So you’re a 20-something woman out at a bar. As it happens you’re currently single and kind of interested in meeting guys to possibly date. At this club there are 2 men, of similar physical attractiveness, who have caught your eye. Man A) is sitting in the corner alone, but man B) is talking with a really attractive woman who seems to be his ex-girlfriend. Are you more attracted to man A) or man B)?
On the topic of human relationships, the famous Czech writer Milan Kundera mused, “[it is] one of life’s great secrets: women don’t look for handsome men, they look for men with beautiful women.”1
In the absence of any other information, humans tend to estimate the value of something by being aware of the demand for it. This is basic economics. Mate copying is the idea that an individual’s decision to mate or form a relationship with a potential partner is impacted by a direct observation of that person in a relationship with another, or knowledge of their romantic history. In the above scenario, the desirability advantage man B) has over man A) is that he has been ‘road-tested’, and confirmed as a suitable partner (he has had or does have a girlfriend).
Mate copying can be thought of as purchasing a product after having seen someone use it. Seeing Michael with his girlfriend Jane tends to elevate Michael’s standing in the eyes of potential mates; he has at least something going for him that appeals to women (Jane has chosen to romantically associate with him). In a sense he has been pre-approved/pre-selected, or endorsed already. Michael is sought after, and hence valuable.
For a long time it was assumed that mate-choices were made independently.2 In the last two decades an abundance of empirical literature has emerged challenging this idea. It is now widely accepted that among both humans and non-humans, mate copying (mimicking the mate preferences of same-sex others) is exceedingly common. Although the phenomenon was originally documented (extensively) among non-humans,3 there have been a great many studies focusing specifically on the occurrence of mate copying among humans, with the weight of empirical evidence strongly supporting its existence.
Women (and men) have been shown to consciously modify their decisions about who to partner based on knowing the preferences of other people, but sometimes their behavior is unconscious. An article recently appearing in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences4 explored the prevalence of copulatory orgasms among partnered women. The authors had 439 college-aged women (mean age = 21.1 years) complete a self-report questionnaire concerning their current relationship. All participants were heterosexual and were currently in a ‘committed’ relationship (mean duration = 26.6 months). They indicated how physically, and sexually attractive they thought their partner was, but also, how physically, and sexually attractive other women found their partner to be. Additionally, participants indicated whether they experienced an orgasm in the most recent episode of sexual intercourse with their romantic partner (definitely/definitely not/not sure/can’t remember), and their level of emotional, as well as overall satisfaction with their current relationship.
Unsurprisingly, results were strongly supportive of the idea that women who rate their partners as attractive are more likely to report experiencing an orgasm than women who rate their partners as unattractive. This finding is consistent with previous research5 suggesting that female orgasm may promote sperm retention. Essentially, genetically combining with a genetically superior male will help to ensure that your offspring will be genetically superior. One way women can ‘choose’ who they want as the biological of their children is by retaining good sperm (from genetically superior men) through orgasm.
Women who thought other women regarded their partner to be attractive were more likely to experience an orgasm. What is interesting here is that this relationship holds even after other variables (eg. partner attractiveness) are statistically controlled for. In other words, even when all men are treated as being equally attractive, the ones that are perceived as being liked by other women are more likely to give their partner an orgasm. The authors were able to demonstrate that perception of other women’s assessment of partner’s attractiveness uniquely predicted likelihood of orgasm.
One possible explanation for the findings, explored by the authors, is the phenomenon of mate copying. Mate copying is largely about ‘preferring’ a man that’s desired by other women to one that isn’t. Women may be partially determining the attractiveness of their mate based on whether or not other women find him attractive. In other words, if other women think he is a good mate, then his stock rises dramatically. “If he is good enough for her, he is good enough for me”.
Ryan Anderson has completed Bachelor degrees in Science, and Psychology (honours). He is currently completing his Ph.D candidature in Psychology, and recently began a blog exploring the science behind love, sex, and attraction. He also writes for PsychologyToday.
1Kundera M. 1978. The book of laughter and forgetting. London: Penguin, 1980.
2Dugatkin, L. A., & Godin, J. G. J. (1993). Female mate copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata): age-dependent effects. Behavioral Ecology, 4, 289-292.
3Vakiritzis, A. (2011). Mate choice copying and nonindependent mate choice: a critical review. Annales Zoologici Fennici, 48(2), 91-107. Finnish Zoological and Botanical Publishing, 2011.
4Sela, Y., Weekes-Shackelford, V. A., Shackelford, K., & Pham, M. N. (2015). Female copulatory orgasm and male partner’s attractiveness to his partner and other women. Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, 79, 152-156.
5Thornhill, R., Gangestad, S. W., & Comer, R. (1995). Human female orgasm and mate fluctuating asymmetry. Animal Behaviour, 50(6), 1601-1615.
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