Evolutionary psychology (EP) seems to tread on dangerous ground rather often as far as political correctness is concerned. EP researchers may be able to provide answers as to why dieting is so hard and why some of us can’t tolerate dairy, but they’ve also delved into Darwinian explanations for patterns of child abuse, rape and sex differences in romantic attraction and jealousy—all undoubtedly delicate topics. A recent publication from the EP guru on sexual attraction, David Buss, doesn’t shy away from this tradition.
For the record, it must be said that many critics simply miss the point of EP research, citing evolutionary psychologists as genetic determinists, sexists and/or racists. (For a humorous revelation about what such critics really know about the field they attack – not to spoil the punch line, it turns out they know less than a university student half way through his first course on the matter – check out Robert Kurzban’s blog at http://www.epjournal.net/blog/2012/02/could-evolutionary-psychology’s-critics-pass-evolutionary-psychology’s-midterms/.) In reality, what Buss, Kurzban and their likeminded colleagues do is explain – not condone, not prescribe – the whys of human behavior through a Darwinian framework.
This is the perspective Buss takes in a new paper from his lab at The University of Texas at Austin. This time, he and graduate student Cari Goetz take aim at understanding another hot topic: sexual exploitation.
The sex aspect aside, anti-exploitation is a big to do in EP. Without mental means to detect and punish cheaters, for instance, the cooperation humans are famous for, when compared to other animals, might very well vanish.
But Buss wonders if we’re not giving the cheating enough credit. That is, he thinks we’ve spent too much time looking at how most people get around exploiters and not enough on how – and why – exploitation is so important in the first place. Getting something for nothing seems like a winning strategy, after all, and when people can cheat, they often do.
So if exploitation is just as much a behavioral tactic as avoiding exploitation is, perhaps we ought to examine it a little more closely, even if it some might have misplaced moral qualms about its study.
In the rainbow array of human behavior, mating strategies may well be the best place to look for exploitation in action. If a male could use what researchers term “exploitative strategies” to trick a female into sleeping with him, well, from an evolutionary standpoint, that’s often a good deal. In the ancestral environment, the more women a man bedded, the more chances he had to pass on his genes, and, at least according to Darwin, sexual reproduction is kind of a big deal.
Of course, women aren’t wilting flowers. They’ve developed their own, evolved defenses against such exploitation, variously termed female underestimation bias in the EP literature and the three-date rule in “Sex and the City”-esque conversation. Whatever they call it, many women want a man to display his investment in her before she invites him upstairs. But not all women are savvy Carries or mistrustful Mirandas. In fact, some are downright up-for-anything Samanthas and others naïve and trusting Charlottes. In short, some women are easier to fool into a fling than others.
So Buss’ cabal sought to figure out if men could assess a prospective mate’s sexual exploitability and whether or not advertising a “higher exploitability” might actually make a woman a more attractive short-term mate. Sexual exploitation requires some motivational impetus, and it may be that cues to exploitability increase a woman’s sexual attractiveness, triggering male strategies of exploitation.
As reported in a forthcoming issue of Evolution and Human Behavior, the team first turned their eyes to describing those same exploitative strategies all of us are familiar with from episodes of “Law & Order”, romantic comedies and even everyday life.
There’s seduction, which differs from good old-fashioned wooing in that the male’s intent has nothing to do with long-term commitment. There’s pressure, which involves getting sex via threats or coercion, and there’s deception, which is the most well documented means of conning a women into bed. A man’s having feigned riches, love and/or long-term interest is a common enough occurrence that some women just ignore those three little words if they happen to be spoken before or even during sex and some men go so far as to hand their digits out on the backs of fake ATM receipts! Finally, and arguably worse than deception, there is sexual assault, the fourth and final exploitative tactic Buss and company name.
After identifying the strategies men can use, the authors derived possible cues to a woman’s exploitability in each instance. For example, cues to physical weakness may make a woman more susceptible to sexual assault, whereas cues to lower intelligence might increase a woman’s vulnerability to seduction and/or deception. So what exactly are these exploitability cues?
They marked out three classes, starting with psychological cues that indicate emotional malleability, like low self-esteem and even naiveté, along with indications of flirtatiousness and recklessness. Males might also be aware of what they term “incapacitation cues,” such as intoxication or fatigue, and physical cues, like a small frame.
Researchers then modified photographs of women, varying them so that the photos showed different levels of each of these possible exploitability cues, and they asked 76 males to rate the attractiveness of the females.
So are they right; can men identify cues to exploitability, and do those cues affect attraction? It seems so.
Nineteen of the 22 cues they found to be indicative of sexual exploitability were associated with increased short-term sexual attractiveness. Interestingly, cues to lack of physical formidability didn’t play a major role. Rather, psychological cues, and incapacitation cues were those that most affected how attractive males found the photographed ladies.
It’s common knowledge that, compared to women, most men have, shall we say, more relaxed standards for short-term partners. But this new study suggests that when it comes to finding a short-term mate, more than an “any girl will do” attitude is in play. What Goetz calls “victim-related cues” may in fact trigger evolved mental mechanisms designed to seek and carry out sexual exploitation.
And here’s where we’re back on dangerous ground. What Buss and Co. posit doesn’t sound a lot different from the idiotic “She was asking for it with that short skirt” argument. But it truly is.
The authors are trying to identify and understand an unfortunate and universal problem: females being sexually exploited. Today’s problem may have a reasonable evolutionary history, in that unconscious identification of and attraction to exploitability cues may have been, as Goetz et al. put it, “an adaptation that function[ed] to motivate pursuit of accessible women.”
Understanding the roots of this issue is a wise first step towards eradicating it permanently, and, furthermore, omitting its study from the literature because of how difficult it is to address does nothing to that end. The authors take a commendably rational and long look at a difficult subject, and it’s quite possible they’re about to catch hell for it.