Milan Kundera, in the book of laughter and forgetting says “For he was aware of the great secret of life: Women don’t look for handsome men. Women look for men who have had beautiful women. Having an ugly mistress is therefore a fatal mistake.” Did Milan Kundera hit on a social cue that women use for choosing long-term partners, mate choice copying?
Mate choice copying has been identified as a strategy used by different animals such as fish (guppies) and birds (black grouse). Immature females in these species, observe mature female and the choice they make for a mate and then mimic the female demonstrator’s choice. The observation may be based on visual copying whereby the younger female watches the demonstrator choose a mate and then does the same or olfactory copying whereby the female uses smell cues to assess whether a male has previously been chosen as a mate (often used by rodents).
But why would females do this? Mate choice copying is a way to lower the associated costs of learning about the available males and their characteristics. Sabine Stohr in her research of the topic concluded that Mate choice copying is a behavior that educates females especially naïve ones how to choose a desirable male thus allowing good quality genes to be passed down in the population. Time constraints serves as a motivator for mate copying. When breeding seasons are about to end making a choice by copying another is beneficial rather than spending time making your own choice that may lead to missing the mating process completely.
So a female of one of these species will survey the available mates and then make her choice based on the male’s success with other females, thereby displaying advantageous male characteristics by the other females’ choice. Does similar social learning occur with humans?
A few studies of human mate selection indicate that we may also engage in mate choice copying when considering long-term partners. In these experiments, women were asked to rate males when viewed alone and when viewed alongside other women. The researchers were also concerned with the accompanying female’s attractiveness and how it affected the relevant male’s attractiveness. Women were shown male photos alone and then with a female companion, either an attractive female companion or a less attractive companion. Results show that women found the male more desirable than they originally thought when accompanied by an attractive female and less desirable when displayed with a less attractive companion. There is still more work to be done in these field however it seems that Milan Kundera had it right, Women look for men who’ve had beautiful women.