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
Mom Lied! Looks Do Matter! The Science of Superficial Judgments
By Heath Shive
The great entrepreneur Helena Rubinstein once said, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones.”
Rubinstein’s words apply to men as well.
Not all of us are born with the DNA of a bikini model or Adonis, but all of us can work at improving our appearance.
Because all of us will be judged on our appearance.
I read Rubinstein’s quote in a book by Neil Strauss, author of the best-seller The Game – a book about the world of pick-up artists.
Originally, Strauss had been a short, out of shape guy with thinning hair and bad clothes. But Strauss exercised, lost weight, shaved his head for a bolder look, grew a beard to hide his weak chin, and bought trendier clothes.
And his love life improved.
To the science of superficial judgments!
The Great Fudge-Poo Experiment of 1986?
Back in 1986, psychologists Paul Rozin, Linda Millman, and Carol Nemeroff published a hilarious series of experiments on the laws of contagion and laws of similarity.
In one experiment, subjects were offered a piece of high-quality square-shaped fudge. The subjects ate the piece and rated their desire to eat another piece. Then two additional pieces of the same fudge were presented – one fudge piece was shaped like a muffin and the other shaped like dog poop.
The experimenter truthfully told the subjects that the fudge was exactly the same. The subjects rated their desire to eat more of each shape (muffin-shape first, then dog feces), indicated the one they preferred, and were then asked to take a bite from the preferred piece.
The subjects rated their preference on a 200-point scale. A -100 was to describe the worst possible experience, 0 was neutral, and +100 was highest (most pleasurable) rating.
The subjects rated the poop-shaped fudge as 47 points worse than the original square fudge…even though it was the same fudge!
There were more experiments in this study – which should be used in every Psych 101 course – but Rozin, Millman, and Nemeroff made their point.
Humans have an instinct to judge everything based on appearances.
Can any of us change our instincts?
My previous blog – The Science of a Young Black Man in a Suit – discussed the amazing power of a business suit to enhance the social prestige of young black men on the streets of Chicago.
In another blog – The Science of Cars and Sex Appeal – a scientific study demonstrated how a sports car can enhance a man’s sex appeal to women.
Appearances do not change your morality, your ability, your kindness, or your work ethic.
Appearances do change how people treat you.
That’s just reality.
And since we live on world surrounded by 7 billion other people – all of whom will judge us at first based on what we look like – it behooves us to take our appearance seriously.
We may not be able to change our instincts. However, we could try to master them to our advantage.
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Rozin, Paul & Millman, Linda & Nemeroff, Carol. (1986). Operation of the Laws of Sympathetic Magic in Disgust and Other Domains. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50 (4), 703-712.
The Science of a Young Black Man in a Suit: The Primary Prejudice Is About Money?
By Heath Shive
In 2012, Trayvon Martin – a young black man – was wearing a hoodie as he walked home. George Zimmerman thought he looked suspicious, so he accosted, fought, and fatally shot Martin.
Would Martin be alive today if…he had worn a suit?
In 2014, Eric Garner was strangled fatally when police arrested him for allegedly selling “loosies” on the street. Would Garner still be alive if he had been wearing a suit?
Both of these cases made national headlines with a media spotlight on race relations in America.
But was racism the real prejudice?
Justine Damond was shot and killed by a rookie police officer in Minneapolis in 2017.
But, she was white, a woman, unarmed, and in an affluent neighborhood!
Damond was wearing pajamas at the time of her shooting. Would she be alive today if…she had been wearing a pantsuit?
To the science of a young black man in a suit!
The Chicago Study
In Chicago, researchers Uri Gneezy, John List, and Michael K. Price created an experiment. In the experiment, a tester (working for the scientists) would walk around in Chicago and ask people for directions to a local landmark. The study would measure 2 things: whether the people responded to the question, and how long they talked to the tester.
There were 40 testers consisting of 8 groups of 5 each, divided by race (white and black), age (20 and 50), and gender (male and female).
There were a total of 3,000 respondents and here are the results.
A 20-year old white female had the highest response rate and response time.
A 20-year old black male had the lowest response rate and time.
True to stereotype, right?
But did you notice something non-stereotypical?
The prejudice in action was not simply about race.
So the researchers went one step farther.
The Science of a Young Black Man in a Suit
The researchers sent the 20-year black male testers back into the streets for another test run.
But this time, they didn’t wear hoodies. The young black men wore…business suits.
In the words of Uri Gneezy and John List in their book The Why Axis: “Indeed, this time, the young black men were treated quite well and received the same quality information the young women had received.”
The young black men’s response rates and times roughly equaled the highest rates of the entire study!
All it took was a business suit!
Uri Gneezy and John List include this study – among many others – in their incredible book The Why Axis. The book is about discrimination in all its economic aspects. And some of their findings are not only relevant, but surprising as well.
Really, what is a suit? A suit means a "successful" job at a "successful" wage. It means money. A suit carries a prejudice - it creates a standard appearance for success. Without a suit, how important can you be?
We talk about race a lot in this country, but do we dare to ask: what were they wearing? Is the primary prejudice in this country an economic one?
Clothes don’t make the man. But clothes do change our perception.
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Gneezy, Uri, & John List. The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life. PublicAffairs, 2013.
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.