“Are we doomed?” & “Oh, you must be using me as your case study!”
These are the two comments I get the most at work. Did I mention I’m a bartender? By day, I study evolutionary psychology. But by night, I put on a cape and bartend. Okay, I don’t wear a cape… usually. Often, customers will ask me what I’m studying and what I do when I’m not tending bar. Once I mention the words ‘evolution’ and/or ‘psychology’ I typically get asked if we’re all doomed as a species (whatever that means), and whether or not I’m using the bar scene as my laboratory. Probably not and no, respectively. My limited knowledge in evolutionary psychology can’t really answer that first question (can anyone?), and I’m certainly not secretly taking notes on people’s drinking habits, behavior, or emotional issues they dish to me. What I do typically study in the actual laboratory is mating strategies from an evolutionary perspective. This is definitely something seen at the bar. I’ve witnessed many a first date crash and burn after a couple martinis, and I’ve also seen many a happily wedded couple enjoy a nightcap on their date. I’m sure we all have, and most of us probably have our own dating story to tell. Based on research in human mating strategies, and on my experience actually witnessing mating strategies in action from behind the bar, here’s my take on what to know when you’re dating.
First, it’s important to know the difference between a Type I error and a Type II error. Or as Glenn Geher puts it (Darwin’s Subterranean World), the more aptly named “Found Fool’s Gold” Error and the “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error. A Type I error occurs when someone reports an effect that is not actually present – a false positive. A simple example would be if a company announced that their new anti-depression medication helps fight depression, when really, it does not. The “Found Fool’s Gold” Error – the treatment didn’t really work, but now everyone thinks it does. This is obviously a huge problem. A Type II error occurs when an effect really IS present, but is missed or goes unnoticed – a false negative. An example of this would be if the same new anti-depression medication was tested, and the researchers declared that the treatment is useless because it had no effect on depression. It could be that the new treatment actually decreased anxiety, but this benefit went unnoticed and unreported because the researchers were only looking at depression. The “Failed to Find Something that’s Actually Real” Error – the new medication actually worked for something, but the effect was missed. Both cases are errors, but one (Type I) is generally much worse than the other (Type II).
Now, let’s relate this to mating strategies. When it comes to women seeking men, The Type II error would be to assume that men are not willing or ready to commit to a relationship long-term. This error is safer in a way – the cost of making this error is significantly less than the cost of making the Type I error. The Type I error would be to lack any sense of skepticism and assume all men are ready and willing to commit to a long-term relationship. The cost of making this error is far greater than the cost of the Type II error when dating. The cost of unexpectedly having to bear children without resources and support from a would-be father or husband is greater than the cost of missing a potential dating opportunity. For men seeking women, the Type II error would be to assume that all women definitely want to sleep with you. The cost of this error might be a slap or a drink thrown in your face. However, the cost of the Type I error – assuming no women want to sleep with you – would be a serious loss of reproductive success.
Indeed, research has shown that we tend to stick to the Type II errors when it comes to mating strategies. Haselton and colleagues found that women tend to assume that men are unwilling to commit, and men tend to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent (2000). It is the less risky route to take in terms of increasing one’s reproductive success. True enough, I see this a lot when I’m working at the bar. Often, women on a date will later confess to me or ask if I think the guy they’re on a date with is a “player” or unwilling to commit and be exclusive. Similarly, I hear men making comments once in a while like “dude, she totally wants to sleep with me.” (Cue eye-roll)
So, what? What’s the take-away? Here’s my advice when it comes to dating today – have fun and relax a little. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s actually in our biology to feel these things – for women to be skeptical of a man’s level of commitment and for men to over-perceive a woman’s sexual intent. When weighing the costs, there’s clear evidence and there are clear signs that one error may cost a lot more than the other. This has shown to be adaptive for our reproductive success. However, knowing why we think and feel this way when we date can also be adaptive. Being aware of these mechanisms may alleviate any initial negative or judgmental thoughts about a person’s dating perspective. Guys, let’s avoid calling her “baby-crazy” or “needy” if a gal mentions interest in the long game. Ladies, maybe just throw the water in his face instead of the red wine when he wrongly assumes you’re ready to go home with him already.
Haselton, M. G., & Buss, D. M. (2000). Error management theory: a new perspective on biases in cross-sex mind reading. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(1), 81-91.
Geher, G. (2015, October 21). Renaming Type I and Type II error [Web blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/darwins-subterranean- world/201510/renaming-type-i-and-type-ii-error