Thursday, February 25, 2010

Is Evolutionary Psychology an Ideology?

I get increasingly worried about a tendency on some of blogs related to modern gender roles, dating and sexual dynamics to bash Evolutionary Psychology. We are talking about the dismissal of a whole academic discipline here. Worse than that, the arguments are not just mostly based on intuition and moral upheaval, but take on an anti-scientific slant in general.

Studying human behavior in a biological framework never had it easy. The first attempt at doing so was Darwin's controversial "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex", in which he, fittingly, introduced the paradigm of sexual selection. You all know the reaction at the time.

Not unsurprisingly, then, it took almost a full century before someone attempted to study behavior inside the framework of biology. It was an Austrian scientist called Konrad Lorenz, who became most influential in demonstrating how evolution has not shaped body forms, but also behavior. Despite his huge successes in studying instinctive behavior, he was not an uncontroversial persona as he got accused of using his scientific authority for political purposes (I have blogged about this before). Lorenz was actually rather careful in making claims about human instinct (although he made some great points about cuteness). He had a disciple, who went on to extend Lorenz studies towards humans. He went all over the world and managed to collect a tremendous database of film about the gestures and lives of indigenous tribes that often just had gotten in contact with Westerners, but he is not well known outside of Germany.

Shamed twice, it took another quarter decade until someone dared to publicly advocate evolutionary roots of human behavior. E.O. Wilson, an ant specialist, writer and famed conversationist published a book called "Sociobiology", and in the wake of it become the "only scientist in modern times to be physically attacked for an idea" (a member of the International Committee Against Racism poured a pitcher of water over his head at a science conference in 1978 to protest the book). The controversy nixed "sociobiology", and the only way to continue these studies was to rename it. This is how Evolutionary Psychology was born.

What we are witnessing now is the next wave of the same old fight between scientists and the widespread refusal of accepting some of the harsh realities that stem from evolutionary theory, in particular where biology seems to set limitations to our intuitive idea of a "free mind" (see evolutionary theory and the political left). Accordingly, it is often among the humanities' part of campus where people joke that "Evolutionary psychology is the department where old professors come up with justification for having sex with their students."

So is Evolutionary Psychology an ideology, a movement even?

The short answer is: No.

The causation goes the other way round. Evolutionary Psychology does not cause anything, it explains what people measure, regardless whether they believe in evolution or not.

Evolutionary Psychology does not suggests any of the things I post on this blog such as:
- Women cheat at least as much as men, and are inherently promiscuous (and on average, more so than men)

- Women prefer sex with promiscuous men

- Men, however, prefer to commit to sexually inexperienced women (esp. so, intelligent men)
(Which, taken together, explains why we have the stud/slut standard in society and always will, no matter how much people try to fight it.)

These are truths in the sense of statistical facts. They stand whether or not one believes in Evolutionary Psychology. All the latter does is add explanatory power.

Now, this does not mean that Evolutionary Psychology is without problems. I have blogged about its danger of coming up with just-do stories before. There is also the problem of using EvoPsych explanations to justify behavior (it is called naturalistic fallacy in moral reasoning). But none of that invalidates Evolutionary Psychology as a scientific discipline. The potential for abuse does not take anything from the powerful insights we have gained thanks to this kind of research.

Whether you like the revelations that come in the wake of studying human nature or not, closing your eyes to these realities won't help. Mankind has often tried to suppress our primordial urges, and thousands, if not millions of people have paid a price for that. If we want to succeed in our common pursuit for happiness we will fare best by taking a good look at ourselves, including the spots that we deem less pretty than others, and start manufacturing a system that works given these constraints (especially now that we have lost a system that had worked rather well throughout centuries).
It is time to accept ourselves as what we are.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Shaming Men

Why is it that the media is full of shaming stories about cheating husbands, and there is little coverage about cheating wives?

One thing we can rule out right away: The myth of the ever cheating male. 

Women cheat at least as much as men (in fact it is female infidelity that defines the rate of cheating for biologists since it provides the only measurable result - cuckold offspring).

So why do we need to see a man like Tiger Woods on his knees? Why is there so much outrage about Clinton, Duchovnik, Edwards, Letterman, Spitzer (the list is endless), and we hardly ever hear of a woman cheating on her man?

1) Is it because men are in the majority of high societal positions?
Well, it is true. Despite women now being the majority of the work force, the top of the Fortune 500 CEOs are still male. Likewise, most politicians are still male.

But when it comes to sports and entertainment, all bets are off. There are equal amounts (if not more) of female athletes, news anchors, pop stars and actors. And since it is not just politicians but celebrities of all kind that get ostracized for extramarital bliss this just can't be it.

2) Is it because women are better at covering up their tracks?
If you read Roosh V and roissy's V-Day posts on how to cheat, you might have picked up on their struggle with bad conscience. They advise men not to act out on those feelings, as women get suspicious if they suddenly get showered with affection and presents. Guys get caught by being too loving, out of regret.

From my limited experience, I feel like that things are different for women. Cheating girls don't seem to have any bad conscience at all (other men with experience share that assessment). Instead, they tend to  produce a reason for their morally questionable act. And by not even feeling bad, women certainly manage to avoid one of the pitfalls for men - the tell of bad conscience.
Scientific studies on that subject support the notion that women are better than men at hiding their infidelities. The explanation for that discrepancy is that the consequences of getting caught are way worse for a pregnant woman than for a providing man who went for a night of strange. For the same reason men are better at detecting an affair.

If we assume that men are losing this evolutionary arms race between the genders, the female ability to be sexually cunning might well be one of the reasons for why we see more apologetic husbands on our evening TVs than sobbing wives. Yet, we all know men who found out that they got betrayed by their significant others (count me in). It is not like men are just to stupid to catch on. No. The lack of reports on female infidelity in the media simply doesn't seem to match the frequency of private revelations. There must be something else at work.

3) Is it because women do not get shamed?
Have you ever wondered how it happened that women can openly bitch about their classic gender roles, their husbands, the low quality of lowers, the inability of men to commit and so on and so forth, end up being called "feminists"?
Yet, if men are complaining about their gender roles, their spouses and the declining quality of potential mates due to an explosion of hypergamous sexual escapades during their most attractive period, they get branded "misogynists".

Our society has different standards when it comes to sex and genders. And part of that is that philandering men get shamed ("His poor wife") while cheating women get pitied ("He must be a terrible husband"). So, no matter who initiated the affair, women tend to get victimized while men get the blame (another, related, reason why we might hear less about cheating wives that comes with that is that men get shamed as "unable to satisfy her" if they were the victims of infidelity).

This moral norm held up against married men made sense in a society where women needed protection and reliance on a man's vow. What we have forgotten is that there also were norms for women that counter balanced this demand on men.

My father once told me a story that when he grew up brides were supposed to wear a ring of flowers in their hair. Tradition demanded that if anyone in the church knew that the bride was not a virgin, they had to step forward, take the flowers of her hair "and rip it apart", as my father said. This seems shocking, even laughable to us now. Yet, most men, if given the choice, would prefer their wife to be a virgin. Very few men pride themselves in the fact that women nowadays routinely out-do men in terms of notches on the belt by the time of marriage (which, btw significantly increases the likelihood of her cheating at some point during the marriage).

When it comes to casual sex, many people proclaim that we live with a double standard: promiscuous men are studs while promiscuous females are sluts. For that being a double standard (rather than a different standard), however, you need to assume a given which is not: gender equality.

There is no argument for anyone with scientific education - the two genders are different. They differ in both their physical and mental bauplan. And one of the differences between men and women is that women find promiscuous men sexy while men do not feel the same about promiscuous women (hence sluts and studs).

Likewise, jealousy is a handled differently across genders. On a practical level, in front of the law, there is no equality (see this). But aside from the sexist societal realities, we are also hardwired  differently. Women tend to forgive even multiple occasions of infidelity while men are know to kill when finding out about the betrayal (see this post about how most men prefer to be raped over a cheating spouse).

For women and men, jealousy is a different emotion altogether: Studies reveal that women fear the loss of their providing man (because he might fall for the person he has an affair with), while men go bananas at the idea of another man's penis (and semen) getting inside the woman he cares for.

A woman loses no resources if the guy fucks someone else and stays. But if the woman fucks someone else and stays, the guy might lose his chance at having kids of his own, plus a whole lot of money. No wonder then, that suffer more from infidelity.
But if men suffer more from infidelity, shouldn't the societal standard be that women get punished more?

As traditional marriage is about to die, does our society still gain from shaming philandering men? Psychologist Roy Baumeister (the guy who wrote the fantastic essay "Is there anything good about men?") argues we don't. Hew wrote in an excellent blog entry posted at Psychology Today:
"My thesis is that the American people and their chances for good government are the ones most harmed by these scandals. ... As a social scientist, I think all we can say is that it is likely to continue happening, especially among politicians, and that whether someone does it or not - likewise whether he gets caught or not - is a poor basis for judging someone's ability to perform the duties of an elected official."

But even if people other than politicians are concerned one has to ask, what do we (still) gain as a society from shaming men for straying while sympathizing with adulteresses? Why is it that people watch this public witch hunting at all?

For men, I believe that the main driving force for men is jealousy. Many men want "it all" - the loving wife (the kid even), plus an endless stream of young buxom women. But society doesn't allow for that. Most men who follow the societal code will have to chose. Says Baumeister:
"The bride may be utterly beautiful and sexy and desirable, and perhaps he thinks he can desire only her forever. But then what happens? She ages, gains weight, maybe loses interest in sex. ... The option of having a bit of extra sex and remaining with his family is perhaps not available to him, though that might be what he most wants. Society does not approve. His wife may not tolerate. The law requires him to choose."

If a man, trapped in this way, decides to live according to the societal code of "love over lust", he will feel like a moron if others just do what they want keeping a harem of more than a dozen beautiful women while also having a loving knockout wife. The only way to handle that cognitive dissonance is to treat the offending guy like a pathological criminal.

For women, I the driving force may be different. It is more emotional. Almost romantic. The idea of the uber-alpha male becoming a loving and caring provider for The Chosen One is what fills shelves after shelves at Barnes and Nobles.

And for women, Tiger Wood was granted tremendously high social status - even by their very own husband - they followed each of the guy's movement religiously as he literally did nothing else but hit tiny white balls with a stick!
And now that there is proof that other, very attractive, women went all out for the guy, he is even more sexy (see this recent cover of Vanity Fair).

Women are taken by the teary eyed apology of this guy. They secretly fantasize it is them he apologizes to (and why would he apologize to us? isn't it just something he should do to his wife?). It is no wonder then that "Amy Reynolds, of Nike, cried through the speech."
Tears. Just one of the ways of how alphas get women wet.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Testosterone does not what you think it does

During the past couple of days I enjoyed this video series of a fascinating, yet funny lecture on primate sexuality by Robert Sapolsky.

Technically, Sapolsky is an neuroendocrinologist (i.e. studying the link between brain activity and hormones), but he is even better known for his primatological work since he wrote a popular (and highly recommened) book of his life among baboons.

Interestingly enough (given the context of this blog), he studied the hormonal difference between alpha males and subordinates.

There is plenty of interesting stuff in this lecture (I will deliberately not go into his emphasis on the human specialty of mixing aggression and sexual arousal - just listen to it yourself), but one in particular sticks out: when it comes to testosterone, common opinion might have it all backwards.

As an example - let's assume the cartoonish extreme of two kinds of men:
One type of men is only interested in short term mating (think: one night stands), thus avoiding commitment and child rearing activities. Let's call them Lovers.
The other kind has a preference for long term relationships and family life. Let's call them Providers.
Which of these groups do you think has higher levels of testosterone?

Interestingly, the answer is not that simple. In monogamous species, it actually is the latter who is flushed in testosterone. This is not true for promiscuous mammals. But according to Sapolsky no one knows as of now where humans belong in that spectrum.

This is fascinating. There are studies that prove that married men have lower levels of serum testosterone than bachelors. If one assumes that the bachelors of equal age are single by choice and able to enjoy their freedom, the idea fits the assumption that humans are just like the promiscuous species, with the most promiscuous individuals having high testosterone.

Yet, the same study also demonstrated that "married men who are considered aloof spouses and provide minimal parenting", in particular men with more than one wife had even lower levels of testosterone. To be fair, while there is consensus that committed men have lower testosterone, there are other studies that completely contradict the harem result

But given its consistency, the fact that committed men have lower testosterone is worth further consideration.

One explanation is that they are the "natural betas" (or low status specialists as Johnstone would call them). This would sit well with the picture that biologists got from promiscuous species. 

In this theoretical framework, low testosterone males might give up on sexual variety in order to increase their paternity certainty - by watching over the female, thus keeping her from copulating with others the possibility of sperm competition can be decreased. Scientists call this phenomenon "mate-guarding" and it has been demonstrated to occur in primates when "males are unable to monopolize multiple females at one time" (i.e they are not alpha males). 

Sapolsky also hints at the fact that unlike other primates, women do not show any obvious signs of peak fertility ("hidden ovulation"). 

This mechanism disables the targeted mate-guarding observed among apes: 
Chimpanzee beta males stay with their females for a few days and part again once the obvious signs of ovulation have passed
In contrast, romantic relationships among humans seem to last about four years on average. Some people believe that it is not a coincidence that this corresponds to the time it takes to rear a baby to autonomy (Sapolsky calls it the "inter-birth interval"). 

[Note, however, that there is some interesting new evidence suggests that there is no such thing as hidden ovulation for us humans.]

There is good evidence that humans are rather polygamous. To quote Sapolsky:
"What you wind up seeing in about 90% of human societies the dominant mode is a monogamous marriage [system], despite fact that a lot of these are polygamous societies ... What the genetic studies suggest is that anywhere from %- 40% of kids in Westernized societies are not the offspring of the man who believes he is there father. Those numbers are fairly consistent" 

Sapolsky refers to the "social monogamy" that characterizes humans despite the hard scientific evidence to the contrary (the "genetic [trace of] polygamy"). 

Citing from David Barash and his wife's(!) book "The Myth of Monogamy", he goes on:
"Social monogamy is the whole societal sing and dance about how monogamy exists and how great it is and that it is one of the things that our society loves, and at the same time there is lots and lots of cases where there is no genetic monogamy. ... The conflict between those two is the driving force between at least three quarters of movie plots out there."

But, there is another important factor that correlates with a man's testosterone (which affects the finding that married men have less T). Sapolsky quotes some studies which found that:
Men with a more active sex life have higher levels of serum testosterone.
 [Although it has to be noted that these results are not entirely conclusive; see this and this for example].

Again, this might seems to nicely fit the idea that there are some high testosterone alpha guys out there who bang chicks left and right while the low testosterone betas stick to the mate guarding strategy. After all, we all know the jokes how marriage (and especially kids) kill a man's sex life. But, of course in reality things are not that simple. The comparisons do not really make sense. One cannot divide men into Lovers and Providers based on their marital status alone. To quote from the roissysphere: "In aggregate, of course, married men get more sex than unmarried men do. But that's because the latter category is dragged down by men who are unattractive or uninterested in women."

The interesting story that Sapolsky is getting at, however, is that when it comes to what testosterone does to men the causality may be reversed.

He recounts a story about a paper in Nature written by an anonymous author. This is astonishing as a paper in Nature literally makes a man's career in science. Doing all the work without claiming any credits shows quite an admirable motivation (to be fair, Sapolsky admits that the identity of the author is well known within the field).

The reason why the author preferred to stay anonymous is intriguing: 

"The anonymous scientist had been living and working for weeks at a time on a remote island; no women were on hand to distract him ... He soon noticed an intriguing phenomenon: his beard was growing less rapidly than normal." He knew that the rate of beard growth depended on serum testosterone. So he decided to weigh the remains of his daily shaves and compared the difference over days. 

And what he found was that his beard would start growing more rapidly as he expected to come home to his lover, and declined after the deed was done. In other words, sex (or the prospect of it) triggers testosterone and not the other way round.
"Males have high levels of testosterone because they are having lots of sex!"

Sapolsky cites more studies making similar points, and even predicts what has has been confirmed by a recent study that was all over the news: 
High testosterone does not lead to increased violence. Increased violence leads to higher testosterone.

Whether or not Sapolsky is right (note my caveats and concerns), the lectures are great to watch. I think it was him who once started an after dinner talk with a slide showing a cartoon depicting a missionary inside a big boiling pot of water, surrounded by what seems to be wild cannibals. The caption went:
"Guys, you have to believe me - I am actually a great after dinner speaker!"

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beauty is NOT in the Eye of the Beholder

If you followed my series on how women are all the same when it gets to decide on which men are attractive or not, you might have picked up that there were several paragraphs where I eliminated the gender barrier and included men. I had planned to extend this into a whole nother post, but Alibiades beat me to it.

The issue at hand is that women are less concerned about the physical beauty of their partners as men.

Instead, women select men by a conglomerate of features that I like to summarize as "high status" (which is best described as "a dominant way of doing things"; read more about what I mean here). And since status is attributed in a hierarchical fashion, there are few men in each population that are deemed desirable to women.

Speed dating data reveals (accordingly) that the desirability of men falls of nearly exponentially over the population (which directly mirrors the relationship between rank and copulation rate in other primates).

What this means is that if you plot desirability on the y-axis against the number of men in the population it will look like the graph on the left: the farther you go away from the most attractive guy, the quicker the decline in desirability.

So women all swoon for the same few guys (as a group they are highly likely to have sexual events with the same few men - see: this study on sexual networks).

But what about men? If they go for "beauty" - isn't that a rather subjective measure? If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn't there a chance that different men will go for different females?

Well, as it turns out this is not the case.

Scientists have been fascinated with the study of facial beauty since decades, and if there is one thing that pops out it is how much we all agree on who is hot or not.

To quote from a large scale meta-analysis of dozens of academic papers on the subject:
"Raters agree about who is and is not attractive, both within and across cultures; [and] attractive [individuals] are judged more positively than unattractive children and adults."

So we do not only agree on who is more attractive, we also think they are better people. this was studied in greater depth by another meta-analysis:
"Physically attractive people were perceived as more sociable, dominant, sexually warm, mentally healthy, intelligent, and socially skilled than physically unattractive people."

We do make judgments about the personality of people just based on their looks? Oh yes we do. Is this just another cognitive bias? You betcha:
"The correlational literature indicated generally trivial relationships between physical attractiveness and measures of personality and mental ability"

Note that it is true that more beautiful individuals differ from the rest of the mere mortals:

"good-looking people were less lonely, less socially anxious, more popular, more socially skilled, and more sexually experienced than unattractive people."
No wonder given how other people react to them (presumably since childhood).

Now, what is it that makes a woman beautiful?

Again, there is a multitude of studies on the subject, all converging to the following cross-study summary:
"The "ideal" face has an average profile with slightly protrusive and full lips. Attractiveness increases with average features and symmetry. Moreover, particular features such as the scheme of childlike characteristics combined with aspects of maturity and expression make a female face appear especially beautiful."

Aha. We like the average girl the best. This makes sense to a biologist. The more you deviate from the norm, the more likely there is something severely wrong with you. And what men want is healthy (and trustworthy) fruit bearers.

What I find more interesting, however, is that beauty is unlikely to fall off exponentially over the population. It is much more likely that it follows a bell curve ("Gaussian") distribution.

In other words, there will be many girls with average attractiveness, and a few of stellar beauty (as well as of unbelievable ugliness). If you plot beauty (on the x-axis) against the number of girls in the population, it would look like the graph on the left.

The result is that there is a much less steep follow-off from the most desirable women towards the ones that nobody wants to touch (an S-shaped cummulative Gaussian rather than an exponential decay). This is one of the reasons why men seem "less selective" in finding mates than women.
Wait a minute! You might say, what about men? Don't these studies investigate beauty across gender?

Well, believe it or not: women do not care about what a man looks like. As stated above, women do not select men for their beauty. they select them for how they do things. If a woman cannot see this attribute of a guy, she is left with a guess (as to who would be attractive or not). And different women will guess differently. For scientists who are trying to unravel what makes men handsome, this expresses itself in the following result:
"Which attributes contribute to attractiveness of a man's face are controversial."

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Stay Alpha, bro'

The question of what is alpha or what is beta is an ill posed one.

Yes, there are alpha males among mankind. And, yes, there are things they commonly do or traits they share. But none of them, by themselves, is neither alpha, nor beta nor iota. They are but empty shells.

A man can posses high or low social status, and expresses it accordingly.
Status is something you do. But it is more about how you do things than what you do.

[edit: For those of you unfamiliar with my definition of social status, please read this first. I am not talking about socioeconomic status. In my primatologist-biased view social status is equal to dominant behavior.]

There are many different ways to achieve high social status, and any of them would not have the same effect if acted out by an individual who does not consider himself top dog. The actions themselves don't count. It is the whole of what a man represents that affects whether something is alpha or beta.

Say, someone is holding open a door for someone behind. Imagine this person is the room cleaner and he hold the door open for the CEO of the company. The room cleaner smiles respectfully and waits patiently until the CEO has walked up and passed the door. What do you see? It is obvious:
If you are a low status guy, holding open a door will be an obedient, serving, submissive gesture. You give a gift of your own effort to someone you deem of higher social status.

Imagine now, the person holding open the door is the CEO of a big company and the person supposed to walk through is one of his assistants. The door seems to lead into the assistant's office. The CEO might have a "serious talk" with him in there. The CEO has impatient look on his face, and the assistant rushes to make it through the door so the CEO can close it behind him. You see the difference?
If you are a high status guy the very same gesture can be interpreted as a gesture of dominance.

It is not the gesture itself that defines the social hierarchy. The dominance/submission relationship between humans (and even objects) is not defined by something simple as a set of acts (or lack thereof). Rather, we sort out who is on top of whom by taking into account as much circumstantial evidence as we can.

If a man wants to climb up the ladder of social hierarchy there is much he needs to learn.

But simply trying to act like a high status guy will not just fail but have the opposite effect as long as it is incongruous with the rest. An artificially created domineering posture gives away more about a guy's insecurities than the lower status body language that comes natural to him. This is why women cringe when they see "strong men" at bars. This is why everything falls into place once one is "in state".

The most important step for a man to gain high status is to change his own mindset. If you do not feel like you are "up there", all your attempts at pretending will easily be seen through.

[So how do you get up there? By attempting to do so. It is a painful but necessary process.]

The worst this misunderstanding about "what is alpha" can lead to is excessive obsessing about "masculinity". It is just like small dick complex - if you feel confident in what you have you never even think about the issue.

It is especially wrong and detrimental to believe that alpha males are nothing but sociopathic, Machiavellian narcissists. While these are male traits that certainly help to quickly establish high social status, it is but one way to get there (and with anything but guaranteed success).

Machos are not equal to alpha males.

Since we are using biological terminology when referring to alpha males, it does make sense to listen to what scientists have to say on the issue. The idea that humans follow the same sexual patterns as other primates is plausible, but if so, it follows that we also share the way we deem individuals "alpha" or not.

I have blogged about this topic before. I based my musings on the following quote by leading primatologist Frans de Waal:
"There are basically two sorts of alpha males. There are males who are physically so strong and hyper-aggressive, they become sort of like dictators. ... And then there’s a completely different situation, where you have males who are much smaller than the other males, but who are nevertheless the alpha males, because they are diplomatic, and they know how to make friends.

It is true, women respond to things that are not deemed courteous and nice. But it is not the assholery per se that does the trick. It is the position of high status that it comes from.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Women do not care about what a man looks like

In the whole of Germany, there is just one professor of psychology left who teaches and defends Freud's Psychoanalysis. The poor guy, last of his kind, is the target of frequent criticism and laughter from his academic colleagues. How come this "school" has lost most of its appeal to professional researchers of the mind? Did it not dominate psychology to the extent that it almost was synonymous with it for a while? One of my previous mentors once gave me an answer to both these questions with a bon mot that stuck to my mind:

"Freud's thinking became so successful because he gives us the illusion that we are complicated little beings. And nobody wants to be told that they are simple minded."

We are not just surprised each time somebody reveals our ways as steered by an invisible but primitive force, we outright hate it. And this is particularly true when it comes to our love life.

Yet, the force is too strong to deny. Society has come to terms with the fact that male taste in women is nothing but a base instinct craving signs of health and high fertility: youth, beauty, slim bodies, buxom breasts, and tight labia.

The one and only thing that men want from a woman is the prospect of healthy offspring.

Thus, magazines and billboards feature girl of this kind and not old post-menaupsal women in order to entice the male mind. If anything, we joke about this one dimensionality of the male mate preference.

For some reason, however, there is a lot of resistance each time someone points out that women are not any more complex either. Worse than that, by lacking a proper understanding of the one and only factor that women seek in a mate, both genders hurt themselves in the love seeking process: women find themselves in bed with guys "who are not even their type", while many men try to improve their attractiveness in the most ineffective ways.

The one and only thing that women want from a man is (the prospect of) high status.

Men and women alike want "sexy kids", but we have different strategies to achieve that. And for women, all that counts is a man's ability to influence things for the better. "Status" is something a man does. It is the magic of influence that allows some men to get more out of life, and women know that on an instinctual level.

But what does that mean on a practical level?

What a man looks like does not matter. All that matter is his appearance.

In other words, women do the exact opposite of men when it comes to select people for sex. Men care for the physical attributes of a women, women care for the non-physical attributes that men radiate in their behavior.

But what about things like muscularity and height (as some of you have noted dutifully)? Don't they count?

Well, yes and no.

Women prefer taller (and more muscular) men. That is true.
But that does not mean that they are attracted to a man's height!

The problem is that taller (and more muscular) men tend to get something from all of us that shorter men don't get: high social status. And it is this tight correlation between height and other people's respect that makes things confusing.

To find out whether women are attracted to a man's looks (such as height) or his social status, one thus needs to look at cases where the two are dissociated.

And the answer is appalling:
As a man, you can literally look like a gnome and score girls that make most men salivate.

What about the opposite? Just go to a club and compare the insecure guys, liquid courage in front of chest to the few men who actually talk with women. Does their tallness matter?

Women are not attracted to tall men. They are attracted to high status males. It just happens to be that their chances of a guys being of high status are disproportionately increased if the guy is tall. Thus, if women are robbed of the means of evaluating a man's high status (by checking his body language and response to shit tests), they will default to anything that correlates with these things. This is why showing photographs of guys is such a poor way to evaluate female mate preference.

As a guy, you can train yourself by trying to see the world through a woman's eyes. Judging each person's status, as communicated by body language, at any moment in time will give you the power of perfect predictability of which men are seen as attractive by female consensus. It will reveal to you what it is in you that women respond to positively as well. For women, realizing the above is not quite as hard as for men, but still helpful when seeking an interesting man.  
Mankind's success and doom relies on how well we understand our own motives and actions. Gnotis auton!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Alpha Spark

By mere chance I came across the recent PBS series "The Human Spark". To be frank, I only watched one single episode of that series while lazying in a hotel room. But that one episode was marvelous, factually accurate and very inspiring. The main point of the series is the age old question that Charles Darwin burdened us with (and which still is the basis of any primatologists career):

"What makes humans special?"

There are many attempts at answering the question, typically including tool use and language, moral reasoning and other things that we like to pride ourselves in. And to cut a long story short - none of them holds in the strictest sense. But while language and tool use were falsified decades ago by the rather eloquent use of sign language demonstrated by all main ape species as well as the frequent tool use observed in wild monkeys (and even birds), "moral reasoning" managed to linger around for quite a while.

The episode I watched was centered on that question, embedding it in a more general approach on "social networks". You can watch an excerpt of that episode here.

The take-home-message of the main experiments shown in the series is that when it comes to altruism, humans seem to act differently compared to any other primate species. It is that difference might enable us to live in the overwhelmingly large societal structures that have changed the surface of the planet.

This idea is based on a large variety of observations, some old and some new.  One of them is that there is a close correlation between primate brain sizes and the size of the groups they live in. And one idea is that this is not a coincidence, but rather has a causal basis (Dunbar's number): Larger brains enable individuals to keep track of all other group members, and that allows us to keep track of our favors.

And keeping track of who owes to whom is important: Altruism in animals occurs only between related individuals (kin altruism) or if the favor is likely to be returned (reciprocal altruism). And for the latter, you need to be able to keep track of who did what do to whom.

The idea that larger brains have something to do with sociality also sits well with the idea that larger groups come with an increasing risk of scams, fraud and deception. The "Machiavellian Intelligence" hypothesis states that primates gathered increasingly large brains to deal with the inflating number of tricks and intrigues that come with larger social groups. And of course, related to that, for monogamous species, a larger brain also helps to manage the increasing risk of cheating mates in larger sexual markets.

The series claims that only humans have acquired a lose form of altruism that allows us to be nice to total strangers, and therefore limits the aggression in our species. Thanks to that, we went ahead and populated all climate zones while our closest kin is about to go extinct.

What is most interesting are the repercussions:
Larger social groups come with new laws of social hierarchy and dynamics.

And this is true in particular for social status.

[Note that social status is something entirely different than societal status.
The two often get confused.
Social status is something you do.
Societal status is something you get.]

While monkeys spend their entire lives in a well defined cohort, they can establish stable social hierarchies. For monkeys (as for many other animal species) the rule: once an alpha male, always an alpha male really holds true. At least for rather large amounts of time.

I do not believe that this is the case for humans. I (again) recommend reading the important book "Impro" and what these actors found out about the important sub-communication of social status in human interactions. There are many important points made in that chapter, but one of the most striking is the incredible speed with which things can change:

Humans can go from alpha to omega in a heartbeat.

Actors call it "status swap".

Actors know that we all love to watch these social dynamics; it is the very basis of drama. Movies feed off these moments: A mighty super villain, invincible seeming, and full of confidence threatens the weakened hero that we all sympathize with. Yet somehow things change, and moments later the villain begs for mercy, crawling at the feet of our beloved main character.

We have seen it many times like that on screen, but to a lesser, much more subtle degree status swaps happen around us all the time. For a moment one man might seem more submissive to another, just to become more dominating in the next. Status often fluctuates so quickly, one sometimes cannot even say who is dominating whom, although interactions always imply some sort of hierarchy.

Our ability to swap status at any moment, and never cast someone's status into stone explains a lot of what we observe in human social and mating dynamics. Whereas other primates quickly establish rank orders that last for significant amounts of time, humans are rather flexible in whom they grant higher and lower status. This allows us a degree of flexibility in social interactions that is unprecedented. It also allows us to deal effectively and efficiently with anonymous strangers.

The aloofness of human social status is also why societal status is so irrelevant for mate selection. The position you got thanks to your education, hard work or your family's connections does not tell much about how other people perceive you in direct social interaction. And it is the latter that was important in the stone age when our brains and the constraints they impose on our behavior were formed.

As everything else when it comes to social status (or what makes a man an "alpha"), things are subtle. Status gets communicated by tonality, gestures and body language via a separate, unconscious information channel while our minds are focused on more overt things such as the content of speech.

But you can train your skill of conscious status detection. By querying yourself: "Is this person more dominant or more submissive?" in any particular moment, you will gain astonishing revelations.

Learning how a person's status fluctuates over time will transform your ideas of what constitutes and "alpha male". You will get to understand that no man is "alpha" per se. Instead, each of us are alpha in some moments, and far from that in others. It is just that some people are better at spending more time in a higher status.

One of the most surprising insights one can gain by constantly evaluating status, is that a person's status does not even need other people to exist (and fluctuate). We practice status with inanimate objects, too. And even in those situations, our status is not cast into stone:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Women are all the same - Part V

In the previous four posts in the series, I went from personal anecdotes to scientific evidence gathered at speed dating events to prove my point that when it comes to sex and love, all women want the same (men) and hence behave like they're all one and the same.

Today, we will take a broader look and delve into anthropological evidence gathered in various cultures around the globe (click here for the scientific reference that I'll be drawing from).

Biologists like to compare people across different cultures for commonalities. Anything that humans share across the vast variety of environments that we populated is a strong hint at a genetic predisposition. And this is particularly true for tribes that no contact with Western civilization, such as the the Ache in Paraquay. 

Researchers found that in the "pre-contact era", love life in this tribe consisted of love marriages by female choice. They were classic serial monogamists, with women accumulating up to ten marriages over the course of a lifetime. And if you read any books on human evolution, you might know that this what most scientist believe life was like during the early tens of thousands of years of human evolution (you know, the time when the genes that influence our behavior today have been selected).

So what fancies women that have never read an issue of Cosmo or marveled at a movie staring Clooney or Pitt? Here is an interesting excerpt from an interview by one of the anthropologists who visited the tribe (referring to the pre-contact era):

Q: What kind of man could get many women, what kind did women love?
A: A man needed to be strong. ... Women don't like men who love to hit others. I mean a strong man. ... a small or a large man, but he had to be strong. ... A "good man" is a man whom women love."

It is clear. She doesn't like a weak man. No insecure guy (who needs to prove something in fights) or wuss, please. It doesn't matter what he looks like, but if he is desired by other women, that is just perfect. Sound familiar?

Here is another interesting case: China.

Why? China instantiated a marriage law in 1950 (revised in 1987) that "stipulates the criteria by which ... to chose mates: personal compatibility, political attitudes, and judgment of character."
Sounds good, doesn't it? It has the words written "romantic love" written all over it.
 "Criteria deemed inappropriate, in contrast, are wealth, good looks, sexual attractiveness, and family connections."

If you have ever been to China, you will have noticed that this law has far reaching implications. It is arguably the only country in the world where women do not seem to care about their looks (don't even bother telling me about the one exception you might have experienced). In the words of the researchers this is due to a "society where governmental structures and regulations support equality for women, suppress the glorification of female beauty ... and devalue the notion of wealth."

So, do Chinese men care less about female youth and beauty and select women for their smarts and charm? Do Chinese women care less about a man's status and more about his personality?

Not so, say the people who studied their actual mate choice. Chinese men were found to rate "good looks" as nearly all important in women, while Chinese girls preferred a man's job and income, class label, family and social connections and pretty much anything else higher than what he looked like. In the eyes of the researchers this "parallels the sex-differentiated rank-ordering of these characteristics reported for college students in the United States and, indeed, for samples of participants from around the world."

Are we really all the same? What about the level of education or socioeconomic class? Don't these things matter when it comes to selecting partners? It turns out they do. But not as you might have expected. When richer college kids are interviewed, the data points in one common direction: "an exaggeration of the expected sex differences". In other words, richer guys shoot for even more beautiful women while women with material resources want even higher status males.

Take a moment to think about what this means for our society. When feminism came along in the sixties, people believed that "the more sex-egalitarian our society becomes, and the more resources are held by women, the less interested women will be in status."
And the exact opposite is true!
Instead of enabling women to find "true love" by focusing on a man's character, they now feel even more gina tingling for the few men at the top of the sexual food chain while remaining ice cold for the common foot folks that once made the staple of their marriage market.

So, women all over the world agree: "the least physically attractive man [is] more acceptable than the most physically attractive man to have coffee with, to date, to have sex with, to marry ..., as long as he was depicted [of high social status]."
In other words, status is king.
The looks of a man are less than secondary. They do not matter. At all. And neither does his personality or zodiac sign. What women really care for is what he stands for (and as one night stands are concerned - researchers found that "requirements for status ... either remain the same or increase" when short term mating is concerned).

The divide between the genders when it comes to sexual preference is so deep and universal, that we all share disbelief as to how important these things are for the other sex: Men worry about their hair loss while women are bragging about their social status and desirability. It shows that time and again, there is only one good dating advice:
Don't listen to what people say, observe what they do.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Comfortably Numb

"I thought you would find that interesting" she says and shows me this article on sexless relationships in ELLE Magazine.

I take a short glimpse. There is a name that pops out: David M. Buss, PhD.

That David Buss? One of the (arguably) most eminent evolutionary psychologists? In ELLE magazine?!?

My guess about an article on sexless relationships in a woman's magazine would have been that it is all about blaming the guy.
You know, how he should be more considerate. Bring flowers and make time for romantic dinner dates. Put down the toilet seat. And there like.
Buss doesn't sit well with that.

And indeed, after skimming through the anecdotal intro (you can't coerce female readers into a fact-loaded article without giving something to hang their feelings on), the article did none of the above.

So who's to blame for the cold sheets in contemporary marital beds?

"Well, it's possible that sexual liberation is in some way to blame."

You don't say.

It gets even better:

"Monogamy becomes tougher if your single years conditioned you to expect different kinds of sex with different kinds of people. Newness, mystery, and novelty have always been an essential part of the turn-on; after a while, coming home to hubby, even if he's Mr. Right, may leave you cold."

Yes, that is an actual excerpt from ELLE magazine, written by a woman for women. Telling women that their sex problems are not just due to their careless hubbies, but too their own undoings in their autobiographical past. Something they need to blame themselves for. Something that cannot be undone.

By the way, ELLE defines as "sexless" a relationship with less than 10 times of intercourse a year (!). The frequency of such relationships is reportedly more than 10% (although I would add some to that given that people are not honest about things that make them look bad even in anonymous surveys).
So what is a man to take from all that?

"He told me, 'I'd rather be with you and never have sex for the rest of my life than not be with you.' " Five years on, she believes he's been true to his word ... He says he just wants to be with me; he loves me," she says. "Honestly, I'm kind of shocked by it," she says."

Yeah, betas don't get sex and the contempt for their willingness to stay celibate from their wives - all at the same time. So much to the role of love.

[There is something a man can do at this point other than run away (if he deems it worth it). We will discuss relationship game in one of the upcoming posts. Most Provider type of guys, however, will feel comfortable in their effortless role of following her demands. After all, it's what says she she wants, right?]

Well, if he's okay with it, why bother? Because it doesn't stop there. If a Provider fails so utterly in keeping his wife interested, the inevitable will happen: Cheating. And it won't be him (even if he wanted to, no woman in her right mind would a man like that get into her pants).

"Ironically, her husband wasn't the one who strayed. A month after they returned from their honeymoon she found herself entangled with a married man, feeling something she had all but given up on: turned on... It was really, really fun."

Given the last quote it is understandable that ELLE readers do not feel quite as depressed about their fate as you would expect them to. The article ends with another glimmer at the end of the tunnel: Flibanserin. Yeah, that's right. A drug to restore some libido. The message is clear: anything, literally anything, but a return of the clock to the well functioning system we had before the sexual liberation that is really to blame.

In the long run, truth always wins. So, I am not surprised that we are witnessing a transition of evo psych knowledge from obscure internet forums and blogs into the mainstream media (some more recent examples are currently being discussed over at Talleyrand's and roissy's). But what women seem to fail to see is that every time that happens there will be a few less men willing to tie the knot. You see, while nobody really cared about the staggering number of sexually unsuccessful guys given women's preferred choice of the few chosen, but now that there is an increasing number of frustrated ex-sluts failing to attract both the harem-keeping Adonises and Joe Average alike, things are about to change (see the excellent discussion at In Mala Fide).

The situation that sexual liberation created is one of two male populations that are unwilling to marry: The alphas who enjoy their freedom and variety.
And the betas who either become hypo-attractive given the experiences of women in their teens and twenties or who refuse to pay for something that had been given away so freely.

In the end, it is women who will suffer the most. Women are not satisfied with endless sex flings. They want a long term relationship (at least in addition), and they undermine their chances at that - on the personal and the societal level. Given all that, I find it amazing that an article like that does not end with a pledge to raise a "smarter" generation of girls but rather tells their mums to swallow pills (or to cheat, if you know how to read between the lines). Women should be aware that with all that knowledge coming out into public inspection we certainly will soon face a smarter generation of men.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Women are all the same - IV

The previous three posts of this series were all about some personal experiences backed by scientific data on an interesting, yet common illusion:

We do not decide on a particular partner because (s)he is special.

Which can even be taken one step further:

We do not fall in love with people for "who they are".

Instead, we find some people more sexually attractive than others, and try hard to make a good deal in getting the best we can. Over time we will get increasingly attached to the other person. And we then tell ourselves that there are many reasons other than sexual for why we decided on that particular partner.

The best proof of the above is the vast discrepancy between what we think we like in a partner and what we actually like. As one fascinating study on this subject finds:
"Participants’ ideal preferences, assessed before the speed-dating event, failed to predict what inspired their actual desire at the event."

In the words of the authors:

"Even regarding such a consequential aspect of mental life as romantic-partner preferences, people may lack introspective awareness of what influences their judgments and behavior."

This in itself is quite remarkable. Yet, there is an even greater upshot to this: Since we do not select mates on their "unique qualities", but simply try to max out our ability to get the most attractive partner, we are essentially all looking for the same (few hyperattractive) people. The only reason we find "matches" is that we compromise by accepting that our own attractiveness is limited.

Now, as reader Poetry of Flesh has noted, this all seems to suggest that: "not only women are all alike, but so are men". This is true in that we all want attractive partners. The crucial difference, though, is that for men there are far more attractive women than there are attractive men for women.

It follows from that that women really are much more the same than men in their sexual and romantic tastes.

Scientists have a word for that phenomenon. It is called mating skew:
"A few males meet with a great deal of success, whereas others have little or even no success."

Women go so far in agreeing on which few men are the bedroom-worthiest that they do not just ignore men are already "taken", but even prefer that option when given the choice. Scientists have word for that, too: mate poaching.

The overwhelming agreement among women as to who is hot or not comes at a high price. The competition is immense.

While the naive eye sees men approaching women in day and nighttime settings, the trained observer sees so much more. Women are fighting subtle fights over the few guys who stand tall above the uninteresting rest: Every body part that comes to close to the beauty ideal gets emphasized while the flawed parts get masterfully hidden. Clever tactical positioning is used to signal interest and availability. Body language speaks volumes about the hidden intentions. What cannot be said out loud is said in silence. The tension is so high, it can even turn into physical violence. The last couple of bar brawls I have witnessed were almost exclusively performed by frustrated females.

It is for that reason that there will never be an equivalent of the "seduction community" for women. For this to happen it would need a type of solidarity that is prohibited by the laws of the sexual market place. While the few men who have "a great deal of success" with women do not mind to give up a part of that to the men who struggle, few women are willing to "share a man" if they believe they hit the jackpot - the risk of losing the valuable asset is simply too high.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Women are all the same - Part III

The previous two posts in these series have caused quite a bit of stir and controversy (as expected). Most readers took issue with my suggestion that we have a cognitive bias for overestimating individuality and uniqueness. Others suggested that my personal experiences are marred by selection bias and other confounding factors.

Before hardening up my admittedly weak anecdotal evidence by getting more into the science that help shaping my opinion, I would like to avoid some more confusion.
Here are the two points I tried to make, in full clarity:

1) We tend to think that we are more unique in our preferences than we actually are
Note that I do not say that we are all the same (as some commenters took it). To quote myself:
"We all want to be special little snowflakes. And to some extent we are.  Of course, there is truth to our uniqueness. Yet, it is far more limited than we think."

2) Especially when it comes to mate choice, we are almost all the same (and women even more so than men)
In other words, we all agree on what is sexy.
And that has many surprising repercussions.

It is at this point that I need to make an important disclaimer. What I am referring to as mate choice is essentially sexual desire.

Women get most sexually aroused by alpha males (who fit the "Lover" bill), yet yearn for long term romance with more reliable "Provider" males. Discussions on the topic of mate choice often get muddled by this diametrical female emotional need of men. In other words, when women close their eyes and think about their "ideal man", they think of husband material and not the guys she hooks up with in her youth.

Likewise, men tend to be more selective when committing to a single female. While few single men would  abstain from flings with highly attractive, yet promiscuous females, nobody wants to marry a whore.

So you might think that my focus on attractiveness is misleading (at least for those who are more interested in long term dating than one night stand).  Yet, (somewhat surprisingly) despite everything mentioned above  - our long term mate choices are not entirely independent of our short term mate preference.

In other words, while (the vast majority) of men are unwilling to fully commit to highly attractive girls if they deem them too promiscuous, they will not marry unattractive girls either. It is more like: men want attractive women.
And if they are too commit, they will sub-select the ones that do not completely destroy their hopes of raising their own (rather than another man's child).
And then there are other factors, too, of course. Smart men know that it takes more than sex to have a family and thus women get screened for their companionship prospects in addition to what I described above. This is where men start to think about how a woman's intelligence, education and political opinions match his own.
But, be as it may, attraction needs to be there in the first place.

How about the opposite sex? One could argue that women do select two non-overlapping populations for short term mating and long term relationships indeed.
The former consists of the few alpha males, who are desirable not despite but because they are desired by many other women. emotionally cold and inaccessible, risk taking and aloof in nature. They are shitty husbands but great lovers.
The latter are the more reliable men who are less prone to live out the male drive to serial promiscuity - either because they drank the societal Kool Aid or simply because they lack the options. These men are stable, responsible and kind. They are great husbands and more often than not boring lovers.

And indeed, some women follow along these lines and differentiate men in this way. They marry ("settle for") men they are not strongly physically attracted to after a youth full of alpha flings. After all, a woman can easily quench her thirst for premium sperm by having a "girl's night out" while her nice, reliable, unsuspecting husband is busy amassing what it needs to "provide".
Yet, the ultimate female fantasy is to unite Lover and Provide in one partner. Romance for women is to win the Lover and gain him as a Provider. This is the stuff that chick flicks are made of. This is why women chase bad boys even if they are not in the mood for one night stands. There is always the hope that this could "turn into something more".
So, for women, too, when it comes to long term partners, attraction needs to be there in the first place.

The result of the above may be surprising to some:

When it comes to actually choosing a mate your guess about your own preferences is way off.
(The study I link to is a citation classic, and absolutely worth a read. It puts an end to all discussions on "what women want in a man" based on introspection. Actions simply speak louder than words.)

As a result, researchers find that even in speed dating events, where people arguably look for long term partners rather than one night stands, sexual attractiveness is king: Men want sexy women while women look for high status males. To quote some of the (highly significant and often reproduced) key findings:
"Many traits had surprisingly little effect on people’s desirability ... including education and income, previous marriages, having children, concordant desires for future children, religious compatibility, appetites with respect to casual sex, and having similar habits with regard to smoking and drinking"

What this all means is that what we mean by "love grows" is getting used to the flaws and mismatches between our wish list and our partner's actual traits because they are sexually attractive rater than the other way round.

There is one more important repercussion.

While we might all have different "wish lists" for long term partners, we arguably agree much more on who is "hot or not". As a result we all rival for the same few attractive/desirable partners.

The tremendous difference between the genders is that men are attracted by looks (low BMI accounts for almost a third of the variance in female desirability!), and beauty is ubiquitous.

Women, however, are attracted by high social status, and there can only be one at the top. Thus, women seem to be "more selective" than men. So selective they truly all want the same. Or, to to tie it back to the original headline: "When it comes to choosing men, they are all the same".

It follows from that "there are few sexually attractive individuals and lots and lots of compromise".

You might not like seeing yourself, or your partner this way, but telling yourself that you found love because it is "such a good match" is denying the truth that you simply are out of options. Things tend to get murky if a more attractive person becomes available (men tend to divorce their wives for younger women. n'est-ce pas?). And what is attractive or not is much less in the eye of the beholder than scientifically quantifiable: