If there’s one subject in psychology that’s guaranteed to remind me I’m part of the animal kingdom it is evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary psychology attempts to explain our psychological makeup by thinking about natural selection. In other words evolutionary psychologists ask questions about what evolutionary advantage is gained by particular types of behaviour.
In the process of asking these questions they come up with terms like ‘mate value’, ‘ mate choice’ and ‘mating effort’. Oh, these guys are obsessed with mating, just like the rest of us. One recent study published in the Journal of Evolutionary Psychology provides an interesting examples of the genre.
Mating effort and infidelity
The term ‘mating effort’ doesn’t necessarily refer to turning up at your date’s door with two tickets to the symphony and an expensive present – although it might involve that along the way. What it means in evolutionary psychological terms is that those high in ‘mating effort’ tend to pursue more short-term mating strategies. These are the people with more sexual partners in a shorter time.
A study carried out by Jones, Figueredo, Dicket & Jacobs (2007) examined how mating effort affects the degree to which people are upset if their partner cheats on them. Counter-intuitively, the results show that those employing higher mating effort, were more likely to be upset by infidelity. They were also more likely to respond in a punitive fashion – presumably by breaking up with this cuckold immediately.
The evolutionary psychological explanation for this is as follows. If you are a high mating effort kind of person you are putting in more energy to finding partners. You also have to go around making sure no one else is messing with your mate. On a short-term strategy, the thinking goes, there’s more emphasis on short-term sexual fidelity – essentially because all your relationships are short-term. And so you’re more likely to be upset if your mate cheats on you.
This is particularly interesting because you might guess that people who are in a long-term relationship are more likely to be angry with infidelity.
Of course, questions have to be asked about the methodology used in this research. After all participants were filling in questionnaires asking them to conjure up imaginary situations so there’s always the problem with whether this represents real behaviours and feelings.
I should point out that psychologists often get pretty riled about evolutionary psychology, as evidenced by the reaction to this recent post on so-called ‘truths’ about human nature. It is particularly attractive to blow up fairly limited findings out of all proportion.
You have been warned!
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
Jones, D. N., Figueredo, A. J., Dicket, E. D., & Jacobs, W. J. (2007) Relations Among Individual Differences in Reproductive Strategies, Sexual Attractiveness, Affective and Punitive Intentions, and Imagined Sexual or Emotional Infidelity. Evolutionary Psychology, 5, 387-410.