A study of over 7000 people from 14 countries has revealed that poor mating performance is a common phenomenon, with roughly one in four people experiencing difficulty in attracting and retaining intimate partners. While there were no sex differences, there was an effect of age, with singlehood being more common among younger participants. This research was published in Evolutionary Psychology.
“People are born single so singlehood is something that touches everybody. In addition, I have developed evolutionary theories which can potentially explain why so many people face difficulties in finding and keeping mates,” said Menelaos Apostolou, a professor of psychology at the University of Nicosia.
Research on mating performance among individuals who are either willingly or unwillingly single has largely been limited to Chinese and Greek contexts. In this work, Apostolou and colleagues test an evolutionary framework of singlehood while expanding the geographical sample to that of 14 nations.
Contemporary preindustrial societies presented a drastically different mating context than the one we are situated within today. Consider for example that in hunter-gatherer societies, arranged marriage was the common mode of acquiring a long-term partner. Given these societies likely resembled ancestral ones, arranged marriage was presumably the predominant method of long-term mating in the ancestral landscape as well.
Further, historical, anthropological, archeological, and physiological evidence point toward male aggression not only being a mode of acquiring resources, but as well as accessing women.
Now, fast forward to post-industrial societies where humans face the same evolutionary problem of attracting and retaining mates but find themselves in a mating environment in which the adaptations that evolved to solve this very problem may no longer be effective. Mate choice was rather restrictive in the ancestral context, whereas today people face thousands of options through tools such as online dating apps.
While intuitively this may seem like a way of increasing mating opportunities, it often leaves people paralyzed and let down. This makes sense, given that our brains have not evolved to encounter a plethora of mate choices.
A total of 7181 individuals over the age of 18 were recruited from Austria, Brazil, China, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Peru, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, the UK, and Ukraine. Participants responded to a brief measure of mating performance on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). This instrument has previously been associated with domains such as flirting skills, emotional intelligence, and sexual functioning.
Participants reported their relationship status by indicating whether they were between-relationships single, voluntarily single, involuntarily single, in a relationship, married, or “other.”
The researchers found that one third of participants experienced difficulty with intimate relationships, one half endorsed difficulty with starting relationships, and 38% of participants reported difficulty in maintaining a relationship.
These findings varied drastically across cultures. For example, 19% of Chinese participants reported difficulty in starting intimate relationships in contrast to over 60% of Japanese participants. Notably, in most nations, over 40% of participants had trouble with starting intimate relationships, suggesting this might be a widespread issue. One in four participants reported low mating performance.
Around 38% of participants indicated being single, 13% being involuntarily and 15% voluntarily so. This phenomenon also differed significantly cross-culturally. For instance, while 5% of Polish participants reported being involuntarily single, this was the case of roughly 22% of Brazilian participants.
There was an effect of age, with singlehood being more common among younger (vs. older) adults; however, there were no sex differences. Participants who scored poorly on the measure of mating performance were more likely to be single.
“Our brain’s hardware has evolved in a setting where free mate choice was limited, so it may not be able to deal effectively with the challenges of the contemporary context where mate choice is freely exercised. In effect, poor performance in the mating domain is a common issue, and it can frequently lead to long spells of singlehood,” Apostolou told PsyPost.
“Mating performance and singlehood are relatively unexplored topics, and much work lies ahead in order to understand them,” the researcher said. “In general, we need to do more work in understanding the different factors which are associated with poor performance in mating and an increased likelihood of being single. The next step would be to devise ways to address these factors and enable people to improve their mating performance.”
Apostolou added, “In a different research, we have found that how much mating effort people exhibit is a major predictor of singlehood status – people who allocated substantial effort to find and retain mates were much less likely to be single than in an intimate relationship.”
“Yet, people who experience poor mating performance may have several failures in this domain that could discourage them from trying, reducing in effect their mating effort and increasing the probability of remaining single. I would advise people not to give up, as the rewards of being in a good intimate relationship are high, but try instead to work on the factors that impair the mating performance.”
The study, “Mating Performance and Singlehood Across 14 Nations”, was authored by Menelaos Apostolou , Mark Sullman, Béla Birkás, Agata Błachnio, Ekaterina Bushina, Fran Calvo, William Costello, Tanja Dujlovic, Tetiana Hill, Timo Juhani Lajunen, Yanina Lisun, Denisse Manrique-Millones, Oscar Manrique-Pino, Norbert Meskó, Martin Nechtelberger, Yohsuke Ohtsubo, Christian Kenji Ollhoff, Aneta Przepiórka, Ádám Putz, Mariaelena Tagliabue, Burcu Tekeş, Andrew Thomas, Jaroslava Varella Valentova, Marco Antonio Correa Varella, Yan Wang, Paula Wright and Sílvia Font-Mayolas.