The Mating Mind: Is Boosting Sex Appeal the Brain’s Primary Purpose?

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by: Roger Dooley

The Mating Mind. A prof at the University of New Mexico has an interesting suggestion: the evolution of the human brain was largely driven by finding better ways to appeal to the opposite sex.

Geoffrey Miller is a man with a theory that, if true, will change the way people think about themselves. His idea is that the human brain is the anthropoid equivalent of the peacock’s tail. In other words, it is an organ designed to attract the opposite sex. Of course, brains have many other functions, and the human brain shares those with the brains of other animals. But Dr Miller, who works at the University of New Mexico, thinks that mental processes which are uniquely human, such as language and the ability to make complicated artefacts, evolved originally for sexual display…

In a paper he has just published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, in collaboration with Vladas Griskevicius of Arizona State University, Dr Miller [studied] two activities—conspicuous consumption and altruism towards strangers—to see if these support the “mating mind” hypothesis, as Dr Miller has dubbed his idea. Their conclusion is that they do. [From The Economist – Blatant benevolence and conspicuous consumption.]

In essence, they propose that altruism is a form of conspicuous consumption designed to enhance the reputation (and sex appeal, in the broadest sense) of the donor. Even though spendthrift behavior and charitable actions seem to be entirely unlike each other, in fact they may be different forms of the same behavior. The researchers tested their hypothesis by dividing subjects into two groups, and primed (see Priming) one with romantic ideas by having them write about their ideal date. The other group wrote about the weather. They then gave the subjects a fictional $5,000 to spend, and also asked them to allocate 60 hours of leisure time.

The results were just what the researchers hoped for. In the romantically primed group, the men went wild with the Monopoly money. Conversely, the women volunteered their lives away. Those women continued, however, to be skinflints, and the men remained callously indifferent to those less fortunate than themselves. Meanwhile, in the other group there was little inclination either to profligate spending or to good works. Based on this result, it looks as though the sexes do, indeed, have different strategies for showing off. Moreover, they do not waste their resources by behaving like that all the time. Only when it counts sexually are men profligate and women helpful.

That result was confirmed by the second experiment which, instead of looking at the amount of spending and volunteering, looked at how conspicuous it was. After all, there is little point in producing a costly signal if no one sees it.

As predicted, romantically primed men wanted to buy items that they could wear or drive, rather than things to be kept at home. Their motive, therefore, was not mere acquisitiveness. Similarly, romantically primed women volunteered for activities such as working in a shelter for the homeless, rather than spending an afternoon alone picking up rubbish in a park. For both sexes, however, those in an unromantic mood were indifferent to the public visibility of their choices.

These two studies support the idea, familiar from everyday life, that what women want in a partner is material support while men require self-sacrifice.

There’s useful information in this work for all kinds of marketers, both for-profit and nonprofit. Some of the conclusions may be fairly obvious. Long before neuromarketing and evolutionary psychology, marketers knew that men spend money to enhance their reputation (and their appeal to the opposite sex) – expensive sports cars, costly restaurants, and so on all demonstrate that the guy is financially well-fixed and hence attractive. Marketers who give a man a chance to buy something expensive in a visible way can expect an above-average rate of success. Nonprofits looking for donations must, to appeal to males, also ensure visibility – public recognition is particularly important among those who, even unconsciously, are seeking to boost their attractiveness.

The female side of the equation is a bit different. Women, apparently, tend not to spend money conspicuously as an implicit mating strategy. Interestingly, they may be induced to spend their time conspicuously for that purpose. Nonprofits looking for volunteers know that recognition is important, and this research underscores that some recognition should be public and visible to be most effective.

As always, there are a few caveats. These behaviors were most apparent when the subjects had been primed romantically – it would be a mistake to generalize these behaviors to all males and all females in every circumstance. It wouldn’t surprise me if there are age-based differences not uncovered in this research. And this work is bound to be controversial simply because it implies a selfish biological basis for altruistic behavior. When you suggest that both the male executive who writes a hefty check for cancer research or the Junior League member who spends hundreds of hours on fundraising for a new hospital wing are both being driven by a biological imperative, you are bound to catch some flak.

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