Researchers adapt models of foraging strategy to understand how people search for a date

New research published in Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences provides new insights into how people search for a romantic partner. The study suggests that foraging strategy models can be useful for understanding how people search for a potential mate.

“Theoretically speaking, this topic relates to foraging models, which is how all animals (including humans) search their environments, often for food,” said study author Katherine Kolze of Kansas State University. “In this project, people search through a database for a partner to try to determine if the search patterns used when searching for a romantic partner are similar to search patterns used when searching for food.”

In particular, “there is often a tradeoff as one is foraging between exploiting the options in a particular situation, versus exploring other unknown contexts that could possibly have options of even greater value,” the researchers explained.

In the study, 175 university undergraduates completed a mate search task, in which they searched through several collections of dating profiles. After viewing a profile, the participants had the option of looking at more profiles from that collection or moving on to a different collection of profiles.

The researchers found that short-term mating orientation and self-assessed attractiveness were associated with how people searched through the profiles. “More specifically, we found that those people looking for short term relationships and people who were more attractive showed more exploration regarding different profile groups rather than exploitation of profiles within a group,” Kolze explained.

The researchers then conducted a second study, with another 164 university undergraduates, that gave the participants the option to select a profile as their desired relationship partner.

“Study 2 incorporated an option that allowed the participant to stop their search and select a mate. We found that people who were more attractive were more likely to stop searching all together. Overall, this research is important because more and more people are resorting to online platforms to search for partners. My research helps us better understand how people’s traits are involved in how people search for relationship partners,” Kolze told PsyPost.

The researchers also found that some personality traits were associated with particular mating strategies. Participants who scored high on a measure of honesty and humility tended to prefer long-term relationships, while people who scored high on a measure of emotionality tended to prefer short-term relationships.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“One caveat is the university undergraduate sample collected for this study. This raises some concern because university undergraduates are not representative of the entire population, as they do not usually encompass a variety of demographics. One benefit of using this sample is that university undergrads are some of the most likely to use online dating websites or apps,” Kolze said.

“Another caveat is that others rated the people in the profiles as having average attractiveness. Therefore, participants were not gaining any benefit for switching to new collections of profiles. People’s levels of attractiveness can change how people search for partners, thus producing different results, which is why this is important for future research to address.”

“One question that still needs to be addressed is whether people who rank extremely high or low on traits or strategies differ in mate search behavior from those who rank average on traits. For instance, when searching for a partner, do people who exploit an environment have distinguishing characteristics? This may be related individual difference traits and also different environmental contexts like the operational sex ratio and gender equality of a population which could influence mate search strategies,” Kolze added.

“If anyone is interested in this kind of research and would like to find more topics related to it, I recommend they check out Dr. Gary Brase’s lab, which is the research lab I am a part of! Also, one of colleagues who contributed to this publication has a website and you can find her at jordannbrandner.com where she has examples of some of the other projects our lab has worked on.”

The study, “Are mating strategies shaped by foraging strategies? Individual differences associated with search patterns through dating pools“, was authored by Katherine E. Kolze, Gary L. Brase, and Jordann L. Brandner.