The heart is not a lonely hunter, MIT Sloan professor finds

Joshua Ackerman Professor Joshua Ackerman

Research on dating behavior discovers that individuals cooperate to help each other achieve romantic goals

CAMBRIDGE, Mass., Oct.6, 2009 — Looking for success on the dating scene? MIT Sloan Assistant Professor Joshua M. Ackerman suggests it might be a good idea to bring a friend.

Friends will try to help you find partners to your liking, weed out undesirables, and support you in other ways, says Ackerman, a social psychologist and expert on consumer behavior and marketing at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

"Courtship is often framed as a game, and researchers who study courtship behavior tend to focus on competitive aspects of this game," says Ackerman. "Sometimes, though, the mating game is a team sport."

In an article this month in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Ackerman and Douglas T. Kenrick of Arizona State University describe the results of a series of studies they conducted on cooperation and romance. The researchers quizzed volunteer subjects on dating attitudes and behavior, presented them with hypothetical scenarios, and even staged an abbreviated television-style dating game.

In each of the studies, the researchers found cooperation to be a common theme for both men and women, although the nature of cooperation differed markedly for the sexes.

Women helped other women by creating barriers to discourage undesirable men or to help female friends evaluate potential partners, the researchers found. Men helped other men by trying to break down barriers that blocked friends from desirable women.

These findings run counter to conventional courtship studies, which emphasize how individuals compete for mates. Ackerman and Kenrick decided to explore cooperation in light of animal research that found a number of species help each other find mates.

"There is a wide variety of birds that will cooperate," says Ackerman. "Two male wild turkeys will cooperate to court a female. It has been seen in mammals, including lions and higher primates."

Among animals, females cooperate to create barriers and thresholds for males, while males cooperate to gain access to females. Ackerman and Kenrick predicted humans would exhibit similar behavior.

The researchers gave subjects a hypothetical scenario: You are at a dance with a friend of the same sex. Two members of the opposite sex want to dance with your friend, but he or she is interested romantically in only one of them.

"In that situation, men and women would both help, but they would do so for different reasons and in different ways," Ackerman says.

Women said they would try to remove their friend from the situation, often ushering her from the scene. Men would intervene by asking the unwanted pursuer to dance. The researchers also used a hypothetical scenario to discover whether men and women who are platonic friends would help each other achieve romantic goals. Again, they found they would.

"Men will help women ward off other men, while women were more likely to help a male friend gain access to a desirable mate," Ackerman says.

Ackerman and Kenrick also discovered a curious phenomenon: counterfeit romantic partners.

Platonic friends sometimes pretend to be romantic partners to help each other in dating. "If you're a woman, saying someone is your boyfriend creates a barrier," says Ackerman. "If you're a guy, saying someone is your girlfriend makes you more desirable to women."

Why do men and women cooperate in different ways? Ackerman says the answer probably lies in evolutionary biology.

For nearly all vertebrates-including humans-pregnancy and care of offspring are greater burdens for females than males. Thus, it is in the interest of females to be selective about mates. Males, if they are to find mates, must demonstrate their desirability.

"I do think biology is at the heart of this, although we won't know for sure until we do studies in other cultures," Ackerman says.

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