Tuesday, October 2, 2012
In the immortal words of Avril Lavigne: “Hey hey, you you, I don't like your girlfriend / No way, no way, I think you need a new one / Hey hey, you you, I could be your girlfriend...”
Do I need to apologize for subjecting you to that? I almost feel as if I do. But it serves my point, I swear. Let’s say that the song was not titled “Girlfriend,” but instead was called “Mate Poaching.” Admittedly, it doesn’t really have the same ring to it, but that is essentially what she’s talking about.
Human mate poaching is when someone tries to attract another person who is already in a relationship. This special form of attraction comes in both the short-term (the casual sexual dalliance) and the long-term (“If they only knew we were soul-mates!”) varieties. You can also look at it from different perspectives, the poacher or the poachee. In the latter, you have what is called mate poaching enticement where the person in the relationship is trying to attract someone new. Regardless of the duration, the interaction involves at least three people in a complex web of emotions, conflict, and sex (usually secretive sex). Put that together and you’ve got one good psychology study and several mediocre movies on your hands. Think about it: Romance, attraction, competition, persuasion, deception, jealousy, betrayal. It’s like the Hollywood checklist. But, being a science blog and this coming from a science paper, we’ll stick to the psychology study part.
Now, I’ve done quite a few posts on relationships. Most of these have to do with the attraction of one sex to another. Today we look at the other end of the relationship. A slightly older paper published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin delves into mate poaching enticement. How do you attract someone when you have this extra relationship component? Studies have shown that it is the same way you attract someone otherwise. Men tend to like beauty and sex, and women like the resource acquisition and dominance. You’re shocked, I can tell. However, mate poaching has several unique aspects or tactics. For example, targeting the mating rival and manipulating that emotional commitment. It also has costs that range from a blemished reputation to an all-out physical smack-down from the offended party. This paper looks at the former, the tactics, that people use to elicit a poaching attempt on themselves. The researchers do this by separating their study into two studies:
Study 1: What tactics do people use to entice other into making a mate poaching attempt?
A preliminary study was conducted to identify and name mate poaching enticement tactics so that they could be rated for effectiveness in the main study. In the main study, they gave participants a sheet of paper asking for their sex and containing an instructional set. These instructions explained mate poaching enticement, gave a list of tactics compiled from the preliminary study, and asked the participants to rate the acts on a 7-point scale. They found that already-mated men who were seeking a short-term relationship had the most luck using if the tactics “Enhance Potential Mate” (boost their ego, compliment them, tells them they deserve someone better), “Use Humor”, and “Provide Easy Sexual Access” (offer sex, ask for sex, make a pass). If a man is seeking a long-term relationship then his best tactics are “Enhance Potential Mate,” “Be Generous” (show you are a caring person, be extra polite, help with work or chores), and “Use Humor.” The researchers found that already-mated women seeking a short-term relationship had the best luck when the “Arrange Easy Sexual Access” (appear naked in room or car, turns a friendly date into a romantic one, suggests casual sex only), “Enhance Potential Mate,”, and “Provide Easy Sexual Access” tactics were employed. So, offer sex and thou shalt receive sex? Yep. For women seeking a new long-term partner, the best tactics were to “Develop Emotional Closeness” (confide in them, be good friends, talk about interests), “Mention Looking for Replacement,” and “Be Generous.” Overall, they found that enhancing an ego and being generous worked the best.
Study 2: What tactics to men and women use to disguise mate poaching enticement?
People tend to use deception tactics to gain access to things that they want. Often these tactics both increase the deceiver’s perceived value while also hiding their intentions from the competition. You can probably see how this is useful in the scope of mate poaching enticement. Again, the researchers conducted a preliminary experiment to identify and name these deceptions and disguise tactics so they could be rated later. As with the previous study, they gave a set of participants an instructional set, asking them to rate on a 7-point scale how effective each tactic would be at hiding from a current partner the fact that someone is trying to attract a new partner. They found that women were seen as more effective when they used the tactics “Keep Things Normal” (don’t change physical look, keep daily routine), “Use Friends” (introduce new partner to a faithful friend, friends help in the cover up, continues to go out with friends), “Lie About Relationships” (future plans, family involvement), "Lie About Self” (lie about past, lie about ending current relationship, keep conversation routine), “Establish Independent Self” (open bank account in own name, separate credit cards), and “Social Isolation” (attend fewer events, don’t discuss new partner, don’t spend much time away from work or home). In contrast, men were more effective when they used the tactics “Decrease Time with Current Partner” (goes out less with current partner, avoid being alone with current partner) and “Use Work Excuse” (work more hours, extra projects, sneak away from work). In terms of social level, when deceiving a community it is best to use the “Distance Friendships” (stop hanging around with mutual friends, don’t tell anyone about new partner, think before speaking in public) tactic, but when deceiving a single person it is best to use “Phone Tactics” (give new partner a fake phone number, buy new cell phone, get separate line). Overall, it was found that the effective acts for men were those that showed others that his current relationship would continue unabated, providing his mate with a close emotional connection. For women to be most successful at deception they must show that they maintain their daily routine. Apparently acting as if nothing is different or even increasing romance and sex with her mate are especially effective in disguising a mate poach. Put simply: blind him with sex.
The more I read through this paper the more I felt like I was reading Science’s Guide to Cheating and Getting Away With It. I can’t say that any one thing in this study was particularly surprising. I don’t know if it is because it truly is predictable or if it is because we’ve all heard these excuses before. Hard to tell really. What do you think?
David P. Schmitt, & Todd K. Shackelford (2003). Nifty Ways to Leave Your Lover: The Tactics People Use to Entice and Disguise the Process of Human Mate Poaching. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 29 (8), 1018-1035 DOI: 10.1177/0146167203253471