In Plutarch’s Life of Julius Caesar, a story is related that Julius Caesar divorced his wife (Pompeia) because of rumors of opprobrious behavior. At trial, Caesar said he knew nothing about his wife’s rumored adultery, but asserted that he divorced her because his wife “ought not even be under suspicion” (The Life of Caesar, 9-10). In a sense, what Caesar was asserting was that he would not allow his wife’s suspected behaviors to sully his status, reputation, and prestige. At the time, Caesar was a powerful and ambitious political player (Pontifex Maximus), and he did not want his career thwarted by rumors of his mate’s turpitudinous behavior. But why should Pompeia’s behavior affect his reputation? For several years, we (the authors) have been thinking about this and similar issues, and have, we believe, come to a reasonably accurate solution. In what follows, we will attempt to explain why men and women flaunt (show off) and conceal (hide) mates; why they are sensitively attuned to their mates’–and potential mates’–reputations; and why they are attracted to highly desired mates, often exerting enormous effort to obtain and sustain a relationship with them, despite little evidence that such efforts make evolutionary sense from traditional mate choice perspectives. Some of what we say is speculative, some is currently being tested, and some is supported by solid data. All of it, however, follows from cogent theoretical (Darwinian) logic. We call our theory the positional goods and social information (PGSI) theory of human mating.



Evolution: Natural Selection and Sexual Selection

Modern theories of human mate choice stem from Darwin’s twin theories of natural and sexual selection (1859/1958; 1871; Larson, 2005). Although Darwin was not the first thinker to propose that life evolves, he was the first to propound a theory of evolution that included a plausible mechanism (natural selection). Darwin’s theory is elegantly parsimonious and can be reduced to three basic principles: 1) Organisms vary in their ability to reproduce. 2) Offspring inherit traits from their parents. 3) More organisms are born than will survive to reproduce. The statistical result of this process is a pool of fitter organisms, and the long term effect is the evolution of a variegated ecosystem of organisms, including humans. Later, Darwin (1871) proposed another mechanism of evolutionary change that can be distinguished from natural selection proper: sexual selection. According to Darwin, organisms not only compete for a limited pool of resources and struggle against the environment to procure them, they also compete for a limited pool of potential mates and struggle against conspecifics to obtain them. The processes of sexual selection lead to the formation of traits that enhance an organism’s ability to compete against same-sex rivals (intrasexual selection) and to traits that enhance an organism’s ability to attract opposite-sex mates (intersexual selection).

Although Darwin was flummoxed about the role that beauty played in the evolution of human mating– perhaps relying too much on disparate and inaccurate information from colonialists–modern theories of human mate choice all take Darwinian principles for granted (Grammar, Fink, Moller, & Thornhill, 2003). Furthermore, Darwin noted an important puzzle about human mating behavior that the PGSI takes seriously: women seem to be the decorated sex in humans, using their secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, lips, buttocks) to “charm,” “fascinate,” and “allure” men. This is rare, inverting the standard pattern found in nature.

Parental Investment: Bateman and Trivers

Although Darwin noted that in humans women seem to be the decorated sex, he also noted that in most species, females were “choosier” and that males were more eager to engage in frequent copulations. He did not forward a satisfactory reason for this observation. Some seventy years later, A. J. Bateman (1948) provided one. In an experiment with fruit flies, he noticed that the number of offspring a male produced varied with the number of females he copulated with, whereas the number of offspring a female produced remained relatively constant regardless of the number of partners she mated with. Bateman argued that because an ovum is costlier to produce than a single sperm cell, a female fly’s reproductive success is limited by her ability to make eggs; a male’s, upon the other hand, is limited by the number of females he inseminates. Robert Trivers (1972) formalized Bateman’s experimental data and linked parental investment to sexual selection. According to Trivers, the sex that provides the most parental investment–usually the female–should be more fastidious (should be the “limiting sex”) and the opposite sex should, ceteris paribus, compete for sexual access to the limiting sex, often evolving elaborate secondary sexual characterstics to attract them, and weapons and musculature to compete against same-sex rivals.

The Standard Paradigm is Born: Symons, Buss, and Schmitt

Trivers’ theoretical contributions laid the groundwork for the creation of what remains, with some complications and some dissenters, the standard paradigm of human mate choice. David Buss and David P. Schmitt (1993), building upon previous empirical data from Buss that was inspired by the theoretical arguments of Donald Symons (1979), produced the most coherent, elegant, and comprehensive theory of human mating to date: Sexual strategies theory (SST). Although their entire framework deserves attention, we will only focus on the aspects of it that are directly germane to our PGSI. According to the SST, there are sex differences in mating behaviors, in signaling behaviors, and in mating choices because there are sex differences in the fitness consequences of each. Specifically, Buss and Schmitt, following Trivers (1972), argue that because women are the more investing sex, they are choosier about sexual partners and more focused on procuring important resources for their offspring. Men, on the other hand, are not limited by parental investment but by the number of fertile partners they can obtain; therefore, they are more likely to pursue a mixture of short-term and long-term mating strategies. From this, it follows that men should be attuned to signals of a woman’s fecundity and parenting skill, and that women should be attuned to signals of a man’s resource procuring and resource investing potentials (wealth, status, reliability).

Female Beauty in the Standard Framework

As noted, mate choice is strongly influenced by perceptions of beauty. Brain scans have shown that beauty triggers reward systems in the brain (Aharon et al., 2001) and other studies have shown that attractive women can strongly influence male behavior (Wilson & Daly, 2004). From a Darwinian perspective, beauty is assumed to signal an underlying trait or series of traits that, on average, enhances the fitness of men (and women) who are sensitive to the signal and are able to mate with attractive women (or men). There are a number of proposals about the exact nature of this signaling system. Some argue, for example, that beauty is a “handicap,” a costly signal that indicates “good” underlying immunocompetence genes (for a review see, Gangestad & Sheyd, 2005; Zahavi, 1975). Others argue that beauty is a direct manifestation of female hormones that are correlated with high fecundity (Johnston, 2005). Finally, others argue that beauty is an outcome of minimized asymmetry, especially fluctuating asymmetry, which results from developmental perturbations and/or poor buffering systems and is therefore indicative of “poor” genes (Van Dongen & Gangestad, 2011). These theories are not mutually exclusive and they share an important similarity: they all argue that beauty is an adaptive signal that is either directly (high fecundity) or indirectly (good genes) related to higher fitness. The table below looks at a few of the traits that evolutionary theorists have argued are related to judgments of attractiveness and their putative signaling functions.

Male Status and Wealth in the Standard Framework

As mentioned above, where as men are expected to be more attuned to and influenced by physical attractiveness, women are expected to be more attuned to and influenced by indicators of status and wealth (Buss, 1994). Research indicates that these theoretical expectations are true. Buss (1989) collected cross-cultural data that showed that women valued cues of resource acquisition more than men. In a sample from Serbia, Todosijevic, Ljubinkovic, and Aranci (2003) found similar results. In a clever experimental study, Townsend and Levy (1990) produced experimental evidence that largely corroborated Buss’s previous self-report data. They had models don different outfits representing different levels of socioeconomic status and had subjects answer a variety questions about them. In the low status condition, men and women wore Burger King outfits; and in the high status condition, men wore blazers and Rolex watches, and women wore silk blouses and Rolex watches. For short term relationships, men cared more about attractiveness than did women (i.e., they were less influenced by the status enhancing or status decreasing clothing). More recent research has focused on the specific signaling behaviors of men, and we will return to this topic below.


A Fruitful Framework with Some Flaws

Solving many otherwise insoluble puzzles and guiding research in an exciting and fruitful direction, the standard evolutionary paradigm (SEP) of human mating and human mate choice is a wonderful achievement; nevertheless, it is flawed in a number of respects. First, although it does take into account the effects of reputation on attractiveness, it does not emphasize the effects of social information on the mating market (but see Kenrick, Li, & Butner, 2003). And second, despite a number of studies and meta-analyses, relatively weak or moderate (at best) relationships between  beauty and the fitness traits (or consequences) it is supposed to signal have consistently been found (Kalick, Zebrowitz, Langlois, & Johnson, 1998; Rhodes, 2006; Weeden & Sabini, 2005; see Van Dongen & Gangestad for moderate effects). The second point poses serious problems for the SEP because the SEP clearly and unequivocally predicts that perceptions of beauty should be related to the fecundity or good genes of the prospective partner. The first does not refute the standard theory, but indicates that it is incomplete. We address each below.

Social Information

A number of narratives (in novels and films) illustrate a dilemma familiar to most who have been in high school (Milner, 2004): A man or woman is attracted to a kind or beautiful potential mate, but that potential mate is in the wrong social group–perhaps a group with low status, or perhaps a group that is bitterly despised (e.g., Montagues and Capulets). Although many of the films that deal with this subject (at least in the modern Western world) end with both parties transcending surrounding social opinion and falling in love, the real world is rarely so inspirational. This might appear a relatively anomalous circumstance, a rare result of conspiring social circumstances unfamiliar to our hominid ancestors, and therefore not a significant evolutionary force, but the very fact that psychological mechanisms exist that prevent or make such relationships difficult should compel reflection. A person’s mate, putative mate, or sex partner, in other words, can have significant status enhancing or diminishing repercussions, and such repercussions inform the person about with whom he or she should mate. A man walks in a room holding hands with an enthralling woman and, absent any other information, most people are going to assume that he possesses significant social status, and they are going to grant him the respect that such status commands. Conversely, if a man walks into a room with an unattractive mate–or a mate rumored to be sexually promiscuous–people are going to assume that he doesn’t have high status (“why would he be with her if he were socially successful?”) and are going to treat him accordingly.

Minimized as Illustrated by EMT

These behaviors are not entirely inexplicable from the perspective of the SEP; however, they are not easily explained by it, and most researchers working within the SEP framework are content to minimize or ignore the influence of social information on mating choices. To see this, consider one egregious example. In 2000, Martie Haselton and David Buss published an interesting, influential, but seriously flawed article that introduced the principles of error management theory (EMT) and applied them to men’s sexual overperception bias (Abbey, 1982). According to Haselton and Buss, humans should possess decision making adaptations that minimize the costliness of necessary errors. For example, if one is walking in the woods and sees something that resembles a snake, it is better, from a cost/benefit perspective, to err on the side of caution and treat it like it is a snake. Haselton and Buss then note that 1) reading intentions is often difficult because of a paucity of information and that 2) the sexes face different costs associated with intention reading errors. Specifically, men overperceive sexual interest. Haselton and Buss argue that this is because the cost of a false positive (inferring sexual interest that is not there) is less than the cost of a false negative (not seeing sexual interest when it is there): “Ancestral men who tended to falsely infer a prospective mate’s sexual intent…paid the fairly low costs of failed sexual pursuit: perhaps some lost time and wasted courtship effort” (pp. 82-83).

We’ll ignore the subtleties of more recent articles using the principles of EMT, and just point out a few things. These will necessarily be appeals to experience because there are not a lot of good data on the effects of getting rejected on social reputation and status. In a wonderful episode of The Wonder Years, Kevin Arnold (the main character), fearfully and fretfully tries to call a girl he is interested in. He picks up the phone, fidgets, hangs it up. He dials a few numbers and hangs up again. Finally, after many desperate attempts, he calls. We suspect that most high school males have had this experience, and it indicates something important: asking a person out or making a sexual advance must be a potentially dangerous action. If it weren’t, Haselton and Buss’s reasoning would hold and making that phone call should be relatively stress free. If the girl says no, so what? About two minutes of wasted time. In fact, if taken literally, Haselton and Buss’s analysis of the costs of making a false positive would appear to predict that men should be asking out every woman that they meet. Again, why not? A few moments of wasted time for a large potential payoff. We contend that what Haselton and Buss ignore, and what is of paramount importance for the human species, is the effect of social information. Put simply, getting rejected is a serious social blow, one with potentially damaging ramifications. And although the SEP does address issues of reputation from time to time (e.g., Schmitt & Buss, 1996), such ignorance is endemic to the paradigm.

The Problem of Beauty: What Does it Really Signal?

As we noted, there are some serious problems with the standard view of beauty. The chief is that thorough analyses have discovered only a small relationship between beauty and health/fecundity. Van Gonden and Gangestad’s (2011) meta-analysis, for example, found a moderate .3 effect size between developmental instability and health measures (the DI effect size was an estimate; the relation found in the article was between fluctuating asymmetry and health measures, which yielded a .2 effect size). Rhodes (2006), in a review, and Weeden and Sabini (2005), in a meta-analysis, found even smaller effects between attractiveness and standard measure of health/fecundity, prompting Rhodes to argue that attractiveness is more of a filter than a gauge—that is, perceptions of attractiveness “weed” out bad genes, but once a certain threshold is crossed, perceptions no longer relate to genetic quality. Some have argued, consistent with the above data, that beauty is the result of “runaway” selection or receiver (or sensory) bias (Fisher, 1930). According to these theories, beauty is not directly linked to fitness. The sensory bias theory (Ryan, 1990), for example, posits that brains have preexisting sensory biases—men’s brains, for example, might be biased toward youthful appearances—and that the opposite sex often evolves characteristics to exploit such biases. Consider a simple case. Because of the burdens of foraging, males might be biased toward detecting and responding to bright colors; females that evolved bright colors (bright eyes, shiny hair) would trigger the biases and compel men to approach; therefore, ceteris paribus, the alleles that caused the lustrous traits would propagate as would the fondness for them (Fisherian selection).

The problem with sensory bias and runaway models of selection is that the cycles they start are not stable and should be countered (see Fuller, Houle, & Travis, 2005; Gangestad & Sheyd, 2005). Consider the example above again. Suppose men are attracted to women with lustrous features but that those features have no connection to fitness. Many men with the bias would be expending precious time, energy, and resources mating with women that do not enhance their fitness. Meanwhile, other men, the ones who could not compete for highly desired mates, would mate with drab women and have equal success despite less effort. At some point, the gene pool would regress to the middle (not lustrous); one would also expect the high quality men to evolve a counter adaptation to resist the charms of the lustrous women, since those charms would be, as it were, factitious (Chapman, Arnqvist, Bangham, & Rowe, 2003). It is, of course, possible that we are currently in a disequilibrium state and that certain biases are being exploited by women; however, it is not a safe assumption.

Summary of Problem with Beauty

Even if there are methodological and theoretical problems with the results cited above, and even if some of the researchers are too pessimistic about the size of the relationship between beauty and health/fecundity, it is important to take them seriously. It is astonishing how many articles simply assert that there is a clear relationship between a trait and/or traits and some underlying fitness component. There isn’t. Instead, there appears to be a very complicated relationship, often tenuous. We believe that our positional goods and social information (PGSI) theory of human mating can make sense of the above.


Baumeister and Vohs (2004) suggested that mating behavior could be analyzed like a market. That is, there is a supply and a demand and people behave according to the principles of microeconomics. They suggested that women “sell” sex on the market, assuming the basic Buss framework of mating, and that men purchase it through various forms of investment (in prostitution, this investment is monetary; in sanctioned mating, it might be emotional as well as monetary). The value of the sex increases or decreases based on the supply of sex on the market. However, Baumeister and Vohs ignore the importance of positional goods and social information. A positional good is a good or service that is valued according to the desire ranking of other people in comparison to available substitutes (Hirsch, 1976). For example, an original Cézanne painting does not have an intrinsic value, nor is its value determined solely by supply and demand principles; rather, its value is determined by its status ranking (and, concomitantly, the status it confers its owner). People desire the painting because it augments their status. This is the chief feature of a positional good: it is either directly related to status or enhances status through social information; its value is derived from its ranking in a system of desires because status is itself a positional and relative quality. A Porsche, to take another example, is not worth a hundred thousand dollars because of its functional utility; it is worth a hundred thousand dollars because it enhances the status of the owner. We believe that mates function like positional goods and have similar value functions, but first we want to note that this method of analysis is also congruent with another important modern theoretical innovation: signaling theory.

Relation to Signaling Theory: Positional Goods are Excellent Signals.

Signaling theory is a recent theoretical edifice that has been successfully applied to many facets of animal and human behavior (Miller, 2000). The basic principles are that 1) the traits of organisms vary in quality 2) these traits are not always easily perceivable (e.g., ambition, intelligence, reliability, immunocompetence) 3) they can, however, in principle, be signaled 4) signalers and receivers have potentially conflicting interests, but 4) the possible arms race can be avoided by building in a component of necessary honesty (Bird & Smith, 2005; Zahavi, 1975). Although humans inhabit a complex and abstract signaling space, the basic principles of signaling theory hold. Things like prestige goods (e.g. Rolex, Porsche, Blue Label Scotch) or refined talents, tastes, and knowledge (i.e., “symbolic capital”; Bourdieu, 1977) signal social wealth and social status because they are difficult to purchase or acquire; therefore, they are honest signals. Notice that most prestige goods are also positional goods: that is, they are goods that are valued because of their position in a hierarchy of desires. This means that a theory of positional goods is, in a sense, a theory of signaling. In what follows, we will use terms from both theories, with the understanding that they refer to the same basic principles.

Mates are Positional Goods or Honest Signals: Focusing on Women

The above leads to this following proposal: mates are positional goods and are therefore honest signals of underlying or difficult to assess traits such as social or cultural status. Consider, for example, a particular woman. She has intrinsic qualities that affect the reactions of  men. If she is more attractive than surrounding women, for example, ceteris paribus, she will be more desired than the other woman. And if a man copulates with her or obtains a relationship commitment from her, he will have competed against many other men (implicitly or explicitly) and succeeded. This means that she is an honest signal of his status, his intelligence, his ambition, or any of innumerable other traits that allowed him to obtain what the other men could not. In other words, she confers status (called “status conferring potential” or SCP). How much or how little should be a function of three factors: supply, attractiveness, and desirability. Supply refers to the amount of sex or commitment the woman puts on the market (number of sex partners; how choosy for relationships); attractiveness is the biological quality of appealing to the perceptual system; and desirability is the number of potential suitors the woman commands. According to our model, supply should decrease SCP, while attractiveness and desirability should increase it.

This quickly solves an intriguing puzzle: why do many men prefer women who are not as attractive as other potential (and obtainable mates). For example, Kim Kardashian, although attractive, is not more so than many women on an average college campus and yet she has dated or been romantically linked to many powerful and prestigious men including Reggie Bush, Nick Lachey, Ray Jay, Miles Austin, and Cristiano Ronaldo.  From the perspective of the PGSI, this is exactly what one would expect. Kim Kardashian, although not impeccably beautiful, is a highly visible socialite and reality television star (Keeping Up with the Kardashians is viewed by an estimated 4 plus million individuals) and consequently has a plethora of potential suitors (i.e., her desirability is very high), which means that being romantically linked to her increases or confirms a man’s status. Cleopatra VII of Egypt may well have been the most dramatic example of the power that factors other than intrinsic attractiveness play in mate-choice. While she was portrayed by Hollywood sex symbols Theda Bara and Elizabeth Taylor, her real life appearance left something wanting. The coin portraits of her show a relatively unprepossessing woman with an aquiline nose, prominent chin, and harsh eyes. Nevertheless, she won the hearts of two of the most powerful members of the Roman empire: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Even Roman historians recorded her striking appearance, charming voice, and ability to “make herself agreeable to everyone,” and power to “subjugate everyone..” (Cassius Dio, Roman History 42: 34). Thus, it seems her status as the queen of an ancient state, combined with her personality, made her very desirable and increased her SCP in the same way that Kim Kardashian’s visibility (though not, we hope, strapping personality) and attractiveness has been translated into SCP.

Notice that this means that men will also be choosy because status increases or decreases based on the SCP of one’s mate. In other words, the SEP’s analysis of men’s mating decisions is only partially correct. It is almost certainly true that men desire short term mates more than women; but they are not indiscriminate about their mates. In fact, in a mating system with high informational spread (everyone knows about everyone), they should be almost as choosy as women; in a mating system, on the other hand, with less informational spread, they should be relatively indiscriminate. To put it crudely, walking hand in hand across a populated park with an unattractive mate is very much like driving through a crowded town in a rusted and broken down station wagon; and walking hand in hand with an attractive mate is like driving an elegant sports’ car (Vakritzis & Roberts, 2009).

Kim Kardashian and Cleopatra

Positional Goods: What about Men
Although there are good evolutionary reasons to suspect that men are more motivated to display signals of social and cultural status, and therefore to display mates, there are also good reasons to assume that women do not entirely lack such motivation (Geary, 2010). First, romantic partners generally come from the same status group, meaning that women should show off a high status mate because it would potentially allow them access to a larger pool of high status men (Milner, 2004). And second, women should flaunt because it would increase their desirability, which, as we have shown, is an important component of their SCP. If a woman increases her SCP, she can compel more resources from her potential mates, which makes the trade for conferred status an equal exchange (i.e., the woman confers status upon her mate and he gives her resources) (Hakim, 2010).

Potential Solution to the Problem of Beauty

The concept of SCP suggests a straightforward explanation for the relatively small relationship between attractiveness and fitness at levels beyond the threshold. Beauty does increase fitness, but it does so in a complicated, diffused, and socially determined manner. Beauty is not just a signal of underlying health, it is also a signal of prestige and bestows fitness increases to men in the currency of social status (see Henrich & Gil-White, 2001). Men who use considerable time and energy pursuing beautiful women, therefore, are not expending valuable resources foolishly; rather, they are pursuing social status, a resource that has important fitness enhancing effects. And beauty, despite not being tightly tied to biological components of fitness, is not meretricious; it is a positional good and its value is as real as the value of a highly desired plot of beachfront property or a Diamond encrusted Rolex.

Now, consider a possible scenario for the evolution of beauty. Those who argue that beauty exploits preexisting sensory biases might be partially correct. Originally, men were biased toward a few obvious indicators of fertility: youth, femininity, and a waist-to-hip ratio that facilitated parturition. Women “responded” by evolving more and more exaggerated cues. Men found the exaggerated cues more attractive and pursued the women who possessed them. The men that succeeded in mating with the most beautiful women were rewarded, not with their mates’ health and fecundity, but with social status from other men. That social status, in turn, was cashed in to obtain more resources and other sexual opportunities. (A cruel irony here: The attractiveness of a woman actually facilitates her mate’s infidelity!). This gain in fitness stopped the normal cycle of sexually antagonistic coevolution from occurring in humans as it does in many species (Rice, 2000). Women benefit, too, because men invest status in their families and their legitimate offspring. This is often ignored but is vitally important—after all, the difference between being Jackson Jordan, recognized son of Michael Jordan, and Jackson Smith, unrecognized son of Michael Jordan is enormous! Therefore, one would expect that women would compete for high status men and for sanctioned recognition of their children—a drama that was played out time and time again in the Roman Empire, for just one example.

Note: Sexually antagonistic coevolutionary cycle can be broken by conferring status on men who procure attractive women even if the traits are not reliable indicators of underlying quality.

Potential Solution to Social Information: Why Caesar’s Wife Must be Above Suspicion. 
The PGSI also suggests a straight forward explanation to puzzles about human mate choice that are caused by social information. From the perspective of the PGSI, human mate choice is inextricably social. Consider the questions we raised about Haselton and Buss’s EMT of men’s sexual overperception. What Haselton and Buss ignore when they calculate the potential costs of making a false positive error is the spread of social information. Getting rejected by a man or woman can be very costly. Suppose, for example, that a guy in high school, call him John, is deciding whether or not to ask out or make an advance on a woman of moderate SCP. If he is rejected, the reverberations of the rejection might quickly run up and down the webs of his social network. Other men and women would assume certain things about him because of his inability to obtain a relatively modest mate. To put matters crudely, this would be like using a credit card to purchase a modest meal and getting declined in front of a number of relevant peers. From our point of view, it would make sense that men might be biased toward seeking out more information about a potential mate if she smiled at them, or laughed at one of their jokes, but they should be quite cautious about making their desires public. This hypothesis is supported by a common but relatively underappreciated phenomenon: indirect speech (Pinker, 2007). Any man or woman who has successfully navigated a social environment has used indirect speech, has made jokes or comments that contain ambiguous information that could be plausibly denied. The purpose of indirect speech is to attenuate informational asymmetry without exposing one’s own psychological states too clearly. For example, let’s return to John. Suppose he is romantically interested in Rebecca. He is not sure if his feelings are requited, and he does not want to get openly rejected. He might resort to making crude, potentially ironic jokes (“I’ll even take you out to dinner if my favorite team wins,” or “We might have to share my shower to save water”). The purpose of these statements is not to get an honest response, but to reduce uncertainty. For example, if Rebecca responded coldly that John’s jokes were not funny, he could be fairly sure that she was not romantically interested; however, if she responded “well, as long as it saves water,” he might suspect that she was interested and “up the ante” by making a bolder statement or joke.

The PGSI also easily explains why dating outside of one’s own status group is perilous. Even if the potential mate in the low status group is attractive, he or she does not have high SCP (low desirability) and therefore can reduce one’s status. This is excellently illustrated by the treacly but delightful movie A Walk to Remember. In it, a “cool” guy named Landon Carter (Shane West) falls in love with a dorky but attractive girl named Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore). His friends denigrate her, and others laugh about the relationship, but because it is an inspirational movie, he remains defiant, even punching one of his friends for mocking her. In the real world, few of us have the integrity to defend a low status mate to others with status, and, perhaps more cruelly, few of us have the status or attractiveness to spare.

Finally, the PGSI explains why Caesar’s wife must remain above suspicion. Although one might argue that Caesar’s wife’s reputation must remain pristine for the very simple reason that Caesar doesn’t want to get cuckolded, the story makes it clear that Caesar was not actually concerned with her fidelity, but rather with her reputation as his wife. In effect, what Caesar showed is that he possessed enough status to simply get a divorce at the mere suggestion of impropriety (compare Caesar’s status here to that of Claudius, whose wife,  Valeria Messalina, reportedly cuckolded him on more than one occasion. See, Tacitus’ Annals and Suetonius’ Twelve Caesars).  Consider an analogy. Suppose a rumor was begun that a man’s Porsche had been cheaply made at a knockoff manufacturer. It might damage his reputation and prestige. But suppose that, upon hearing the rumor, he simply discarded the potentially defective Porsche and bought a brand new one. It would enhance his prestige. Caesar’s wife needed to remain beyond suspicion because Caesar was a high status man in a complicated and treacherous system of status competition. Her rumored affairs were too high a cost for him to pay. Although Caesar is an undeniably attractive and dynamic figure, the world would probably be a better place if more of us could model the characters from inspirational films than the all too human characters in history books and the world around us.



Abbey, A. (1982). Sex differences in attributions for friendly behavior: Do males misperceive females’ friendliness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 830-838.

Aharon, I., Etcoff, N. L., Ariely, D., Chabris, C. F., O’Conner, E., & Breiter, H. C. (2001). Beautiful faces have variable reward value: fMRI and behavioral evidence. Neuron, 32, 537-551.

Bateman, A. J. (1948). Intra-sexual selection in drosophila. Heredity, 2, 349-368.

Baumeister, R.F., & Vohs, K.D. (2004). Sexual economics: Sex as a female resource for social exchange in heterosexual interactions. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 8, 339-363.

Bird, R.B., & Smith, E.A. (2005). Signaling theory, strategic interaction, and symbolic capital. Current Anthropology, 46, 221-248.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). An outline of theory and practice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Buss, D. M. (1989a). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypothesis tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1-49.

Buss, D. M. (1994). The evolution of desire: Strategies of human mating. New York: Basic Books.

Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232.

Chapman, T., Arnqvist, G., Banham, J., & Rowe, L. (2003). Sexual conflict. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 18, 41-47.

Darwin, C. (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John  Murray.

Darwin, C. (1958). On the origin of species by means of natural selection. New York: New American Library. (Original work published 1859)

Fisher, R. A. (1930). The genetical theory of natural selection. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Fuller, R. C., Houle, D., & Travis, J. (2005) Synthesis: Sensory bias as an explanation for mate preferences. The American Naturalist, 166, 437-446.

Gangestad, S. W., & Sheyd, G. J. (2005). The evolution of human physical attractiveness. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, 523-548.

Geary, D.C. (2010). Male/female: The evolution of human sex differences (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Grammar, K., Fink, B., Moller, A. P., & Thornhill, R. (2003). Darwinian aesthetics: Sexual selection and the biology of beauty. Biological Review, 78, 385-407.

Hakim, C. (2010). Erotic capital. European Sociological Review, 26, 499-518.

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, 81-91.

Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22, 165–196.

Hirsch, F. (1977). The social limits to growth. London: Routledge.

Johnston, V. S. (2005). Mate choice decisions: the role of facial beauty. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 9-13.

Kalick, S.M., Zebrowitz, L.A., Langlois, J.H., & Johnson, R.M. (1998). Does human facial attractiveness honestly advertize health? Longitudinal data on an evolutionary question. Psychological Science, 9, 8-13.

Kenrick, D. T., Li, N. P., & Butner, J. (2003). Dynamical evolutionary psychology: Individual  decision  rules and emergent social norms. Psychological Review, 110, 3-28.

Larson, E.J. (2004) Evolution: The remarkable history of a scientific theory. New York: The Modern Library.

Miller, G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. New York: Doubleday.

Milner, M., Jr. (2004). Freeks, geeks, and cool kids: American teenagers, schools, and the culture of consumption. New York, NY: Routledge.

Pinker, S. (2007). The evolutionary social psychology of off-record indirect speech acts. Intercultural Pragmatics, 4, 437-461.

Rhodes, G., (2006). The evolutionary psychology of facial beauty. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 199-226.

Rice, W. (2000). Dangerous Liaisons. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 97, 12953-12955.

Ryan, M. J. (1990). Sexual selection, sensory systems, and sensory exploitation. Oxford Survey of Evolutionary Biology, 7, 156-195.

Schmitt, D. P., & Buss, D. M. (1996). Strategic self-promotion and competitor derogation: Sex and context effects on the perceived effectiveness of mate attraction tactics. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 1185–1204.

Symons, D. (1979). The evolution of human sexuality. New York: Oxford University Press.

Todosijevic, B., Ljubinkovic, S., & Arancic, A. (2003). Mate selection criteria: A trait desirability study of sex differences in Serbia. Evolutionary Psychology, 1, 116-126.

Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual  selection and the descent of man 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179). Chicago: Aldine.

Townsend, J.M., & Levy, G.D. (1990). Effects of potential partners’ costume and physical attractiveness on sexuality and partner selection. Journal of Psychology, 124, 371- 389.

Vakirtzis, A., & Roberts, S.C. (2009). Mate choice copying and mate quality bias: different processes, different species. Behavioral Ecology, 20, 908-911.

Van Dongen, S., & Gangestad, S. W. (2011). Human fluctuating asymmetry in relation to health and quality: A meta-analysis. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32, 380-398.

Weeden, J., & Sabini, J. (2005). Physical attractiveness and health in Western societies: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 131, 635-653.

Wilson, M., & Daly, M. (2004). Do pretty women inspire men to discount the future? Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 271, S177-S179.

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection—A selection for a handicap. Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53, 205-214.

References from Table 1.

1. Jasienska, G., Lipson, S.F., Ellison, P.T., Thune, I., & Ziomkiewicz, A. (2006). Symmetrical women have higher potential fertility. Evolution and Human Behavior, 27, 390-400.

2. Moller, A. P., & Swaddle, J. P. (1997). Asymmetry, developmental stability, and evolution. Oxford, London: Oxford University Press.

3. Marlowe, F. (1998). The nubility hypothesis: The human breast as an honest signal of residual reproductive value. Human Nature, 9, 263-271.

4. Singh, D. (1995). Female health, attractiveness, and desirability for relationships: Role of breast asymmetry and waist-to-hip ratio. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 465-481.

5. Wong, B.J., Karimi, K., Devcic, Z., McLaren, C.E., & Chen, W.P. (2008). Evolving attractive faces using morphing technology and a genetic algorithm: A new approach to   determining ideal facial aesthetics. Laryngoscope, 118, 962–74.

6. Fink, B., & Neave, N. (2005). The biology of facial beauty. International Journal of Cosmetic Science, 27, 317-325.

7. Fink, B., Grammer, K., Thornhill, R. (2001). Human (homo sapiens) facial attractiveness in relation to skin texture and color. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115, 92-99.

8. Feinberg, D.R., Jones, B.C., DeBruine, L.M., Moore, F.R. Law Smith, M.J., Cornwell, R.E., Tiddeman, B.P., Boothroyd, L.G., & Perrett, D.I. (2005). The voice and face of woman: One ornament that signals quality? Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 398-408,

Bo Winegard

About Bo Winegard

Bo Winegard is a graduate student at Florida State University, studying social psychology under Dr. Roy Baumeister. He became fascinated with evolutionary psychology after reading Robert Wright’s “The Moral Animal” as a late teenager. Since then, he has sought to address a number of human behaviors, propensities, and ailments from an evolutionary perspective: eating disorders and body dissatisfaction, political behavior, film, literature, and other cultural productions, cognitive dissonance, self-deception, and cooperation. He is one of the co-authors of a peer reviewed article in The Review of General Psychology that approaches body dissatisfaction in women from an evolutionary perspective; he also has a few political articles published at Dissident Voice and at Truthout focusing on both topical and theoretical matters. Currently he is interested in evolutionary theories of depression and anxiety, tribalism, and human mating. His ultimate desideratum is to use a synthesis of evolutionary psychology, social psychology, and sociology to plumb the mysteries of human nature.
This entry was posted in Adaptation, Evolution and Biology, Evolution and Psychology, Evolution by Natural Selection, Mating and Sexuality, Variation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Pingback: happiness as a behavioral strategy « sarkology

Comments are closed.