Wednesday, February 25, 2009

In which I draw on my knowledge of Evolutionary Psychology to respond to a student journalist

Dear Professor,

I am writing a newspaper article on how views of relationships and dating differs between genders--specifically at BU where there is a higher percentage of males than females. For example, in the College of Communication there females make up 70% of the school.


1) HOW DO VIEWS OF RELATIONSHIPS AND DATING DIFFER BETWEEN GENDERS?

It sounds like you already have some ideas below this, as listed in 2-5. Your questions in 3-5 would be answered "yes" by psychologists who belong to the field called evolutionary psychology (see David Buss' book, The evolution of desire.) However, the evolutionary psychologists note that this is just a yes "on average". Both genders pursue both short and long-term mating strategies.

Note: I can't condone using terms like girls/guys. Everyone is over 18, so let's refer to women and men.

3) DO GUYS (ESPECIALLY YOUNG COLLEGE MEN) PREFER TO DATE MULTIPLE PEOPLE RATHER THAN BE IN A RELATIONSHIP?

The strongest gender difference in mating strategies appears to be men's greater preference for short term partnerships and casual sex. But you specifically mentioned "young college men." There is no evidence that young college men want to date multiple partners more than older men. Young men can fall deeply and monogamously in love, while older men can enjoy having more than one partner. The strongest age-related change for sex/dating appears with women, not men. With maturity, women are more sexually assertive. While a young woman might feel ashamed and chastened to hear her casual sex partner say, "You better not do this often or you'll get a bad reputation" an older women will find such a statement ridiculous.

4) DO YOU THINK THE RATIO OF GIRLS TO BOYS AT BU MAKES IT HARDER FOR GIRLS TO FIND A STEADY BOYFRIEND?

Seems to be the same question as 5.

5) DO YOU THINK THE FACT THAT THERE ARE MORE GUYS THAN GIRLS AT BU LEADS GUYS TO "DATE AROUND" RATHER THAN CHOOSING TO BE IN A STEADY RELATIONSHIP?

Many researchers have noted that a shortfall in desirable men leads women to accept dating terms that are less than than their ideal, where "dating terms" includes exclusivity and prospect of commitment (see Richard Posner's book Sex and Reason). In a fascinating study published in his book Where have all the liberal gone, James Flynn notes that one group of women in the U.S. has a surprising amount of power to bring men to the altar: Hispanic women. Is this just Hispanic family values? Flynn says no,and points to the large surplus in Hispanic men due to greater male immigration from Latin America. In contrast, African American women have limited ability to insist on marriage, because of the vast shortfall of desirable African American males, given under-employment and incarceration of African American males.

If one wants to extrapolate from these studies to unequal sex ratio at BU, then yes, men at BU have the best market terms. If women at BU don't want to accept those terms, they can easily find better market conditions, by dating outside of BU, sticking with BU but dating women.

2) IN A RELATIONSHIP, DO GIRLS BECOME MORE ATTATCHED THAN GUYS?

I answered this question last because it is the most controversial. Certainly, males want females to believe "yes." And... Based on the evolutionary psychology and market views discussed above (both male dominated fields), one would expect that answer to be yes. But while men are more willing to have multiple partners and casual sex than women are, there is no evidence that they are less attached. Men can become obsessively, crushingly infatuated and fixated, as can women. Women can also be aloof, or be in long term relationships where they are the less-in-love partner.

There's a lot more to be said (and researched) about this. I propose that there are no overall gender differences in the ability to become intensely attached, because, from the evolutionary psychology standpoint, both men and women need long-term (i.e., non-casual) mating strategies. Men need to become attached for 2 reasons. If they are low-status, they need to be obsessed in order to take the "love conquers all" risks that either get them killed or get them laid with possibly a baby on the way (and their genes triumphant) even if shooting their wad was the last thing they did. If they are high-status, they need to be obsessed in order to have the emotional energy to mate-guard. Mate-guarding is helpful to ensure paternity certainty and to protect their investment in a high-quality female (and to justify that investment).

Why females become attached is less clear. The evolutionary psychologists argue it is to obtain male resources, including co-parenting effort; that pair-bonded females out-produced single moms because male would provision meat and so on.

To return to what can be our clearest conclusion at present: the strongest difference in dating behavior for young people continues to be young people's susceptibility to societal dictates of what is expected for each gender. Society still has a double standard, in which women are stigmatized for casual sex and males get points for "scoring." With age, these societal views have a weaker effect as individuals gain confidence to pursue the mating strategies that reflect who they genuinely are.

We need more Darwinian feminists... I volunteered to give a talk on "Feminists read Darwin" at my university when a call for talks was passed around; no word back yet on that...

1 comment:

Miss Conduct said...

LOVE the idea of Darwinian feminism! Let's do something about this.