Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Female's Strategy (by Phila)

A fascinating new study uses game theory to explain the aspects of human courtship that it presumes are reducible to a game-theoretic model:
Scientists have developed a mathematical model of the mating game to help explain why courtship is often protracted. The study, by researchers at UCL (University College London), University of Warwick and LSE (London School of Economics and Political Science), shows that extended courtship enables a male to signal his suitability to a female and enables the female to screen out the male if he is unsuitable as a mate....

The model assumes that the male is either a "good" or a "bad" type from the female’s point of view, according to his condition [??] or willingness to care for the young after mating. The female gets a positive payoff from mating if the male is a "good" male but a negative payoff if he is "bad", so it is in her interest to gain information about the male’s type with the aim of avoiding mating with a “bad” male. In contrast, a male gets a positive payoff from mating with any female, though his payoff is higher if he is “good” than if he is “bad”.
Why is the man's payoff higher for being "good," given that the goal of good and bad males is presumably to scatter their seed hither and yon, without let or hindrance? The study doesn't say; perhaps it has something to do with rational self-interest. It's also not clear why it's implied that the man's "condition" and willingness to raise a child are equivalent, here, in terms of a positive payoff for the female. They strike me as being two very different things.

Professor Robert Seymour continues:
“By delaying mating, the female is able to reduce the chance that she will mate with a bad male. A male's willingness to court for a long time is a signal that he is likely to be a good male. Long courtship is a price paid for increasing the chance that mating, if it occurs, will be a harmonious match which benefits both sexes. This may help to explain the commonly held belief that a woman is best advised not to sleep with a man on a first date.”
Well, that and the fact that any woman who'd behave that way is a goddamned slut that no decent man would marry. I suppose that the threat of social ostracism and name-calling could be considered a form of "advice," though it certainly seems pertinent that "bad" men are so much less likely to be on the receiving end of it than "bad" women.

Dr. Peter Sozou elaborates further:
“Bad males give up at some random time if the female has not by then mated with them, but good males are more persistent and do not give up. The female’s strategy is a compromise - a trade-off between on the one hand the greater risk of mating with a bad male if she mates too quickly, and on the other hand the time cost of delay. Under this compromise there remains some risk that she will mate with the wrong type of male. She cannot eliminate this risk completely unless she decides never to mate.
Or decides to take the pill, or go in for tubal ligation, or avail herself of the other options that've allowed women to have more sex and fewer children over the years.

Those who are confused by the irritation many of us feel when confronted with the latest "findings" of Evolutionary Psychology could do worse than ponder that last categorical statement from Dr. Sozou. I don't know what more proof you could want that the males and females he's talking about are products of obstinate abstraction, with few or none of the non- or anti-reproductive options and motivations that influence real people's behavior.

The standard rejoinder is that we're speaking in general terms about behaviors that formed millennia ago. And yet, the explanatory scenarios set forth typically involve Western, modern, and generally bourgeois mating behavior: like the Flintstones, they wed the throbbing biological urges of cavemen with the more gem├╝tlichkeit values of 1950s suburbia. Thus, centuries of wildly varied courtship and mating behavior are represented here by "a sequence of dinners, theatre trips and other outings lasting months or even years": if it's good enough for Dubuque, Iowa circa 1962, it's good enough for the Trobriand Islanders circa 1700. The present explains the past, which returns the favor by explaining the present...or at least, as much of it can be reduced to a drastically simplified and conveniently apolitical mathematical model.

I know it's a deadly insult to suggest that theories like these are normative, or at least, more normative than informative. But since they don't reliably predict what happens sexually between men and women, nor adequately explain it, it's hard to avoid the suspicion that in practical terms, the effect of papers like these is to reaffirm a concept of human sexual behavior, and protect it from critique by invoking the authority of science (and, too often, by treating anyone who questions its basic assumptions as a closet vitalist or Marxist or anthroposophist or God knows what).

I'm not accusing them of doing this consciously, I hasten to add. For all I know, there may be age-old biological instincts that account for this behavior. Come to think of it, that seems like an excellent subject for a decade or two of hardnosed, dispassionate research.