abortion. In an influential doctoral dissertation, the psychologist Jason Weeden conducted statistical analyses on public and undergraduate datasets supporting the hypothesis that attitudes towards abortion are more strongly predicted by mating-relevant variables than by variables related to views on the sanctity of life.[41]

Weeden and colleagues have also argued that attitudes towards drug legalization are driven by individual differences in mating strategies. Insofar as sexually restricted individuals associate recreational drug use with promiscuity, they may be motivated to oppose drug legalization. Consistent with this, one study found that the strongest predictor of attitudes towards drug legalization was scores on the SOI.[42] This relationship remained strong even when controlling for personality traits, political orientation, and moral values. By contrast, nonsexual variables typically associated with attitudes towards drug legalization were strongly attenuated or eliminated when controlling for SOI and other sexuality-related measures. These findings were replicated in Belgium, Japan, and the Netherlands.[43] Weeden and colleagues have made similar arguments and have conducted similar analyses in regard to religiosity; that is, religious institutions may function to facilitate high-fertility, sexually restricted mating and reproductive strategies.[44]


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