One of the things that has consistently annoyed me about popular reporting of science is the tendency towards overstating the significance of new studies. Gould’s “destruction of Darwinism” with punctuated equilibrium turned out to be little more than a slight shift of perspective within the existing system. Just recently, a popular science magazine took a lot of heat for declaring another coup. This kind of thing happens all the time.
I suspect that a recent study by Finkel and Eastwick (2009) will be just another bit of claptrap that a few people (especially feminists) will latch onto as if it’s something new and shocking. In a nutshell, the researchers demonstrated that in speed dating situations, the sex that does the approaching is less selective than the sex that is approached. In other words, when men were the ones rotating between women, they were not very choosy about whether they’d see a woman again. When the roles were reversed, the women became less choosy.
The researchers are quick to point out that the only variable they changed was the sex of the selector, but they also add the caveat that they cannot rule out subtle cultural influences from years of “training” that men are the selectors.
It’s my guess that most scientists viewing this study will reach a different conclusion than the average reader, since there is another factor at work — investment. Put simply, humans are more interested in things they’ve invested in. When a man approaches a woman, he is the one making the investment. He has decided to put a certain amount of his “social capital” on the line by attempting to mate with this particular female. Many things are at stake for him. If the woman rejects him, it is a reflection of his value. He will need to try next with a woman of lesser value or risk a similar rejection. By devoting time to this particular woman, he is choosing not to approach any other women in this social group. Women are no fonder than men of learning that they are someone’s second choice, so when the rules are reversed and women are forced to approach, they experience similar stresses.
These are not the rules of sex. They are the rules of investment. Males and females both put themselves at risk when they express a desire. They become petitioners. They give power to the object of their affection. When women are put in the position of petitioner at a speed dating event, they are now subject to the same rules. Most social scientists would not be shocked at all to learn that women’s selectivity went down when they were forced to invest their own social capital.
Less sophisticated readers may try to take this study as support for the notion that the human gender roles of selection are cultural, and may be changed if only we become more egalitarian. These are the readers who simply do not understand the complexity underlying such behaviors, and their deep-rooted evolutionary origins. This study is not shocking, and when it is put in the proper perspective, it is a re-affirmation of what we already knew — investment equals interest. In fact, between the lines of the published story is the disclaimer that women were still more selective than men even after they became less selective as a result of their own investment.
Of course, this information is not useless. If nothing else, it gives the organizers of speed dating and other matchmaking events the ability to “improve the odds” for their target audience. It also gives us some insight into our own feelings, and allows us to work situations in our own favor in the game of dating and mating. Let’s just not go off the deep end and declare that things have changed drastically. This is just so much hype to sell headlines.