The "Science" Of Dating Still Kind Of Sucks

The biggest problem I have with scientific studies of dating and mating behaviors is that the studies are often rooted in pretty sexist assumptions about evolution or interpreted in such a way to reinforce existing sexist societal stereotypes.

An example is this new study from the University of Pittsburgh about muscle-bound men by evolutionary psychologist William Lassek.

Many other studies have shown that women tend to prefer more toned men, and muscle-bound men tend to have more sexual partners than slender men, when other factors are controlled for.

How exactly might evolutionary scientists control for "other factors," like the fact that women are socially conditioned to find muscle-y men attractive? Oh, right. They can't. But a study purporting to show that there is evolutionary evidence for that ought to at least try to tease out the difference between women's supposed evolutionary tendencies — which, if true, should have left us with an over-proportion of Vin Diesels and an underproportion of Justin Longs but hasn't — and women's potential socialization toward a particular body type.

And then there's this study from Indiana University's Heather Rupp which will likely be cited as evidence that women are evolutionarily-inclined against mate-shopping when they have one.

In the study, women both with and without sexual partners showed little difference in their subjective ratings of photos of men when considering such measures as masculinity and attractiveness. However, the women who did not have sexual partners spent more time evaluating photos of men, demonstrating a greater interest in the photos.

No such difference was found between men who had sexual partners and those who did not. "These findings may reflect sex differences in reproductive strategies that may act early in the cognitive processing of potential partners and contribute to sex differences in sexual attraction and behavior," said Rupp, assistant scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender and Reproduction.

Again: socialization is quite difficult to tease out from evolutionary impulses. We're all socialized to believe that women want a mate to take care of their offspring ("be faithful") and men want to maximize the genetic differentiation of their offspring ("play the field"), so it is impossible to tell whether a woman's wandering eye is innate or a result of years of socialization that we ought not to have one.

One study, however, attempts to actually disprove these stereotypes. Scientists at Northwestern University have found that, stereotypes about picky women and indiscriminate men to the contrary, women are equally indiscriminate when they have to do the choosing.

Three hundred fifty undergraduates were recruited for the study's speed-dating events. In half of the events, the men rotated while the women sat. In the remaining events, the women rotated. Following each four-minute "date," the participants indicated their romantic desire in that partner and how self-confident they felt. Following the event, the students indicated on a Website whether they would or would not be interested in seeing each partner again.

When the men rotated, the results supported the long-held notion of men being less selective. When the women rotated, this robust sex difference disappeared.

The study draws upon embodiment research that suggests that physical actions alter perception.

In other words, when the scientists structured the experiment to reflect existing social norms (men approaching women), their results conformed with existing social expectations (picky women). When they deliberately, but subtly, changed their approach, their results not longer reflected those social norms. What did the scientists have to say about that?

"Our society is structured in gendered ways that can be subtle but very powerful," Eastwick concluded.

And our experiments about society, gender, relationships and evolution, furthermore, need to be a lot more subtle and a lot more thoughtful about taking that structure into account if they're going to be powerful.

Hunks Get More Sex, But There's A Price To Pay [New Scientist]
Sexual Partner Status Affects A Woman's, But Not A Man's, Interest In The Opposite Sex [Science Daily]
Women May Not Be So Picky After All About Choosing A Mate [EurekAlert]

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