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Mating Intelligence: A Necessary Oxymoron

A date makes us both spectator and performer at a two-ring circus: We troll for wit, kindness, curiosity, and “chemistry,” hoping that we radiate these same attributes in the right amounts. From strategic winks and blinks to elaborate grooming to gifts of gorgeous baubles, men and women employ an arsenal of tricks in their romantic lives, all in the service of a demanding master at the far reaches of conscious awareness. Eons of evolution have honed our behavior to aid and abet a reproductive payoff. The sum of the stratagems we employ, and the wisdom of nature in crafting them without our explicit awareness, are now the subject of intense study by evolutionary psychologists.

Our sexual calculations and character reconnaissance, it turns out, call for smart, but not always accurate, judgments. That’s because mating intelligence is as oxymoronic as the term suggests. We routinely bring both cold reason and outsized misconceptions to a relationship. Both serve a purpose. A woman will accurately gauge her date’s personality on first meeting, but she will grow more convinced of his good humor and charm if they stick together. To woo a woman, a guy will grossly exaggerate his income, commitment, and affection for cuddly creatures. But he may have to correctly read microgestures as fine as tea leaves to discern whether she’s truly impressed.

Male and female mating intelligence part ways when it comes to each sex’s competing procreative goals. Inscrutable though our machinations may be to our partners (and to ourselves), romantic behavior is driven by a deep logic. Our minds have evolved to warp reality. Even so, we have unique skews in the mating realm. We’ve all got blind spots about the opposite sex. And sometimes that’s for the best.

“She Wants Me” and Other Erotic Errata

Jane Austen nailed women’s intricate courtship calculus, but The Onion has the beat on simple male arithmetic: “Area Man Going to Go Ahead and Consider That a Date.” The article in the satirical rag details a man’s random encounter with a woman that blossomed into a 45-minute conversation. “It wasn’t official or anything, but if I had asked her to have coffee with me, and she were to have said yes, the result would have been exactly the same,” he says. “It’s pretty clear that she’s really into me.”

Men have a notoriously elastic take on women’s romantic receptivity. You might call it a “take-all-prisoners” approach to flirting, so frequently do men presume sexual interest on the part of a potentially available woman. The “She Wants Me” bias serves a convenient purpose for men—it actually increases their sexual opportunities. Because men invest less of themselves in offspring relative to women, it is in their genetic interests to reproduce as much as possible. Therefore, perceptions that promote sexual assertiveness tend to be functional. This inclination doesn’t mean the average guy is delusional about his sex appeal, it just means that if he has a great date he will probably report more interest on the part of his consort than she herself reports.

Women, for their part, are biased right back. They skittishly insist that men are more keen on no-strings-attached sex than is the case. This “men are pigs” bias pits suspicious women against oversolicitous men in what Geoffrey Miller, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, labels a “never-ending arms race of romantic skepticism and excess.” It could lead to great repartee: Think Bacall and Bogie, Josephine and Napoleon, Condi and Kim Jong Il…

Read more: Kaja Perina, Psychology Today




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