Tuesday, December 07, 2010

And On That Dumping Study

Which Brooks includes in his list of studies which show we are primordially f**ked:

Would you rather date someone who dumped his or her last partner or someone who was the dumpee? For an article in Evolutionary Psychology, Christine Stanik, Robert Kurzban and Phoebe Ellsworth found that men will give a woman a lower rating when they learn that she dumped her last boyfriend, perhaps fearing they will be next. But women rated men more highly when they learned that they had done the dumping, perhaps seeing it as a sign of desirability.
Well, I dug up the actual study. First, the study was done in a lab, with students whose average age was nineteen years. They were given fictional descriptions about possible dates and asked to indicate their interest in those dates as either romantic longer term partners or as sexual partners. They were then given additional information about whether the fictional person had either dumped his/her previous partner, gotten dumped instead or this information was withheld. The researchers' hypothesis was that the students would be less willing to enter a romantic relationship with someone who was dumped.

Second, here is the relevant part of the summary:

We tested the hypothesis that impressions of a person as a candidate for a romantic partner would decrease after people learned that the target had been dumped by his or her last partner. Results supported this hypothesis and revealed that people quickly change their opinions of potential partners when they receive this information. Consistent with our expectations, we also found that information that a target person had been dumped had a larger impact when he or she was being assessed for a long-term relationship compared to a short-term sexual relationship. These results provide preliminary support for the idea that people are sensitive to and quickly integrate cues about how a person has recently fared on the dating market into their estimate of the person's worth as a romantic partner.

We also explored the effect of reports that targets had rejected their last partner and chose not to give any information about their last relationship. Interestingly, we found that female participants reported an increased desire to have a sexual relationship with a potential partner after learning he had rejected his last partner. However, while men's desire to have a sexual relationship with a target was not influenced by her having rejected her last partner, their desire to have a romantic relationship with her decreased significantly. On the other hand, both men and women were put off by a target failing to disclose the circumstances of his or her last break-up. However, this was more of a concern for women relative to men when considering the target for a romantic relationship.

We can at present only speculate about the source of these intriguing sex differences. One possible interpretation is that a man's willingness to end an ongoing relationship in hopes of finding someone better might be interpreted by women as a sign of status or otherwise high mate value. A man taking a dominant role in his romantic relationships may also be seen as more consistent with traditional gender roles. A dominant woman may be less acceptable for this reason, or men may just view her as picky or demanding. Additionally, perhaps women are more suspicious (for some reason) when men fail to discuss past relationships. It should also be kept in mind that, although the influence of these two types of information is significant, it is small compared to the effect of information that the target person was abandoned by his or her last partner.
I have bolded the bits which I want to emphasize.

See how Brooks' summary of a summary of the study produced something quite different from the study? This is the case in many Evo-Psycho popularizations, and it's the reason why I'm going to recap the study findings one more time:

The study found that when asked about unknown (and imaginary) people, nineteen-year-old American students rated someone who had been dumped by a previous partner lower in desirability as a romantic partner and even a little lower as a sexual partner.

Women, but not men, reported increased interest in a sexual (not long-term) relationship with a (fictional) partner who had done the dumping, whereas there was no real difference in that for men. On the other hand, men reported a decreased interest in a romantic relationship with a (fictional) partner who had done the dumping, whereas there was no real difference for women.

Some of these conclusions provoke additional questions. For example, if the theory about women looking for a high-value mate is correct, why doesn't that apply to the romantic relationship but only to the sexual one? Evolutionary psychology would argue that it's the romantic relationship that should be affected by the value of the mate, after all.

My explanation of that is different and depends on the fact that the study subjects were picking among fictional strangers. For women that means having to take care not to end up with someone who might be sexually violent. If the choices you are presented is a man who was dumped by a woman, a man who refuses to tell anything about it, and a man who dumped his last partner, which of them sounds the safest to go to bed with? I'd argue that it's the last one.

That was a detour. The point of this post is that what Brooks says the study says and what the study actually says are quite different things. Grrr.