We humans are perhaps unique among all species of animal for the complexity of the process by which we select a mate.
Source: Francesco Veronesi/Flickr
True, male puffer fish strive to impress females by constructing elaborate flower-shaped nests on the sandy sea floor; male Victoria’s riflebirds perform rhythmic dances to best show off their glittering blue feathers; and female túngara frogs, who value bulk in a mate, seek out males with the deepest, most sonorous croak. But while these behaviors may be complex, the systems are relatively simple. Females judge males on their nest building ability, their dancing, or their croaks, but don’t tend to have a long shopping list of must-haves in a partner.
Humans, however, vary in our preferences and are prone to trade off one desirable trait against another. You might want a physically attractive partner, but also someone who is honest, dependable, ambitious, kind, generous, and the list goes on. No one (except Ryan Gosling) can hope to score a perfect 10 in every category. This is why most of us must decide whether the constellation of traits possessed by each prospective partner meets the grade. Perhaps John is high on sex appeal but low on earning potential, while Sam is rich but looks like a foot?
Some might find that a tough choice, and many research studies have sought to investigate how, and why, humans trade one trait off against another.
Further complicating the matter is a question recently posed by Gul Gunaydin of Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. She and her colleagues realized that in all of the existing research studies, volunteers had been tasked with choosing between two alternative partners who were new. “But,” she asked, “what if one of the alternatives is the current partner?”
Of course, this is likely to be a question that many of us who have a long-term partner grapple with often. Just because a person has a partner, doesn’t mean that they close their eyes to all alternatives. Choosing a partner isn’t a one-off decision, but a continuous process characterized by repeated decisions to either stick with the relationship or to jump ship for someone new.
Stick or twist?
In a series of experiments, Gunaydin had her research volunteers imagine they were in this situation: they had been in a relationship for three months, but recently were introduced to someone new. This person was compared with the current partner, and described either as more trustworthy but less attractive, or less trustworthy but more attractive. Would the volunteer consider ditching their current partner for the new alternative: yes or no?
Other volunteers had to choose between partners differing in attractiveness and wealth, or wealth and trustworthiness. A control group of volunteers were asked to imagine that they were single, but otherwise the task was the same: to choose between two potential partners.
The results of the experiments showed that “partnered” volunteers erred toward sticking with their current partner. That is, if the partner was attractive but untrustworthy, the volunteer overvalued attractiveness; if the partner was trustworthy but unattractive, the volunteer overvalued trustworthiness.
So, our preferences for the status quo seem to be stronger than our preferences for any particular trait. We can trade one desired trait off against another, but are also carried along by inertia. It’s easier to stick with your current partner, even if he or she is imaginary!
Festival of deception
But, what if this effect only emerges when the situation is hypothetical? To test whether status quo preferences persist under more naturalistic conditions, Gunaydin set up another experiment. This one was more fun because it involved deceiving the volunteers, which we shouldn’t begrudge psychologists because it’s pretty much the only thing they enjoy doing.
Gunaydin invited each female volunteer to the lab one at a time. Each woman was told she would be taking part in an experiment about decision-making in interpersonal relationships. They would make a series of decisions in concert with another volunteer — a man — whom they would meet momentarily. Half of the female volunteers would be randomly allocated a male partner, but the other half would read profiles of different men and get to choose which one they preferred to interact with.
Source: JD Hancock/Flickr
In reality, the experiment wasn’t about “decision-making in interpersonal relationships” and all of the women got to choose which man they preferred to talk with. The profiles were also fake, and had been written by the researchers. Each woman was given three profiles printed onto paper. Two of them described awful men, who no one in their right mind would choose, but the third man had good points as well as bad and was almost always chosen. After the volunteer had chosen her preferred man, she handed the papers back to the research assistant. The research assistant then apologized: “Oh no, did I give you three profiles earlier? There should have been one more.” They would then go fetch a fourth profile for the volunteer to consider. And, you guessed it, the man described in this new profile was the opposite of the previously chosen man. If the volunteer had chosen to speak with a wealthy but untrustworthy man, the new man was poor but trustworthy, and vice versa.
Would the volunteers stick with the man they had chosen first, or would they switch to the new man?
The results of the experiment showed that people were more likely to stick with the man they had chosen first, even though in this instance the commitment had lasted little more than a minute or two.
Gunaydin and her colleagues wonder whether people would:
“…still prefer the status quo if they encountered potential partners in the flesh? Future research is needed to address this question.”
They also conclude that their results suggest that mate-choice can’t be considered an entirely rational process, since a rational process would involve weighing the better or most preferred trait more highly, regardless of whether that trait is possessed by a new or established partner. However, they also acknowledge that, across multiple domains, humans hate to lose out more than we love to gain: so called “loss aversion”. Mate-choice may not be special: we prefer the status quo generally.
One upside of this preference may be that it keeps our relationships intact. If we changed our affections every time we met someone who surpassed our partners on one trait, many of our relationships would be very brief indeed.
Unless, of course, we manage to shack up with Ryan Gosling. Back off: I saw him first.