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A Woman Is the Best Wingman: The Science of Fish Mating...and Modern Dating?
By Heath Shive
When I was back in high school, there was a short list of ladies that all the guys thought were "hot."
I remember that - a few years later - I was looking at the same old high school yearbook and thought...differently.
How could I find a woman desirable in one context, but - a relatively short time later - find the same woman remarkably less attractive.
There are whole episodes of TV dedicated to this premise - most notably by Barney Stinson's "cheerleader effect" used in How I Met Your Mother (Season 4, episode 7).
Of course, there is a science to this too.
Sound fishy? It will.
To the science!
The Birds and the Bees…and Fish?
There is not a one-to-one correlation in the behavior between humans and animals. For example, animals lack our abstract conceptions, like morality, music, honor, or sympathy.
But the amazing (or disconcerting) thing is how similarly humans and animals do act - especially in primal activities, like mating.
In 1992, the biologists Lee Dugatkin and Jean Godin made a study – which is pretty well-known in academia – involving the mating behavior of guppies. They discovered that small females by themselves will choose mates based on their instincts.
But in a group, something else happens.
Large female guppies have rank in the group. Large size is a sign of longevity, and therefore a sign of evolutionary success. Small females will likely abandon their first mating choice – to pursue the males that large females pursue.
Dugatkin and Godin believed that a female’s choice of mate wasn’t just driven by individual genetics, but also by cultural cues.
In 2002, two biological researchers named Klaudia Witte and Michael Ryan performed another similar study using sailfin molly fish. In this study, they discovered that a male fish will choose a female who is already accompanied by a male, rather than pursue a lone female. And a female molly fish will choose a male fish who is already accompanied by a female.
The fish only pursued mates that others were pursuing!
Your reference group determines your social value, and therefore it determines your options.
How Does This Help Me?
It is easier to look at animal studies and stay objective. I have found that it is when we mention human studies that listeners can become defensive. So...just so you know, I will be using human studies on this same subject soon. I am trying to warm you up to the idea.
But the idea is obvious. You are judged by others around you. Some (and only some, not all) of those judgments carry weight - but the only important and personal judgments are those made by your own reference group, your culture.
There are many cultures and sub-cultures in humanity. But the key here is your culture.
Your reference group (culture) determines your social value. Whoever has rank in your reference group will determine your own social value…and influence your mate selection. That’s why there are generalized dating sites (e.g. Match.com), but there are also dating sites geared specifically towards specific sub-groupings – e.g., Jewish, Christian, rural, professional, racial, etc.
But the studies show us something more too: We want what others have!
So, ladies, you can bring male dates to weddings, office parties, and bars that you have no romantic/sexual interest in. The male escort not only gives you external validation, it improves your perceived social value and can cultivate new male interest, even jealousy. Next time you flirt, your attention will have more social value. Next time you ask a man out, your regard will have more power.
Guys, next time do not go out with your male buddies. Find a woman to go out with you instead - not as a romantic target per se, but as a way to enhance your social value. If she’s just a friend, that’s fine. Her presence still enhances your value. The more attractive this woman is, the more other women will notice – and increase your social value.
That’s why this is a frequent trope in TV and movies. It’s based on reality – our culture and system of social values.
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Strauss, Neil. The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pick-Up Artists. Regan Books, 2005.
Dugatkin, L. A. & Godin, J.-G. J. 1992. Reversal of female mate choice by copying in the guppy (Poecilia reticulata). Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, Series B, 249, 179–184
Witte, Klaudia and Michael J. Ryan. 2002. Mate choice copying in the sailfin molly, Poecilia latipinna in the wild. Animal Behaviour, 2002, 63, 943–949
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.