January 10, 2007

Stacy's mom -- dream on!

OK, having criticized parts of the Psychology Today article in the previous post, maybe I should write about one of the better parts. An interesting feature (not a bug) of the male mind is that it tends to set a rather low threshold for inferring romantic or sexual interest from females. You drop something on the street, a girl picks it up for you, and boom -- she must have the hots for you, using this kind gesture as her "in." This results in males making many more sexually motivated advances than if their minds had a higher threshold for reacting, and so at least probabilistically this feature will result in more mating opportunities and thus more kids. It doesn't matter, therefore, how foolish it seems in a particular instance, nor if the numerous false positives leave the bitter taste of chronic rejection in their mouths.

We can examine when this phenomenon is at it's strongest -- when guys appear the most clueless and read the most into female "signals" -- to see during what age range males tend to fall in love, try to woo females, and start a pair-bond or sleep around. Further, we can examine when guys are most reasonable about who is out of their league, and thus not likely interested in them, to see during what age this phenomenon is not as important. I'm not suggesting that at one age guys think every girl wants them, and at another age they're perfectly realistic; I'm just comparing the "you've gotta be nuts" value across the post-pubescent lifespan.

As for when this value is at its greatest, consider the following music video for "Stacy's Mom" by Fountains of Wayne (the lyrics are here):

The guy is supposed to be 12 or 13, thus barely having completed puberty, and yet he's convinced that a red-hot, divorced businesswoman in her mid-30s is into him. Compare this with the scene in American Beauty where Kevin Spacey's character thinks the blonde high school cheerleader is putting on a private performance for him. Both show how eager males are to delude themselves, but I know which age-typical delusion I think is more ridiculously unlikely than the other one. Kevin Spacey's character is older, taller, higher-status, and athletic -- traits which are at least in the right direction, even if he's too old for the seduction to work in general. But the boy in the "Stacy's Mom" video is decades younger, probably at least a half-foot shorter, and remarkably lower in status than the female he's interested in, so he's doomed from the start. It would appear, then, that the low threshold for reacting to female "signals" is lowest during adolescence.

And to return to a parenthetical remark I made in the previous post, the low threshold of activation doesn't pertain only to the mind but to the groin as well. Boys covering that area with their notebooks or a jacket around the waist is a common trope in candid portrayals of adolescent male life. Of course, this uber-trigger-happy phase subsides somewhat during one's 20s, and toward the end of middle age a man's sense of ease is no longer held hostage by the defiant will of his junk. Indeed, roughly 30% of 50-80 year-olds are impotent. Again, the obvious inference is that falling in love, trying to woo females, and consummating a relationship belong mostly to 15-25 year-olds, to a lesser extent to those up through 30-35, and not very much to those over 40, at which time guys realize that things have gotten as good as they're going to get. Interventions can alter this timeline, as when women don't have children, buy wonder bras, and exercise so that they're less unattractive in their 40s than otherwise; or when men use Viagra and enter careers that result in peaking status-wise at 40 or 50. But it's still clear what age range we should ideally be studying to understand how the psychology of romantic love works.

1 comment:

  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems like you're generalizing a bit from your own personal experience.

    I consider myself a pretty decent judge of whether a girl is into me or not, but I probably err on the conservative side(they don't like me rather than they do).

    You're right that kids (and guys) start to dreaming that the girls want them, but do they really believe that the girls want them? Two different things, and I don't think the latter is true that often.


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