Homo Hypocritus Mates

From the latest Journal of Personality & Social Psychology:

In Study 1, the scent of women near peak levels of fertility heightened the men’s implicit accessibility to sexual concepts. Study 2 demonstrated that, among men who reported being particularly sensitive to odors, scent cues of fertility triggered heightened perceptions of women’s sexual arousal. Study 3 revealed that in a face-to-face interaction, cues of fertility increased men’s tendency to make risky decisions and to behaviorally mimic a female partner. …

Whereas women may have been selected to suppress cues of ovulation in order to sustain men’s commitment, men have been selected to identify fertility cues in order to enhance a short-term mating endeavor’s probability of reproductive success. … It is unlikely that all indicators of fertility could be suppressed, because some detectable shifts in hormones are needed to facilitate ovulation. Consequently, men must rely on fairly subtle cues (e.g., changes in scent and skin tone) associated with those hormonal shifts to help them respond adaptively to women’s changing levels of fertility.

A book review in the latest Quarterly Review of Biology:

The Evolutionary Biology of Human Female Sexuality. [2008] … Thornhill and Gangestad argue that [human] women possess two distinct evolved sexualities. One is the “extended sexuality” that women engage in when conception is impossible; the other they call “estrous” sexuality. The former functions to elicit “material benefits” from males, the latter to acquire “good genes” for offspring, and in keeping with these distinct functions, candidate male partners are evaluated on distinct criteria in the two contexts. In making the case for these views, the authors provide an impressively up-to-date, thorough, and evenhanded review.

I’ve argued that central to human nature are deep, subtle, and powerful abilities to give the impression we are doing one thing, while actually doing another.  A key example of this is our unique female ability to appear to be always fertile, in order to overtly attract “dads,” while actually covertly attracting “cads” in rare fertile times, when norm violations matter most.  (Cads offer sperm, while dads offer other supports.) Some, but not all, men can see through this illusion, to better coordinate norm violations.  The difficulty of this task helps women screen out unwanted cads, and male and female unconsciousness about all this helps hide norm violations.

Some of these capacities seem far older than farming, showing just how ancient are our hypocritical tendencies.

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  • Philo

    “These capacities seem far older than farming . . . .” A very plausible guess, but what hard evidence is there?

  • Querious

    It is illuminating that the authors of the quoted book, quite explicitly seem to disagree.

    The authors believe that EPC (extra-pair copulation – gunning for “cads”) is rare and may not be an important evolutionary driver:

    “We never suggest, however, that EPC is or has been rampant in human history (his pts. 2, 4), and our views don’t imply it (pp. 239-241, 293-295). Indeed, we explicitly discuss evidence that it’s rare (pp. 311-314), which leads us to question Prof. Dixson’s statement that he read our book “carefully.” “

  • Querious
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  • Well all of the really heavy shit is rare, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t strongly shaped human nature through natural selection.

    Even the most violent hunter-gatherer / horticulturalist societies don’t experience hourly warfare or intra-group violence. It could “only” be several times a year, sometimes with cooling off periods between inter-group raids (like Chagnon says the Yanamamo practiced).

    But real life is about frequency times magnitude of an event, and kill-or-be-killed is a large-impact event. So is cheating on your partner — it could result in cuckoldry for the male, or gradual withdrawal of resources and even abandonment for the female if the male grows more attached to his mistress.

    BTW, I’m one of those males who’s super-sensitive to when a female’s ovulating, especially scent, and there’s nothing unconscious about it! Rather, these males hide their ability to violate norms by not bringing it up with other people — it would sound very weird.

    Plus they probably doubt their own abilities, since most other guys seem completely oblivious to all the clear signs of female ovulation. “Can I really be smelling something they aren’t?” So they’re conscious but doubting and reserved about their norm-evading perceptual skills.

    • Doug S.

      BTW, I’m one of those males who’s super-sensitive to when a female’s ovulating, especially scent, and there’s nothing unconscious about it! Rather, these males hide their ability to violate norms by not bringing it up with other people — it would sound very weird.

      Maybe some other men who are also able to detect these differences don’t know what it is they’re noticing? (Some girls just “mysteriously” smell sexy some of the time?)

  • Peter St. Onge

    A propos the eternal arms-race, heard a nice trick: buy a used Ferrari. 80% depreciation at 15k miles, you lose none of the come-hitherness.

  • pjf

    So the idea is, contra the first quoted article, women are not actually trying to suppress all indicators of fertility? And this is because they are in competition with other women to attract the interests of “cads”? But that puts them in conflict with the goal of concealing estrus from “dads”. Why would only some men be able to “see through this illusion”? I have no training in this area, but is being to detect the smells associated with certain hormones really so costly in energy terms that it is only optimal for a subset of the male population to be able to do it? Wouldn’t “dads” want to have that skill as well, so as to know when to invest more resources in mate-guarding?

  • paquibena

    Everything depends on the cost of rearing children.

    If mothers can rear them alone (with or without State help), cads will be selected and pass their genes onto the next generation (as attractiveness will be more important than resources in the mating market).

    If children cannot be supported by a lone parent, dads will keep the upper hand, as the choice for women will be choosing resources vs not having surviving children at all.

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