James Bond. High status, clever, cunning. Men want to be him, as they say, and women want to be with him. Although he might be slightly antiquated in a post-Bourne world of action heroes, he still resonates. Last year’s latest Bond movie, Skyfall, performed admirably at the box office, proving that, if nothing else, men and women still want to see him. The modern, Daniel Craig version of Bond is more morose and more reflective than the old Bonds were, but he shares much with those older incarnations. He is still dashing, clever, dapper, and he is still surrounded by a bevy of beautiful women, many of whom he eventually seduces. The attention that he commands from these women might reflect an underlying sexism in the film industry, as my feminist friends would undoubtedly argue, but it also conveys something to the viewer: Bond possesses high quality traits.
What do I mean by this? Well, consider an alternative Bond. Call him BondX. Suppose that this BondX were exactly the same as Bond, except that he repulsed women. Instead of commanding attention and the fawning admiration of beautiful women, BondX is consistently ignored or even degraded by such women. On the rare occasion that he gets close enough to a lovely woman to make a move, he is summarily rejected. He still kills villains, still drinks scotch, and still avoids imminent death while offering irreverent witticisms (“shocking,” “I’d say that’s a waste of perfectly good scotch”). But, he has absolutely no luck with the ladies. We might think BondX cool, but would he be the cultural icon he is today? Or might we assume that there is something about BondX, something hidden from us but exposed by the women around him, that is unsavory, undignified, unappealing?
Perhaps a person’s romantic partner (s) serve an important signaling function, broadcasting information to the social world about that person’s underlying traits? My brother, Ben Winegard, and I have argued just this. Using the basic principles of signaling theory, we argued that a person’s mate (s) function similarly to other prestige goods (e.g., expensive watches, rare scotches, large houses) and communicates important information about the quality of the signaler’s underlying traits. Perceivers of the signal therefore infer certain things about the quality of the signaler based on the quality of his or her signal. (Yes, women show off mates and they are also judged based on the quality of their mates.) If true, we reasoned that both men and women should “flaunt” or showoff attractive mates and “conceal” or hide unattractive mates. We call these “mate flaunting,” and “mate concealing” respectively*.
Our research has strongly supported our theoretically based intuitions. In an article published in PlosOne (Winegard, Winegard, & Geary, 2013), we showed that men and women flaunt, and that men, but not women conceal (this was, however, close to significance). Specifically, we had participants come to a lab. We then told the participants that previous research showed that survey responses were more favorable when the survey distributors were happy couples. We were interested, we said, in this hypothesis. So some of the participants would distribute surveys with an other-sex partner and some would distribute them alone. Those who had a partner were to pretend that they and their partner were in a happy relationship. We then gave them a pamphlet that included a picture of their supposed partners, a choice of locations, and asked a few questions about their expectations during the surveying experience (e.g., about how others will view them, how anxious they will feel). We then gave them a choice between two locations. One was described as rife with other undergraduates (relevant peer group) and one was described as comprised of older administrators (not relevant peer group). We reasoned that if they wanted to flaunt a mate, they would choose the undergraduate location and that if they wanted to conceal a mate they would choose the administrative location. This supposition was supported with other measures.
We manipulated the attractiveness of the putative partners by using either a photograph of a man/woman from the top 90th percentile pre-rated photographs or a photograph of a man/woman from the bottom 90th percentile. There was, in other words, a large disparity between the attractive partners and the unattractive partners.
As predicted, both men and women desired the undergraduate location more when ostensibly partnered with attractive members of the other sex than when partnered with unattractive members of the other sex. (The desire for location was measured on a five-point scale, ranging from 1 = very strongly prefer administrative location, to 3 = no preference, to 5 = very strongly prefer the undergraduate location. We ran a control to check baseline preferences, and the baselines did not differ significantly from 3, or no preference.) That is, men and women flaunt. Men, but not women, also concealed. We have since replicated those results twice, and discovered that, contrary to the expectations of Vakirtzis and Roberts (see, for example, 2009, 2010), men actually prefer to flaunt to other men. Furthermore, the status that is granted to those who flaunt very closely resembles the status that is granted to those who flaunt luxury goods. We believe this provides excellent support for a signaling account of mate flaunting.
James Bond might be anachronistic and sexist. But the technique of indicating status through the affections and attention of the other sex is probably not going to disappear anytime soon. Like conspicuous consumption, mate flaunting might be an unfortunate but almost inevitable byproduct of our relatively noble desire to display the quality of our underlying traits. I am hopeful that this desire might find more salubrious outlets in the future. Perhaps we can learn to flaunt our commitments to nice people or our rejection of the superficial. (In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, there was a display of “reverse mate flaunting.” Larry, the show’s antihero, explicitly stopped working with men who had beautiful partners because he believed it evidence of superficiality.) I am also hopeful that we will eventually destroy all nuclear missiles and develop harmonious global relations. I am not optimistic about the prospects for either.
*Before proceeding, I should note that Vakirtzis and Roberts (2009, 2010; Vakirtzis, 2011) forwarded similar ideas. Whereas their research stemmed from mate copying literature, the current ideas stem from signaling theory. Readers are advised to examine their important articles. In fact, the term “flaunting a mate” comes from their research.
Vakirtzis, A., & Roberts, S. C. (2009). Mate choice copying and mate quality bias: different processes, different species. Behavioral Ecology, 20, 908-911.
Vakirtzis, A., & Roberts, S. C. (2010). Nonindependent mate choice in monogamy. Behavioral Ecology, 21, 898-901.
Vakirtzis, A. (2011). Mate choice copying and nonindependent mate choice: a critical review. In Annales Zoologici Fennici, 48, 91-107.
Winegard, B. M., Winegard, B., & Geary, D. C. (2013). If You’ve Got It, Flaunt It: Humans Flaunt Attractive Partners to Enhance Their Status and Desirability. PloS ONE, 8, e72000.