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Natural history of the present

Mate choice in the lab can teach us about real life and speed-dating encounters

My research group is always looking for subjects for our internet-based studies in which we measure how certain traits enhance or detract from an individual’s attractiveness. And we worry, like other researchers in the field, about whether those measured preferences tell us anything at all about real-life mating decisions. We’re encouraged, today, by a carefully-designed study showing that preferences can tell us quite a lot about the early stages of mate choice.

When asked about the characteristics they most desire in a potential mate, women are more likely than men to emphasise a potential partner’s wealth or ability to acquire resources. And men weight more heavily the importance of a woman’s physical attractiveness.

Findings like this draw criticism for the way they reinforce tired and oppressive stereotypes. But just because a finding is consistent with stereotype does not make it wrong. Stereotypes, after all, come from somewhere. Yes, the relative importance of various attributes varies with time, place, and the ways in which women and men make their livings economically. But the pattern is too strong, and too well replicated, to simply wish away.

At least it was, until evolutionary psychologists started to get their hands on data from modern speed-dating events. In one important 2005 study, both sexes relied almost entirely on physically observable traits: facial attractiveness, body shape, height, age and race. Actual decisions under the frenetic pressure created by speed-dating situations appear not to differ as much as the preferences scientists measure in carefully-controlled laboratory settings.

Some subsequent speed-dating studies found evidence more consistent with documented sex differences in preferences. But others did not. And few of the studies found that the preferences subjects admitted to, or expressed in laboratory tests, predicted much about who those subjects would like or want to see again after a speed-dating event.

Speed-dating events, like weddings, parties, and any invitation-only social event of the type where people used to meet before they had OKCupid, Ashley Maddison and Bang With Friends, are unusual in that only a very limited sub sample of humanity makes the invite list. All sorts of undesirable and invisible types have long since been screened out. So the strongest preferences, the ones by which individuals eliminate not-in-your-wildest-dreams unsuitable candidates never need to be expressed.

In their new paper, Norman P. Li and six collaborators recognise that speed dating events and similar arenas tend to screen out the least desirable candidates. After all, who would want - make that pay - to come to an event that captured an accurate sub-sample of humanity? Where “catches” are outnumbered by the ones you’d be happy to let get away?

In a series of four experiments, they exercised considerable care to present a range of individuals who varied in social status or attractiveness. In one experiment, each subject spent seven minutes chatting online with a confederate of the experimenters. The confederate pretended to be either a high-school graduate working in a fast food restaurant, an undergraduate majoring in business, or a law student about to join a top law firm. Subjects were also shown a picture of the person they were ostensibly chatting to. The picture was actually experimentally assigned, with one third of subjects each seeing an unattractive, moderately attractive or highly attractive photograph.

After the chat session, subjects were asked a number of questions, including whether they would be interested in going on a date with their chat partner. Male subjects placed greater emphasis on the attractiveness of the photograph when making this decision. But women were more swayed by social status. More intriguingly, subjects who had in pre-experiment measures shown a strong preference for status or for attractiveness showed much stronger tendency to be influenced by those traits within the experiment.

Li and his co-authors used a similar experimental approach in two “modified speed dating” trials. In one they went to considerable effort to recruit and present people of high and low socioeconomic status. In the other they sought out a mix of “unattractive and moderately attractive individuals”. How they screened these individuals is one detail I could not find in the methods.

Again, men responded more strongly to attractiveness than women did. And women responded more strongly to status. In both cases, the result was driven largely by the strength with which low attractiveness or low status individuals were rejected. Unattractive women and low status men seemed to be invisible - not even considered as possible mates.

In addition, the strength of these “real-life” choice decisions was associated with the strength of preferences measured under standardised conditions. It seems that experiments, like the ones my students and researchers in countless other groups around the world do, certainly measure something real about the first filters by which we eliminate unsuitable potential mates.

What they can tell us about fine-scale choices among largely-compatible suitors has yet to be as well established.

Dating, as Napoleon Dynamite reminds us, is all about having skills - skills in real life, or chatting online like Napoleon’s brother Kip.

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