Thursday, July 27, 2017

Broaching Poaching

In 1994 evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss published The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, which analyzes the topic in evolutionary terms. “Evolutionary psychology” is just the latest moniker for the longstanding argument that human behavioral predilections are pre-bent by prehistory – that they are a feature of the way the human brain and its affective subsystems are structured. Cf. Carl Jung regarding a newborn: “He is not born as a tabula rasa, he is merely born unconscious. But he brings with him systems that are organized and ready to function in a specifically human way, and these he owes to millions of years of human development.” This seems obvious, and it is clearly the case in all other species. Yet there always are those who argue against it except when it is inconvenient (e.g. regarding sexual preferences), and until recently they were dominant in academia. In my own estimation evolutionary psychology is a powerful tool for understanding human nature, but it’s not the whole story. (In fairness, few evolutionary psychologists say it is.) The tabula rasa folks are wrong, but they are not crazy. Included in that evolved heritage is a mental capacity to choose to act against our predilections. Freud and his successors tell us we do so at our cost (though the payoff might be worth it), but we can do it. The slate never can be wiped clean, but with effort it can be overwritten. Individual decisions and socialization do matter. Most of us don’t overwrite it most of the time, however, and even those who do find what lies beneath bleeding through to the top from time to time.

The book was controversial when first published but, in the decades since, cross-cultural studies involving thousands of people have reconfirmed most of its findings. Last year Buss released an updated version, which includes the results of studies from the past 20 years. It was my reading material yesterday. The title has a plural because each sex employs a variety of strategies depending on circumstances such as the sex ratio and economic conditions. There are, of course wide individual variations in romantic matters, but there are bell curves of behavior for each sex that overlap but have distinctly different centerlines. We all are descended from ancestors who were reproductively successful, so it is hardly surprising that their predilections are (by and large) ours. Most often, strategies for obtaining (and dumping) mates are employed without conscious forethought. The strategies are frequently anything but nice. Buss: “I would prefer that the competitive, conflictual, and manipulative aspects of human mating did not exist. But a scientist cannot wish away unpleasant findings.”

One small chapter in the book discusses mate poaching. For some reason it particularly struck a chord with readers. Articles about it (which ignore the rest of the book) have turned up regularly in popular magazines and periodicals ever since ‘94. Why this particular topic attracted so much interest probably has to do with our own experiences as real or potential poachers or poachees – or as the Significant Other of one. Desirable mates are always in short supply, so this tactic persists, abetted by the quirkily human tendency to believe that “the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” (The cliché is from Ars Amatoria, Ovid’s first century handbook on seduction: “Fertilior seges est alienis semper in agris.”) 60% of men and 53% of women admit “to having attempted to lure someone else’s mate into a committed relationship.” 93% of men and 82% of women have been the targets of such a poaching attempt. (The percentages are reversed when the offer is just for short term sex.) The most time honored method is presenting oneself as more desirable than a rival while derogating the rival. Hardly anyone is thinking of reproductive success when engaging in or defending against this behavior. Often that’s the last thing they want. They are boosting self-esteem, playing a game, exercising control, “following their hearts,” or any of a multitude of motivations, but there is something more primal beneath all that. Contraception allows contemporary humans (unlike our ancestors) to separate sex and reproduction, but we still are apt to act and react as though they are linked.

So, the odds are someone at some time will make a play for your sweetie. The odds are you’ll make a play for someone at some point. The good news (or bad news, depending on your perspective) is that the attempts succeed only occasionally. When they do, from the standpoint of the one left behind it’s probably best to let them. Anyone that ready to wander off with a poacher is preferably somebody else’s problem.

Samantha Fish – Somebody’s Always Trying to Take My Baby Away
[My silhouette is not on camera, but I was there.]


  1. Never had the desire to mate poach, which is not to say I didn't think some of my friend's wives weren't attractive. I have to admit it crossed my mind when one of my friend's passed away and his widow asked me to come over to their house, but even then I shied away--it just felt like betrayal, and me and him had been friends for a long time.

    Re: Desirable mates are always in short supply--I can identify with that, but I guess I'm not alone in that outlook. I get a lot of: Why haven't you ever been married question (or used to). It was a lot easier when the hormones were raging, but now I'm too analytical. :)

    I liked that musical number, looked like she was having trouble with her guitar pedals, but she pulled it off professionally. Reckon she ever gets hit on?

    1. Yes, it’s “desirable” that’s the key. Despite all the social changes of the past century, people still define that word in Cro-Magnon terms. Once again we’re talking about average behavior (there is always a bell curve of behavior, so generalizations apply just to the central hump), but the classic men-value-youth-and-beauty while women-value-status-and-resources cliché still holds water – that’s not all they value, of course, and there are trade-offs with other factors, but it’s a hefty part of the mix. For example, surveys show that high-earning women, who don’t need additional resources, actually (on average) value wealth and status in a partner MORE than do average-earners; higher incomes just up the standards, not reverse them. Buss tells an anecdote of professional young women at a restaurant table commenting on the absence of datable men while being served by handsome young male waiters – they weren’t datable. Men of any socioeconomic class hit on waitresses, of course, but, again, for the shallowest of Paleolithic-era reasons.

      Yes, un-broke men over a certain age get the “why aren’t you married?” question a lot, at least when other disqualifying factors aren’t obvious – and not infrequently coupled with overt queries about orientation. I don’t mind. It’s as good a table topic as any.

      Samantha puts on a really fun live show, and I recommend catching her if you get a chance. I think she was playing with the distortion by hand just for the finer control, but either way it sounded good. And yes, I’m sure she has broken hearts (and maybe a restraining order or two) scattered around the places she tours.