According to a new study published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, men who wish to become fathers, or have prior relationship experience, are deemed more desirable as long-term mates.
Female choosiness is a consequence of the high metabolic costs associated with producing female gametes (i.e., ova/eggs). In contrast, men are less limited in their ability to produce sex cells; instead, men’s reproductive success is limited by their ability to “attract mates and fertilize eggs.” There is also gendered asymmetry in parental investment, with women’s parental investment being necessarily more than men’s (i.e., gestation, lactation).
When choosing mates, men more readily attend to observable qualities (e.g., beauty), while women are more interested in a man’s socioeconomic status, parental ability, and resource acquisition potential. These latter qualities signal a man’s ability to protect and provide for his mate and children. It has been suggested that men who have the capacity and willingness to invest in their offspring are at a selective advantage, compared to those who do not.
Given the greater consequences of sex and mate-choice decisions for women, available mate-relevant information at low costs would be highly beneficial and offer an advantage when making decisions. “One possible source of such low-cost information is knowing (and copying) the mate choices of other women,” write study authors Ryan C. Anderson and Michele K. Surbey.
Mate copying involves using information on a potential partner’s relationship history when making a mate-choice decision. Having been chosen for a previous romantic relationship signals that a man had some desirable traits that may be transferred to future relationships. Mate poaching involves the pursuit of and pairing with someone who is currently romantically involved. While the phenomenon shares features with mate copying, it is a distinct process.
A total of 267 heterosexual women under age 40 were recruited from the James Cook University and the wider public. An age limit of 40 was applied given that women older than 40 are more likely to be outside their peak reproductive years; as well, mate copying is a less prevalent phenomenon among older women. Participants provided demographic information (e.g., age, sex, ethnicity), and proceeded to reading 12 different scenarios (8 experimental, and 4 distractor).
Scenarios involved a description of a man who was represented as a silhouette; questions about him (e.g., How desirable as a long-term partner do you imagine ___ to be?) followed the descriptions. The described men in the experimental scenarios differed in their relationship experience (i.e., currently in a relationship, positive former partner, formerly partnered, no former partner), and intentions to have children (i.e., would like to be a father one day, does not wish to have any children).
Scenarios appeared in random order, and participants were instructed to respond to questions as though they were single, to limit potential discomfort in case they were romantically involved at the time of the study.
The authors write, “A propensity to mate copy was indicated if a participant evaluated currently single men with a relationship experience higher on this dimension than men who had never been in a relationship. A propensity to mate poach was indicated if a participant evaluated currently partnered men higher on this dimension.”
Anderson and Surbey found that men who had intentions to become fathers were considered as more romantically desirable than men who did not. Further, men without prior relationship experience were less desired compared to men with relationship experience, suggesting some conditions facilitate mate copying among women. As well, women evaluated men as more desirable when positive mate-relevant information was provided by a former partner (e.g., “his most recent ex-partner speaks highly of him as a romantic partner”).
The authors added, “Although men who expressed a desire to have children were generally considered more desirable than those who did not, if a man did not want children, he could still be considered desirable if his previous partner spoke highly of him.”
A potential limitation to this work is that men were presented as silhouettes, with images cropped in profile format, limiting their physical visibility. Prior research suggests that physically stronger men are rated as more attractive. This makes sense, as muscularity can signal genetic quality as well as a man’s capacity to protect his children. Thus, limiting this visual information could have influenced participants’ perceptions of the target men’s paternal ability. The authors note, “Future studies may wish to consider presenting ‘more comprehensive’ stimuli in an effort to account for this variable.”
The study, “Call Me Daddy: How Long‑term Desirability Is Influenced by Intention for Fatherhood”, was authored by Ryan C. Anderson and Michele K. Surbey.