Monday, November 2, 2009

Buying Temperature Bandits

How can there be so many beta males out there, if women thoroughly prefer alpha males? Shouldn't "gotcha" pregnancies following one night stands, the related hesitance of women to "settle" for a lesser man, plus the non-paternity rate take care of things over the long run? 

Evolutionary biologists just published a study on spiders (the awesome looking Latrodectus hasselti, to be precise) that sheds light on an interesting possibility of how beta genes prevail in the game of life.

The researchers were concerned about finding an actual "female decision rule" for sexual selection. This is still rather unexplored territory, and even if a preference is revealed (such as that for male power among female homo sapiens), there is ample struggle for quantifying the observation.

It turns out that female spiders are not that complicated. The male spiders seeking sex just need to make "the cut" of ~100 minutes of courtship (which romantically consists of tedious sound-producing plucking on her web). Males who fail to put in that time happen to get eaten - a phenomenon that some scientists with adolescent humor termed "premature cannibalism". Once past the 100min point, this almost never happens and hot spider sex ensues.

The twist to the story is what happens when another guy crosses the scene. Will the female spider wait another 100min before accepting the approach? Well, as it turns out:

"Females do not distinguish which male satisfies the threshold"

In other words, if one spider fumbled on her web since 50 minutes and gave up, any less strong spider male got the goodies after a mere 10 minutes of courtship. Even more, if the previous guys actually passed the threshold, the intruder got to mate right away!

The researchers termed the phenomenon "courtship parasitism" and defined it as the "exploitation of mating efforts by rival males".

The important part to note is that it is a direct consequence of female decision thresholds, and the lack of a mechanism to attribute that to individuals. As the entomologists note, this "may lead to selection for lower-quality males".

What does that mean for the human mating game?

The first question to answer is whether women possess a similar threshold in their sexual decision rule. This is likely to be the case, since women tend to not initiate sex right away. Some form of courtship is usually involved.

The next question is whether or not women do attribute the courtship to individual males.
Intuitively it seems that women attribute sexual attraction to individuals only, but some empirical observations prove otherwise.

To understand why this is happening on needs to make a distinction between a woman's horny-ness, or "buying temperature" and her "attraction" to a man. It is simple. A woman who is very turned on might be willing to have sex with someone she is not that attracted to.

It thus seems possible, that guys who are rather unattractive to women (given their low social status), can get laid by cannibalizing an alpha male's courtship. Vice versa, any man can save energy by waiting for a woman's buying temperature to go up over the course of a night to jump in once she is close to her decision-making threshold.

If the above mechanism were big in ancient times and really play a role in the establishment of a stable equilibrium between alpha and beta genes, low status guys should have evolved a natural tendency to "recognize and seek out (rather than avoid) situations in which competitors are already present".

Most guys, however, avoid approaching groups where other males are present (the infamous "cockblock"). Yet, being in deep conversation with a woman at a social gathering is no guarantee against hecklers. There seem to be some guys indeed, who specialize in ruining another man's attempt (this happens often enough that guys came up with a large arrays of so-called AMOG tactics to disarm a heckler).

It is likely that heckling guys have a decent amount of success by cannibalizing another men's mating attempt. Repeated success will turn these guys into regular buying temperature bandits (think: Wedding Crashers).

So what can we learn from the spiders?

One one side, it should be easy to use courtship parasitism to your advantage, as most guys do not approach mixed groups, and AMOG tactics are easy to learn. On the other side, it is important to learn how to prevent this from happening to yourself. Quick isolation and some basic knowledge on buying temperature (which works differently from attraction) are more effective than lame attempts at befriending or dominating guys who try to steal your girl.


  1. That's a very cool theory, but I think the simpler explanation is that both "alpha" and "beta" are successful mating strategies. Sure, women are attracted to badboys, but they're also attracted to provider types too, often depending on the phase of the month.

    A complete beta-male may be cuckolded by more attractive alpha males, but chances are he will also get to pass on his genes over the course of a long term relationship.

  2. Don't forget that,according to Steve Moxon,men are "genetic filters." What he means by that is that genes get filtered out of the species largely through the males.

    Now,since beta-making genes on the female side of the equation are not filtered out- females of all types mate more easily than males- beta genes are passed to the next generation through beta-making females.

    And the process repeats itself endlessly.

  3. @ Casual, ovid - you guys both are right, of course. I should have been more clear in stating that if courtship parasitism exists in humans indeed, it is an exception and not the rule.

    The reason there are more beta males than alpha males out there is that females select for both. Biologist call it r- versus K-selection, and evolutionary psychologists refer to it as long vs. short term mating strategies.

    The ratio between alpha and betas is likely to be constant and resembles an evolutionary stable Nash equilibrium, just like the famous Doves vs. Hawk dilemma.

    This having said, I strongly believe that the story doesn't end here.

    During recent years, evolutionary biologists have uncovered several amazing niche phenomena that are part of the equation. Among these are:

    - Intra-female competition: it is not just guys who compete for booty

    - Postcopulatory selection: The mating game doesn't end at copulation

    ... and then there might be things like courtship parasitism.

    While intra-female competition is obvious in our species, and there is some evidence for postcopulatory selection (Sperm Wars), I am leaning far out on the speculative side here in reflecting on human courtship parasitism.

    But, as noted, if it does exist indeed it will have a minimal effect of gene distribution.

  4. i'd say the beta revolution of hipsters is the large scale attempt at this. be there in the aftermath, when she's tired of the alpha male slew of semen in the sense that she no longer really attracts them...not that she no longer desires them.