Women Prefer Poaching

Men tend to want the woman they see in front of them, while women want the man other women see:

Are women more interested in men who are already in a relationship? Female and male participants who were single or in a relationship viewed information about an opposite-sex other and indicated their interest in pursuing this target. Half of the participants were told that the target was single and half read that the target was currently in a relationship. The results showed that only single women were more interested in pursuing an attached target rather than a single target. …

According to a recent poll, most women who engage in mate poaching do not think the attached status of the target played a role in their poaching decision, but our study shows this belief to be false. …

Across ten world regions, 57% of men and 35% of women indicated they had engaged in an attempt at mate poaching, … people who mate poach are more likely to be low in agreeableness and conscientiousness than those who do not. …. Research on animal mating (e.g., fish, birds) has shown that female animals are more likely to choose a male that has already been chosen by other females … Research on human preferences does show that women rate men as more desirable when they are surrounded by other women, compared to being alone or surrounded by other men. Conversely, men rate women as less desirable when they are surrounded by other men, compared to being alone or surrounded by other women.

Yet another way in which we don’t know why we do what we do.

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  • I intuit that this goes beyond not knowing why we do what we do. I think it’s more that women tend to find this knowledge repugnant. This knowledge (or “claim”, I can’t vouch for its accuracy, though it seems plausible to me) is already widely popularized, yet many women seem reluctant to consider it. I’d like to see your obsession expand a bit to include posting often of repugnancy theory.

    • fyi

      This study was of college undergraduates ONLY. Cute study, but essentially worthless as to what [all] women want/desire. College kids are generally more promiscuous – which this study may confirm.

  • kinbote

    if women who desire to poach advertised their desire to they’d find themselves with fewer poaching opportunities. the incentives to lie are strong and obvious.

    the behavior of women betrays their awareness that they know other women want to steal their boyfriends and husbands. they tend to be hypervigilant and ”catty” when threatening competitors are flitting about. everyone knows this even if it isnt said.

    emphasis on competitors, too, because it is those women who are most competitive with other women that do most of the poaching. stealing a husband or boyfriend offers the additional thrill of demonstrating superiority over the jilted ex-girlfriend or ex-wife, and so the more a woman values the thrill of ”social dominance” over other females the more likely she is to attempt to poach.

    • Mike

      If in fact women are more protective of their partnerships than men, it could be because they fear poaching more than men do, but it could also be because they fear a lapse in loyalty more than men do. The latter might be expected from cultural stereotypes, which paint men as more superficial and more likely to cheat. It could be that men in fact are less committed to their partners — that is women are “more” protective of the partnerships because it is more important to them to maintain the partnership.

      • kinbote

        i cannot refute your alternative hypothesis. i will add, though, that women seem to direct more of their attention towards identifying, monitoring, and discouraging rivals than preventing their husbands or boyfriends from flirting when attending social functions as a couple. i think most women ”intuitively grasp” the fact that most men will have sex w/a female of comparable quality if the opportunity is presented to them, and so they do whatever they can to prevent poachers of (potentially) comparable quality from being judged comparable and from getting the chance to offer an opportunity.

        just my take!

  • kinbote

    the principal reason why we do not know why we do what we do is because it takes a prodigious investment of attentional resources to discover the nuances of our own motivational system. most people do not direct their attention inwardly often or systemically enough to discover their own ”values” and translate them into propositions.

    everyone introspects, don’t get me wrong. but very few do so with the goal of ”discovering true things about the self”. the goal is usually just to mine some pleasure from retrospection or fancy.

    • kinbote

      just to add to what i said above, there are very weak incentives to invest limited attentional resources toward the task of converting a complicated and sometimes conflicting set preferences and their causes into complicated propositions requiring all sorts of (dull) qualications.

      when most people ask a question like, ”why do women do what they do?” they do not want to hear an actual answer to the question. social scientists want answers to such questions, and others curious of human nature, but the majority of people use questions about human behavior to start conversations where people can swap stories and semi-serious theories that are congruent with social roles. in fact, most people punish those who ”kill the vibe” by clarifying definitions and discussing things in terms of cause and effect. conversations are about narrative and discovering causes usu requires a ”denarrational” perspective (social anathema).

      im not sure why this is surprising or alarming to you. most people just dont care why they do what they do.

  • Isn’t it easy to see that a woman surrounded by men is a less likely win than one that is alone or out with her friends? With some extrapolation can we guess that the men who seek women with less immediate competition win more often, with subsequent children of said men likely inheriting this mating selection preference?

    As for a woman’s preference, I’d guess that she would be looking to keep and raise a child, in which case the man who has proven himself to be capable of that task [or at least the man currently involved in that task] would be more likely a win than one that is surrounded by men, or alone. Men who are surrounded by men don’t procreate as much as men surrounded by women, so the women who choose men surrounded by women have a better chance at getting what they’re looking for. If that guess makes any sense.

    Really it seems like it comes down to the fact that one man can impregnate many women, while a woman can only be impregnated by one man at a time. Therefore a woman’s selection process would be looking towards the long term, which a taken man is more likely to be suitable for since it’s apparent that the taken man is open to commitment.

    • John Maxwell IV

      >Therefore a woman’s selection process would be looking towards the long term, which a taken man is more likely to be suitable for since it’s apparent that the taken man is open to commitment.

      But if he’s willing to leave his current wife or girlfriend then maybe he’s not too good at it eh?

      • He only needs to stay long enough to successfully have children. If the woman is successful at poaching the man then she would only have to worry about women that are sexier and more cunning than herself. If she believes she is an “elite poacher”, the changes of that happening may be rather small in her mind.

        From the poaching woman’s perspective the play would look like this:
        “Hey look at that man, what a catch. I’m better than his mate, I could steal him and be more likely to keep him than she.”

        I have always wondered why anyone would get into a real relationship with someone they’ve poached. I’d be worried of the cycle continuing. Though I doubt our minds’ subconscious rulers of attraction are thinking about marriage and the far future when in this position, instead I think they would be concerned mainly with securing procreation.

  • Jagor karinte

    John Maxwell wins an internet for his intellectual pwnage.

    • Well, I tried. Your thoughts?

      • dan

        guys cheat, divorce, and then marry the new girlfriend all the time.

  • MrTuttle

    This thread needs more references to hypergamy. Or is it hypogamy? I believe it’s hypergamy.

    In any event, the woman just wants to collect the desirable man’s DNA. It doesn’t much matter whether he sticks around or not, since after the four year itch kicks in the woman will want to kick that desirable man out and chase after her latest infatuation.

    Besides, worst case scenario, the attractive woman can just find some dope to help raise the desirable man’s child.

    To the actual original topic: If a man has an attractive woman, that is in itself a sign to other women that that man is desirable.

    • Patri Friedman

      Yes, exactly. This is a trivial example of female hypergamy vs. male polygamy. An attached woman is harder to get, therefore less attractive to a male, who goes (relatively) for volume. An attached man signals desirability, therefore more attractive to a woman, who goes (relatively) for quality.

  • Captain Oblivious

    Wisdom of crowds?

    If a person is unsure of who might make a good mate, it seems reasonable to delegate that decision to the masses – if others are interested in someone, they must be worthwhile.

    Now we just need to figure out why men are less prone to this than women… perhaps the men are more self-confident because the women chase them, and the women are less self-confident because they can’t seem to interest more than one man at a time? Asymmetry by happenstance + a feedback loop?

    • Douglas Knight

      I agree; in particular, the women may be using the relationship as a proxy for status. It’s a general problem with psychological experiments, that to isolate a particular variable, they have to leave people with so little information that it’s not clear if the controlled variable is important or just a proxy for something they’d otherwise know about.

    • Constant

      Now we just need to figure out why men are less prone to this than women

      A woman who surrounds herself with men may be a slut. Of course, this goes both ways, but this matters much more in one direction than the other. A woman knows that the baby is hers. A man has to trust the woman’s claim that the baby is his.

    • ZachPruckowski

      I suspect that men have a harder time retaining a girlfriend than women have retaining a boyfriend. If it’s easier for a girl to enter a relationship than for a guy to enter a relationship, then the relationship status of the guy provides more information. Currently having a girlfriend indicates that one is a (at least somewhat) capable boyfriend. By contrast, almost any girl is capable of finding a guy willing to be her boyfriend, so long as she’s at least somewhat attractive and not insane. Guys will put up with more shit from a somewhat attractive girlfriend than girls will from a somewhat attractive boyfriend. Therefore, a guy’s relationship status tells more about his non-physical characteristics than a girl’s relationship status.

      On a baser level, female attention to a guy is social proof that the guy is attractive. If I’m talking to an attractive woman and flirting with her and she’s interested, then that tells other women that I must be interesting. By contrast, a moderately attractive woman will have piles of guys paying attention to her even if she’s totally boring, so all that male attention says about an even marginally attractive woman is that she’s attractive.

  • Robert Koslover

    Regardless of the cause, the phenomenon certainly fits my own anecdotal evidence. I distinctly recall receiving more interest from young women back in college after I was in a relationship. The phrase, “hey, where were you before I had a girlfriend?” came to mind more than once. And I would bet that many people reading this have had the same experience.

  • ravi hegde

    A man surrounded by other men -> he could be a leader of men -> he might be a dominant man. This study is flawed, asking someone what they would do will not nearly give you the correct answers as actually observing the real selection process.

    • Constant

      This study is flawed, asking someone what they would do will not nearly give you the correct answers as actually observing the real selection process.

      That does not appear to match the abstract. Do you have access to the full study?

      • Constant

        Never mind, I didn’t realize Robin copied a section from the full report.

  • I think the only reason a lot of people don’t realise this is because they’re still stuck in the internal cycle of denial with the facts of human non-exceptionalism and evolutionary psychology, a cycle that probably exists for reasons of evolutionary psychology. My friends mention stuff like this all the time, in themselves and other people.

  • Robin is a girl’s name

    “A man surrounded by other men -> he could be a leader of men -> he might be a dominant man.”

    Or he might be getting anally pounded by men on a nightly basis.

  • Lexington Steele

    Did they control for penis size?

    If not, this study is worthless.

    • ZachPruckowski

      They control for it by not providing information on it. Since it’s difficult to determine without specific information, it can’t be a confounding variable (yes, I realize you’re kidding)

    • bcg

      I hope this comment is added to every blog post on the Internet that quotes a study.

  • Grant

    Given how much more difficult it is for a female to measure a man’s reproductive worth than vise-vera (men can easily look for the physical signals they value), it makes sense for them to rely on a heuristic.

    I’m curious, is there any evidence that women are less knowledgeable of (or are less willing to divulge) the true motivations of their actions? It seems that way to me, but that may be because its often easier to guess men’s motivations.

  • mitchell porter

    Arguably the headline here should be “Single female Oklahoma State University undergraduates doing a course in psychology prefer poaching.”

    • ZachPruckowski

      This is generally a problem with psychology experiments that deal with dating, hooking up, and relationships. Most of these experiments use college students because they’re the easiest subjects to get your hands on when you work at a college.

      In some studies I read about (in a psychology class, incidentally), this sample bias completely altered the results. One major study linking social status to male attractiveness got blown apart when it was repeated with groups of different socio-economic statuses. It turns out that women tend to find guys of similar economic and intellectual backgrounds more attractive. So the original study’s result showing that women liked lawyers and doctors over mechanics and lumberjacks was a result of the women surveyed being the above-average-intellect, middle-class to upper-middle-class girls you find at a typical college, whereas the girls who didn’t go to college (and were thus not a part of the sample group) preferred the mechanics and lumberjacks.

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  • Felonia

    Women who poach have self-esteem issues that are resolved when men choose them over someone else.
    Self esteem issues are extremely common among women.
    Thinking of everything in terms of the value of the man is kind of stupid.
    It’s not about the man.
    It’s never about the man.
    And there’s no such thing as “comparable quality!” That’s the sort of thinking that keeps men single.

  • Saverio M.

    Research on animal mating (e.g., fish, birds) has shown that female animals are more likely to choose a male that has already been chosen by other females … Research on human preferences does show that women rate men as more desirable when they are surrounded by other women, compared to being alone or surrounded by other men

    For a certain model (agreeable or not) this is called ‘pre-selection’, and it’s a sort of a shortcut: if other woman chose a man, it implies it’s valuable.

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  • Matt

    Why do blogs written about male and female relationships always get like three times as many comments? Are Robin’s readers really that insightful when it comes to matters of the opposite sex? Or are we all so obsessed with finding causality patterns that we delusionaly believe we have knowledge and insight into the greatest economic puzzle ever-the human female?

    As a loyal reader of OB, I like to think it’s the former.

    • Being a man or a woman makes everyone feel expert on it.

    • Z. M. Davis

      “Why do blogs written about male and female relationships always get like three times as many comments?”

      Gender is the mind-killer.

  • Elisabeth

    >An attached man signals desirability, therefore more attractive to a woman, who goes (relatively) for quality.

    At first I didn’t even want to see this, but in retrospect I can think of a lot of attractive married men I’ve known. But there’s a kind of ethical shutdown and I would never even consider pursuing them. It goes beyond a conscious decision and I just see them a bit differently. (Can have a bit of a safe flirtation mind you but it’s very small. :))

    Maybe men also have that experience and that’s another reason less of them “poach”. Men are very territorial and indeed may see it as protecting another man’s property or territory.

  • zembla

    Couldn’t the results of the poaching study be interpreted to indicate women (unconsciosly?) view attached men as more likely to commit than the unattached?

  • Doug S.

    This reminds me of a joke I once read.

    Q) Why did the economist turn down the man’s offer of a date?
    A) Because he was single.

  • shallowman

    I always had a girlfriend of some sort in high school and college. The woman who I married once asked me why whenever a period of time came up in past and she asked me who my girlfriend was, I always had an answer. I told her that if there was not any woman in particular I wanted, I would date the girls that came after me. When she asked me why, I told her that I had figured out that when I wanted to go after a girl, they were always more interested in me knowing that I had a girlfriend already. I think in the woman’s mind, that fact puts a minimum fitness on the man, thinking well how bad can he be if someone else likes him now.

    Anyhow always worked for, and it generally meant I got some sex on a regular basis even when not deeply attracted to a particular woman at the time. Before you think too poorly of me, I have been married for 23 years and have never strayed. Not once.

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  • Enginerd

    The sample size was 150 people, all undergraduates at the college in which the experiment was done. Like many psychology experiments, it’s difficult to draw any conclusions when the sample size is so low.

    Also, I’d like to know (wasn’t mentioned in the paper) what else the woman was told about the man. Usually in studies like this they mention 10 attributes so the attention is not brought to the one they’re studying. They could’ve done height, hobbies, background,or whatever. Maybe they did do this right, but it’s not mentioned.

  • It can be helpful, when reading results like these and thinking about certain human dynamics, to pretend there are really three genders: Females, Alpha males and Beta males.

    In most human societies until the advent of birth control and hygeinic abortion, about 80-90% of women reproduced in each generation, whereas around 40-50% of men did. (You have many more female ancestors than you have male ancestors.) As long as a woman is healthy, she is deemed a candidate for reproduction, whereas a man has to meet much higher standards to get a woman to commit the serious resources it costs her to bear and care for children.

    A man with another woman is more likely to be Alpha, very obviously. The best reproductive strategy for a woman is to get the committmentt of a Beta male, and the sperm of an Alpha. Her children will be cared for by the Beta and her sons will be more likely to be Alpha themselves and therefore reproduce. This is genetically and economically maximal.

    It’s very risky socially, of course. If the ruse is discovered, she risks ostracization and maybe even death (via jealous husband). So this acts as a cap on female behavior of this kind, but the rewards for this behavior are also very high and so it remains as a viable strategy.

    It’s an even better strategy if women remain utterly baffled as to their own behavior. Hence the proliferation of just-so stories that justify women’s poaching instincts, or explanations which manage to shift the blame for poaching behavior back onto the man, or “self-esteem issues” or other betes-noires.