Biased Courtship

As we discussed recently, courting men seem too optimistic about their chances, while women seem too pessimistic about male intentions.   Some explain these as due to high male benefit from mating success, and high female cost of poor mating.   But why didn’t evolution just encode this in the strength of our desires, instead of in our perceptions of chances?

The explanation that occurs to me is that these biases hide our low motives.  Men willing to bother women even though those men didn’t honestly think they had much of a chance would seem rude, selfish, and desperate.   Women willing to reject almost all men while admitting those men had mostly good intentions and would provide enjoyable company would seem arrogant and selfish.  Our biased beliefs help us retain our image as concerned about the interests of others, and not too desperate or arrogant, while actually being very eager (men) and picky (women).

This seems a good test case for my claim that it is easier to resolve your hypocrisy by admitting to low motives than by honestly acting with high motives.  Will you idealist men stop bothering women, or you idealist women stop rejecting men?

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  • What about the men who aren’t courting because they assume their chances are low?

  • Steve, men who are not courting obviously are not bothering women too much. However, if we asked them for their chances if they did court, we might still find that they overestimated their chances.

  • It’s not clear why women would want to hide that they are picky. Why not flaunt their high standards? Unless perhaps to try to extract benefits from hopeful suitors – then they might try to signal that they are attracted yet suspicious of the suitor’s motives, hinting that the suitor just needs to bring more proofs of his good intentions to succeed. Btw, how strong is the evidence that women are too pessimistic about male intentions?

    As for the hypothesis that men overestimate their chances so that they can be forgiven as being deluded rather than desperate, wouldn’t a more straightforward explanation be that they simply try to signal their quality as a mate? High-quality mates believe correctly that they are attractive, so lower-quality mates may also believe this of themselves incorrectly in order to appear more like high-quality mates.

  • Nick, I am mainly relying on the Haselton and other studies; I haven’t looked at the data closely myself. And wanting to seem high quality and not wanting to seem desperate are just two sides of the same thing.

  • Yan Li

    A woman ovulates 400-450 times in her life time. Being “picky” is a biological necessity. In a room full of candies, a kid must choose.

  • Maybe it’s easier to tweak probability estimates than motives.

  • Isn’t it the reproductive strategy also encoded in our desires: males desire to mate with many fertile females; females desire to mate with a wealthy high status male?

  • Nicholas, yes much of our behavior is encoded in desires. That is why there is a puzzle here, of why all of this variation was not encoded in our desires, together with accurate beliefs.

    Yan, yes we are not questioning the strategies themselves, just how they are encoded in beliefs and desires.

  • Robin, about the signaling done by men: yes they signal quality on both hypotheses, but I think there’s a difference.

    Your explanation is that the bias is in order to hide a low motive behind a false belief. Presumably, on this explanation, the women will see that the man has a false belief, rather than see that he has a low motive; and the suggestion is that they will find the former impression more appealing. My suggestion is that the phenomenon (of men overestimating their sex appeal) is not due to them hiding their low motive (of being willing to bother women they don’t think they have much chance with). Instead, I speculate that even if women could unfallabily assess the motives of men (so there was no point concealing them) we would still have men overestimating their sex appeal, for the same reason that (especially) young men overestimate their status, abilities, and future prospects generally: to signal their resources, skills, and prospects – not their motives.

    Of course, there are other ways in which men signal about their motives, and some of these seem to involve biases; but I don’t see that as the explanation for overestimating one’s own sex appeal. If anything, it might be the other way around: insofar as only motives are concerned, rather than other desirable attributes, a man might be better off signaling that he thinks he is less attractive than he is; because a man who thinks that might be more likely to be faithful and devoted than if one who thinks he could have anybody anytime.

  • Nick, I agree that hiding motives and showing ability are two different reasons to be overconfident about your attractiveness.

  • Robin, I’m not sure “hiding motives” (impression management of motives) is on balance a reason to be overconfident about your attractiveness. I suspect it might be a reason to be *underconfident* about your attractiveness.

  • Nick, I agree that attached men and women might tie themselves to high motives better by thinking themselves, and being, less attractive. My point was that unattached men can maintain their behavior while adjusting their motives to be higher, if they also bias their beliefs toward thinking they have better chances. I agree that there are other relevant factors.