January 10, 2007

You should be raising kids, not still dating

Via ScienceBlogs. There's a news article in Psychology Today on how wacky love appears, but how understandable these quirks are when we investigate it from the point-of-view of evolutionary biology. Overall it's a good article, but there are still some points that need to be cleared up if we really want to understand how love works.

To begin with, there are some rather bizarre phrases in the lead paragraph on the sense of nervousness during a first date:

Seated at a well-appointed table, you mull the choice between crab cakes and seared tuna, but truly you are sorting through a mental repertoire of wisecracks and war stories. If you are secure in your improvisational charms, you might use this moment to appraise the cleavage or cufflinks of the woman or man across the table. [...] And you need to know whether your dining companion is up to the task.

Anyone who has the option of seared tuna on a first date, whose dining companion might be expected to wear cufflinks -- and for that matter anyone who would refer to their date as a "dining companion" -- is, in the eyes of evolution, not very important as far as romantic love and reproduction are concerned. I imagine the people described above are at least in their 30s, and since human generation time is between 20 and 25 years, each should have already had a child so far, and that at least 5 years ago. My first thought from an evolutionary POV is: Why are 35 year-olds still going out on first dates? The male could continue to reproduce for a few decades, but the female above is nearing the end as far as reliably conceiving a child. This isn't nitpicking: studying life among well-to-do 30 and 40-somethings after the Demographic Transition is not the best way to infer what pressures gave rise to romantic love and its quirks during human evolution.

Since we're mostly adjusted to our post-pubertal existence by about age 15, and again bearing in mind the 20 to 25-year generation time, we would do best to study individuals from age 15 to 25. Just as it would be silly to study jumping ability among 40-somethings, so it would be to study romantic love and mating preferences among them. Handling relationship conflict and parent-offspring conflict, rearing of grandchildren, and so on -- sure, but it's clear that the group to study for love & mating is 15-25 year-olds. We get uneasy thinking about this fact in the context of the 15-17 year-olds because they're minors, but millennia of human evolution didn't anticipate 20th C. legal norms. It's not as if we'd be giving them the franchise, just studying what they think and how they act.

Not to beat a dead horse, but I am still baffled when adults forget what it was like being a teenager. Perhaps I'm immune to this process because I work with adolescents every day, and am thus (sometimes painfully) reminded of what middle and high school was like. Remember how it felt like your mind was under siege, commandeered by your romantic emotions for that one guy or girl? How you wouldn't get just nervous around the girl or guy you were stuck on, but got the worst case of butterflies in the stomach ever? Or how girls were so paralyzed by anxiety that they had their friends ask a boy out for them? (And guys, when was the last time you had to hold a notebook over your crotch to conceal an erection you got simply from hearing your crush call your name?) This irrationality of romantic love that renders its victims powerless stands in stark contrast to the pragmatic and calculated quality that adult-age relationships begin to assume.

Returning to the news article, the lead paragraph likens an adult first date to a job interview -- how exquisitely romantic! Now, in honesty, this is of course the best metaphor to choose, but that only shows how astray we will be lead if we analyze the thoughts and behaviors of 30 and 40-somethings to best understand romantic love. And although adolescent minors are routinely studied to see if they're doing drugs or committing crimes, they're rarely thought of as ideal subjects to study for normal behavior like falling head-over-heels in love and expressing preferences in a potential mate.

In the final section of the article, there is some real misunderstanding about the thoughts of 15-25 year-olds. First, though, there is a good point made about the effects of socializing adolescents around only other adolescents as we do by sending them to middle and high school, rather than raising them as part of the larger adult community. Evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller believes this makes girls more insecure than they would otherwise be, since they're forming self-images based on their rank within a population that is much more young and healthy than the general population. If they spent most of their day instead around 30 and 40-somethings, they'd realize that they're actually in the right-tail of the fertility distribution. Conversely, he believes boys have overinflated egos because their self-image is formed from comparing themselves with other high schoolers, not with bankers and doctors.

The point about adolescent girls being more insecure than otherwise is well taken: we know that guys of all ages focus primarily on female attractiveness, which pretty much tracks health, youth, and well-maintained secondary sex characteristics. The point about boys is wrong, though. Here, Miller picks on jocks thusly:

"Young men who were captains of the football team graduate thinking they're God's gift to women, and women respond, 'I'm interested in corporate attorneys and well-cited professors. Who the hell are you?' "

Ha, nice try. The assumption is that adolescent jocks are the right-tail of a low-mean distribution, like the not-so-ugly girl in a trailer park. Hence, were they pooled with adult males who hold steady, sometimes high-powered jobs, they'd be put in their place, much as if the trailer park princess had grown up surrounded by Brazilian models. But for this to work, females must value the same qualities from adolesence through adulthood, which of course they don't. They do gauge a guy's rank in the status hierarchy, but what criteria determine a guy's rank shift from an emphasis on good looks, athletics, and whatever else makes you one of the popular boys during high school and college, to a greater emphasis on wealth during adulthood (at roughly 25, by which time her first kid should have been born). The natural inference is that girls first prefer to snag and mate with a top physical specimen while they're at their fertility peak in their early 20s, while afterwards they seek a long-term husband to invest in her and her children materially (preferably the same person, but that's difficult).

Again, how adults ever convinced themselves that adolescent girls dream of boys who exemplify intelligence, hard work, and high income, I'll never understand. I realize that most adult males, including me, were not popular dudes in high school, and so may have erased that part of their memory. But if the goal is to understand how things work, we'd better recover those memories or at least look at how current high school and college students behave. A quick reality check shows that East Asian males are the most likely to exemplify the above three traits during high school and college, yet they're the least sought-after group as mates, and ditto for their non-Asian counterparts. Looking at who the winners are (regardless of race), we again conclude that good looks, athleticism (as distinct from "good looking" traits such as a masculine jaw), and faux danger / excitement are better predictors of stud status in this age group.

The notion that younger girls yearn more for college professor types than jock types can be put to a simple test by looking at the behavior of college students. Having an IQ of at least 145, tireless ambition, and more wealth than any boy at the college won't make the professor a stud unless he's also good-looking, suave, and conveys a rule-breaker persona. But that just proves the point: this is just a jock or rockstar who happens to teach. Bear in mind that it's not simply the rules against student-teacher relationships that prevent this from happening: a girl only has four profs at one time, and many colleges are situated in college towns, where she could visit a neighboring institution to find an unforbidden professor. Another quick reality check is to look at where college girls prefer to go for Spring Break or summer vacation when they have no responsibilities and are on the prowl for mates. College towns, packed with profs though they are, always seem to empty out, while Cancun and Rio pullulate with coeds -- imagine that! Nor do they flock to Wall Street bars to hit on corporate attorneys and investment bankers. So the suggestion that adolescent jocks will become humbled by being pooled with professional adults is off the mark.

However, the article does end with some good observations on personality traits:

Teens are often equally clueless about the character strengths that make for a good partner. It takes a few years of experimental hookups and baffling breakups to learn the value of conscientiousness, trustworthiness, and emotional stability.

Still, no personality type makes for a superior mate. Context, not character, is destiny. The extroverted dervish may have an exhausting aversion to downtime. And chances are you're not the only person drawn to a woman with an operatic ability to connect. Because they're highly sought after, extroverts tend to have more affairs and end relationships more often, reports Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle. An agreeable man may be a helpmate, power-listener, and faithful husband, but he is also less likely to be an alpha earner than is his hard-charging, narcissistic brother.

The first paragraph above needs some clarification: clearly a lack of conscientiousness, trustworthiness, or emotional stability are not bad things as far as passing along your genes goes. If they were, they would've been weeded out long ago, and we'd all be model citizens. Of course, this doesn't mean that pairing up with someone who's opportunistic rather than deliberate, or scheming rather than trustworthy, will make us feel good. So this falls under the category of learning how to avoid the pitfalls of going with your gut. I'm not so sure about emotional stability (or low-Neuroticism) being such a bad thing, though. Combined with high Extraversion, this results in a hotheaded personality, and I know I'm not the only guy who has a soft spot for cocky, mock-confrontational girls. Just look at any "lad mag" like Maxim, or this commercial for the Xyience energy drink (TV-safe, but perhaps not work-safe). How are you going to engage in flirtatious repartee if she's difficult to excite and provoke? Plus, when I rant about someone cutting me off (or what have you), I want her to understand and assist me in cursing the guy out, rather than think my mind was outta whack for getting worked up over such a "trifling" event.

Also, the remark about Extraverts having more affairs and ending relationships earlier conflicts with other studies I've read which suggest that it's really Psychoticism (or in Big Five terms, the low-Agreeableness by low-Conscientiousness interaction) that correlates with relationship infidelities of various sorts. But in any event, the really important point is that there's not one value of a particular personality trait to rule them all. We can see that by the moderate heritabilities of personality traits -- if being only extraverted paid off, directional selection would use up the existing genetic variance in the trait, and there would be no introverts (or, they would only pop up due to random mutations). I referred to this point in a recent post at GNXP regarding male height.

Unfortunately for those promoting the sexiness of intelligence, the same reasoning applies here as well, since intelligence has a moderate heritability. Moving the goalposts, we might say that that's true, but what brought general intelligence distributions to their current state, with means much higher than when humans first appeared on the scene, is sexual selection. There is a hint of this too in the news article, to the effect that we may have evolved higher levels of g in order to manage stormy, infidelity-prone relationships. Better pattern-discrimination would certainly help do this: Wait a minute, the soap bar is on the left side of the sink -- and we're both right-handed! However, that makes the prediction that populations where relationship chaos is most rampant should have higher mean IQ than those where it is less prevalent. Concretely, sub-Saharan Africans should show higher mean IQ than Europeans, and Asians should show the lowest mean IQ. That's the opposite pattern of reality. The conclusion is that, even if this variable accounts for some variance, it's apparently tiny enough not to worry much about.

A much stronger relationship, at least at first blush, is with level of societal complexity -- especially after the transition to agriculture, a more complicated existence could easily require higher IQ just to break even. Indeed, a recent paper on the evolution of higher IQ among Ashkenazi Jews posits as selection pressure the greater complexity of the managerial niche that they filled for over a millennium. This may not be the only variable accounting for non-trivial variance in group IQ differences, but it at least fits the data properly, and the ultimate cause is reasonable enough.

How can it be that a simple news article that has many good points has managed to get me so worked up? Well, first, remember you're talking to someone with a pretty on-edge personality. But more seriously, there are enough off-the-mark aspects that are annoyingly common in evolutionary psychology, especially the popular presentation of it, that it's worth addressing them at length.


  1. Have you considered that high school aged girls are attracted to the higest status males, but the only status structure they really understand is the one in high school. They are clueless to the status structure of the adult world, thus aren't attracted to any adults.

    If instead of being segregated in high school they were better integrated into the adult world, they'd learn to pick up the status cues of adult society and be attracted to high status adult males instead of the low status teenage males.

  2. They are clueless to the status structure of the adult world, thus aren't attracted to any adults.

    They would have to be completely sheltered to not have a good idea of what factors influence status among adult males. They know that people get jobs after college, and that to do well you have to have a good job and make lots of money. They see guys buying sports cars and so on.

    They also know roughly what adult guys do to signal status to women they're courting: drive an expensive car, give her expensive jewelry, take her to an expensive restaurant, etc.

    They might not know if a Big Law lawyer makes more than a smalltime lawyer, but they know roughly which jobs are lucrative (doctor, lawyer, businessman) and which aren't (janitor, truck driver, cashier).

    Other relevant data are preferred age differences. David Buss' huge cross-cultural survey found that at the greatest, females on average preferred a guy 5 years older than they. Nigeria and Iran show a mean at about that, yet don't have the insulated middle / high school system we do. These were college students.

    The idea that wealth rules supreme in females' minds from adolescence through adulthood doesn't take into account the trade-off females make with good looks, athleticism, excitement, etc. It's better to get "good genes" from a sexy athletic guy and find a rich guy to invest in the kid, rather than get the rich guy's genes and have a sexy guy help raise the kid.

  3. Why are 35-year-olds still going out on first dates?

    Most likely, both have been previously married and are newly single.

    Iron Rails & Iron Weights

  4. Great post, agnostic. More things I noticed in the article:

    For women it is dangerous to trust a man who simply wishes to score and move on.

    But what if he has really awesome genes? Doesn't this depend on the ecological environment also (and the viability of a woman raising a child without a father)?

    How else do we explain all the young women who make a beeline for alpha males? There are a couple possibilities here:

    1. These woman know that the guy probably just want to score. In that case, according to this article, they are being stupid to hook up with him, because this is "dangerous."

    2. These women don't know that the guy probably just wants to score. In that case, they are being again being stupid and naive.

    But what if these women are being smart, at least in an evolutionary sense? The prevalence of this mating strategy, and the support for it in the good genes and sexy son hypotheses, suggests that the short term mating exists for a reason, and isn't always a "dangerous mistake."

    Furthermore, there could even be a female bias to believe that the alpha male will want a relationship with her! That way, she won't inhibit herself from having sex with him out of worry about whether he will provide for her or not. This hypothesis would predict that as a male's status increases, females would more easily delude themselves into thinking that he would commit to her. I wonder if this is true?

    Women, for their part, are biased right back. They skittishly insist that men are more keen on no-strings-attached sex than is the case.

    Interesting. Do you know the name of the study that found this?

    It's a fact that women are more likely to have one-night stands with bright, creative men,

    Really? The studies I've seen so far, like Miller's, only suggest that women say they prefer vignettes of creative men over wealthy men. There can be a big difference between what people say and what they actually do, especially in the area of female preferences. Maybe there are some studies I haven't seen?

    Again, how adults ever convinced themselves that adolescent girls dream of boys who exemplify intelligence, hard work, and high income, I'll never understand.

    If that is actually what young women went for, I would have been rolling girls in high school.

    Some girls seem to believe that they want intelligent, honest, sensitive, committed guys (if not high income). But most young women do not go for those guys. What is up with this? Are women lying? Are they deluded?

    I think there is something more complicated going on. I think those women are just describing the traits of their ideal long-term mate. But the problem is that they aren't selective for their ideal long-term mate, they are selecting for their ideal short-term mate. As you put it:

    The natural inference is that girls first prefer to snag and mate with a top physical specimen while they're at their fertility peak in their early 20s, while afterwards they seek a long-term husband to invest in her and her children materially (preferably the same person, but that's difficult).

    I think there is mental modularity going on here: Consciously, young females may believe that they want long-term mates. But the males they are attracted to will not make long-term mates. This leads to females who hook up with strings of alpha males, then wonder why the guys don't call them and move on to the next conquest.

  5. "Why are 35-year-olds still going out on first dates?"

    Could be the reason Peter pointed out or (for those who haven't been married yet) there is just a complete lack of communication and understanding going on between men and women. I believe that both men and women have unrealistic expectations on what to expect from a relationship and what their partner "should" be like.

    Whatever the reason is, I sure would like to know it.

  6. Miller says:
    "Young men who were captains of the football team graduate thinking they're God's gift to women, and women respond, 'I'm interested in corporate attorneys and well-cited professors. Who the hell are you?' "

    Miller does bust some myths and I have a lot of respect for him, but I think he is engaging in wishful thinking here. Remember, in affluent circles, the smarter jocks in high school go and study Economics in college, then become investment bankers. There is no humbling coming their way.

    I think it's a mistake to think of wealth and a good job as attractive to women. Women are attracted to status. Wealth and job are simply components of status. Other aspects of status, like having a dominant personality and body language, are also very important, perhaps more so.

    P.S. The only thing that may be right about what people think young women's preferences are is the idea that women want Agreeable men (which may be what some women mean when they say they want "nice guys"). See the wikipedia Nice Guy article, which I wrote. Some studies do find that women are more attracted to Agreeable men. Yet these studies tend to have women pick terms from lists or pick between vignettes, rather than looking at women's actual behavior. Maybe that's why I've never really noticed Agreeableness being much of an advantage with young women. I do think it's plausible, however, that women could be attracted to a combination of Agreeableness and dominance, like the Jensen-Campbell et al. study found. Any thoughts on this?


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