All about the girl: the mating game and how (not) to win it

A guy walks into a cafe … but what happens next depends on strategy. nathancolquhoun/Flickr

Long before men asked themselves “What’s the meaning of life?”, they were scratching their heads and wondering “How do I get the girl?”

And it’s not just humans who have been consumed with this question. Working out how to get the girl has been top priority for our animal relatives all the way down the tree of life.

But if everyone is asking the same question, are they all getting the same answer? Are there simple rules in the mating game? Or is something more complex happening – are males tailoring their sexual strategy in subtle ways?

Sexual selection

Wherever sexual reproduction occurs in the natural world, competition for mates is never far behind. That’s because every individual has one mother and one father – assuming there is a balanced sex ratio this means that, for every male that successfully mates with more than one female, there will be another male that misses out.

This highly competitive sexual environment, where males try to out-do each other for the attentions of females, has led to some of the most extraordinary, beautiful and bizarre character traits seen in nature.

The meticulously tended blue nests of bower birds, the colourful tail-fins of male guppies and branch-like antlers on deer are all the result of males competing for sexual advantage.

Strategy

While the best strategy in mating is probably “be as attractive as you can be”, there will always be variation in male traits (e.g. differences in strength or colour) that mean not everyone can be the “best”.

In which case, males may need to employ different strategies that allow them to do the make the most of what they have. But how can they decide what this strategy will be?

For the answer, we need only to think of a typical night out at a bar. If every male plays the same “strategy”, then they might all approach the same girl with the exact same pick-up line (admittedly, this may not be too far from the truth in some cases!).

At best one man might successfully get the woman’s number, while the rest would fail in their attempt.

It’s not the case that the strategy the other men used was inherently bad – only that in competition with identical strategies it failed miserably.

Game theory

If this all sounds like a meat-market, it pretty well is. That’s because a lot of reproductive behaviour follows the economic principles of game theory.

Developed by John Nash, this theory shows us that the success of any one strategy can only be measured in relation to the competing strategies, and that the best solutions for the whole group come about when every “player” does what’s best for them.

Courtship

My research examines whether animals in nature follow the principles of game theory in their reproductive behaviour to determine what constitutes a “good” strategy for male reproductive success.

Using tropical fish species on the reefs and in African lakes, I study how male courtship behaviour is influenced by social and competitive environments. In doing so, I’ve found the following:

1) Factors such as the availability of potential mates and the strategies used by competing males can make males modify their tactics.

2) The success of males seeking to avoid competition, or to only court the most attractive females, is highly dependent on what other males are doing.

Males also take into account their recent experiences with females.

When males have recently mated with one female, they show extremely high reproductive effort in subsequent encounters – effectively chatting up every girl in the bar.

Males that have recently mated with many females are far more discerning about their reproductive strategy, reducing their overall effort and preferring to court only the most attractive females.

All of the above can also depend on the reactions of the females, which have been shown to change according to their social experiences.

The final score

It seems there’s not a single “best” strategy for males, but rather multiple strategies that are “best” only in relation to the wider social context.

So if you’ve read this far to find out the answer to the question “how do I get the girl”?, well, I’m sorry to say, that all depends …

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