Love by the Line

By Jeffrey Kluger|Friday, March 01, 1996
Until recently, the idea of advertising publicly for something usually dealt with as privately as romance was all but unthinkable. Oh, some people did it, but they weren’t necessarily people you’d want standing next to you in the subway, never mind at the altar (No recent parole violations! White male, 37; likes to wear black socks, sandals, extremely baggy Bermuda shorts, mutter aloud on city buses. Recently obtained proof of government plot to steal my ears. Seeking compatible woman).

Over the last decade, however, all that changed. In an increasingly impersonal, increasingly time-constrained world, more and more people began to conclude that the traditional method of meeting potential mates--batting eyes, buying drinks, engaging in shouted conversations at extremely loud parties only to discover at the end of the evening that the person you’ve just spent three hours talking to has told you the truth about practically everything except age, name, marital status, and pending indictments--is a bit labor-intensive. What most busy singles needed was a device that would allow them to pitch themselves directly to their most likely consumers with a minimum of effort and a maximum likelihood of closing the sale. With that as their goal, the personal ad suddenly didn’t look so bad.

For both purveyors and consumers of personal ad romance, the effectiveness of flirting in column inches has not yet been proved. But for another group of people--scientists--the personal ad has been nothing short of a boon.

Throughout the animal kingdom, the business of courtship and mate selection is a complicated one, designed to help individuals attract the fittest partner possible and maximize the chance of getting chosen themselves. When this mating minuet takes place among wildlife on the plains of the Serengeti, it’s not always easy to study. When it takes place among city dwellers in the back pages of the Village Voice, it’s documented as it happens. Recently, David Waynforth, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of New Mexico, and Robin Dunbar, a primatologist at the University of Liverpool, analyzed a sampling of personal ads published in four periodicals to see how effectively advertisers were promoting their reproductive assets, how closely their strategies mirrored those of other animals, and whether, as a result of this, we should consider changing the meaning of SWM from single white male to single wild mammal.

Courtship and mating among virtually all animals is governed by the precept known as Bateman’s Principle. Based on extensive research conducted on fruit flies in 1948 by geneticist A. J. Bateman (or A. J. Principle, I forget which), this transspecies rule states, among other things, that when the amount of energy that must be devoted to reproduction and the rearing of offspring differs between the sexes, it is the sex with the greater burden that will be choosier in selecting a mate.

To even casual observers of wildlife behavior, the truth of this principle is readily evident. Among many species of animals--particularly goats, horses, elephants, and other ungulates (from the Latin unguentine, for animals that can be squeezed from a tube), in which males don’t even contribute food to their offspring, much less time and attention--females generally devote much of their adult lives to raising their young and may spend weeks or even months, therefore, selecting a reproductive partner. Males, by contrast, exhibit a willingness to reproduce indiscriminately, regularly attempting to mate with practically any familiar females, any unfamiliar females, and any convenient motor vehicle left unattended for more than an hour. Among some fish--particularly some species of cichlid, which exhibit strong protective behavior toward unhatched young--both males and females are far more selective, participating in elaborate mutual courtship displays before at last settling down to the job of commingling genes.

For humans, the Bateman dictum is no less applicable. Human young have an extremely long period of dependency and require years of care and attention if they are going to survive, Dunbar says. This is optimally achieved with both parents sharing the work. In most human cultures, of course, it is the female who bears the majority of the child- rearing responsibilities. In a stable family unit, however, the male can still contribute a great deal.

To prove they have what it takes to tackle this child-care job, both male and female humans hunting for potential mates have developed a wide range of advertising strategies. During Homo sapiens’s earlier, less civilized era, a male looking for a partner would do what he could to exhibit size, strength, and access to baby-rearing resources like food and territory, all of which would give offspring he sired a greater chance of surviving. In twentieth-century urban centers, a man who strips off his shirt, stands on top of a rock in the middle of a plot of land, and begins pant-hooting at passersby is not going to attract many takers. But if the same man’s homestead is in Greenwich, Connecticut, and includes a Tudor house and a three-car garage, he might actually turn some heads.

Female protohumans, by contrast, were genetically programmed to exhibit not their resources but themselves, attracting mates with a display of youth and superior health--both signs of general fecundity. Evolution, busy inventing things like forebrains and opposable thumbs, figured this period of female bloom would last just a few years. Human beings, however, with time on their newly prehensile hands, managed to invent things like liposuction and Wonderbras, extending the female’s appearance of maximum fertility--and thus her mating marketability--well into the later decades of life.

When courtship takes place face-to-face, it is not always necessary to mention these attributes outright. When mating rituals happen in print, however, potential partners have to be a little more direct. As Waynforth and Dunbar began their study of personal ads, they expected to find that both men and women would continue to heed the dictates of nature, going out of their way to seek and advertise the very qualities evolution had spent millions of years promising them would yield the best results. Among the first things they expected to find was that men who placed personal ads would specify that they were looking for women younger than them, while women placing ads would generally seek men who were at least a little bit older.

The younger a woman is--within reason, of course--the likelier it is that her fertility will be at its peak, Dunbar says. Males are reproductively programmed to look for this trait in a mate and, in general, most do. Females, by contrast, tend to look for somewhat older men, since these are people who have presumably had time enough to accumulate wealth and the other resources that will make it easier for them to support children.

In addition to this age disparity, Waynforth and Dunbar also expected to find that women would be more demanding in their ads than men, clearly specifying all the attributes they were seeking in a mate, while men would be less choosy. This tendency too is evident from even a casual observation of how human males and females behave. Boys coming of age sexually are generally somewhat indiscriminate in their passions--regularly developing crushes on classmates, teachers, distant cousins, and all the models in virtually every section of the Victoria’s Secret catalog with the possible exception of Topcoats and Winter Wear. Girls, by contrast, are a good deal more selective. These differences can extend well into later life and, given the reproductive biologies of both sexes, it’s no wonder.

Women can conceive far fewer offspring in their lifetime than men can father, Dunbar says, and this means that each possible conception carries much higher stakes. It thus pays for them to be extremely careful in selecting the person with whom they’ll be doing the conceiving, and we expected to see this kind of choosiness in the personal ads we studied. The corollary of this, of course, is that as the women in our ads got older and their reproductive value dropped off, we expected them to become less demanding--and less demanding still if they had dependent children from a previous marriage, children whom a potential mate would have to help raise. Men, we believed, would become more demanding as they grew older, since they would usually have more in the way of wealth or property to offer a mate.

Before they began actually surveying ads to test the validity of all these predictions, Waynforth and Dunbar knew they’d have some obstacles to overcome, not the least being how to determine whether the people placing the ads were describing themselves accurately. Even a cursory reading of personal columns suggests that not every advertiser sticks to the unvarnished truth:

RENAISSANCE MAN: Nobel Prize-winning physicist and concert cellist with earned run average below 1.50 seeks equally accomplished woman. But not on Thursdays; Thursdays I dance with the Bolshoi.

Waynforth and Dunbar, however, decided that they didn’t need a method to determine the truthfulness of the ads, mostly because they didn’t care. A personal ad represents the opening bid in the mating negotiation, Dunbar explains. This is the point at which people demand the most from a potential mate and claim to be offering the most themselves. Eventually, the bids might be lowered, but this first stage provides a glimpse into what men and women consider the ideals.

Also important for Waynforth and Dunbar was determining just which newspapers or magazines to survey. The kind of personal ads a publication runs is generally a fairly accurate litmus of its readership. I f the majority of personal ads in a given periodical include the words leg irons, llamas, and batteries not included, you’ve probably gone a little more downscale than you want. On the other hand, if the steamiest ads in the magazines you’ve been reading include references less to bondage than bond funds, you’ve gone too far in the other direction.

Waynforth and Dunbar decided to sample the entire demographic spectrum, selecting two supermarket tabloids (The Sun and The Examiner) with a broad readership in both the United States and Canada; one Portland, Oregon, weekly with a conservative, working-class readership (Nickel Ads); and one Portland paper with a wealthier, more liberal audience (Willamette Week).

Surveying these four publications, Waynforth and Dunbar found 479 advertisements placed by males and 402 placed by females and began to look them over. As hard science goes, neither researcher pretended this was the Manhattan Project, and indeed, any primatological team that can collect the majority of its fieldwork material in the express line at the A&P; should probably not be expecting NSF funding any time soon. Nevertheless, the investigators’ unimpressive methods yielded some fairly impressive results.

When it came to age, Waynforth and Dunbar’s predictions proved accurate, with men generally preferring women between 1 and 12 years younger than them, and women preferring men between 2 and 7 years older. Moreover, these figures were merely mean figures; at the extremes, some men expressed a preference for women more than 20 years their junior, while some women expressed a willingness to consider men nearly as many years older.

When it came to financial resources and physical attractiveness, the researchers’ guesses were similarly borne out. Men, on average, boasted of their material wealth 1.7 times more often than women, while women demanded wealth 4.5 times more often, with the greatest number of demands being made when the women were between the ages of 20 and 39--their peak reproductive years. Similarly, males offered cues to their physical attractiveness 1.4 times less frequently than females and demanded physical attractiveness twice as often, with the greatest number of men expressing such choosiness between the ages of 40 and 49--a time when their earning power would be expected to be at its peak.

Most of the ads we looked at were surprisingly unsurprising, Dunbar says. When all other things are ecologically equal, courting humans, on average, will tend to look for essentially the same things in their mates as other courting mammals.

To be sure, not everything Waynforth and Dunbar expected to find in their study did they indeed find. In a species capable of producing unions between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley, Ethel Merman and Ernest Borgnine, Meat Loaf and virtually any higher mammal, nothing is certain, and on a couple of counts, the researchers’ predictions fell short. Notably, in addition to their other hypotheses, Waynforth and Dunbar had expected to find that men would seek cues of sexual fidelity in their ads far more frequently than women would, since while females can always be completely certain they gave birth to the children they are raising, males can never be completely certain they actually fathered them. Throughout human history, numerous reproductive strategies--such as childhood betrothals and even chastity belts--evolved to help reassure potential husbands, but over time these practices were abandoned, and even the most unenlightened males realized that an aspiring groom whose idea of lingerie was something that required rust-proofing and hinge oil was not going to win many mates. Instead males had to resign themselves to the more civilized strategy of simply getting to know the females they were going to marry and learning to trust in their faithfulness.

For males, Dunbar says, it doesn’t pay to rear another male’s offspring, but sometimes it can pay even less to insist on that point, thereby alienating potential partners.

Waynforth and Dunbar also suspected that both men and women in lower income brackets would be less demanding than people in higher ones, on the theory that these people did not have as many resources to offer and could therefore not be especially picky in return. This prediction, however, was also disproved, and Dunbar believes he knows why. In a postindustrial society in which job opportunities for both sexes have more or less equalized, parenting skills are increasingly being measured less by material possessions than by a willingness to invest the time necessary to bring children up well. On its face, this conclusion would seem self- evident (Male, 35, with absolutely no child-rearing skills but a truly bitchin’ Lexus, seeks mate), but Dunbar was happy to see it confirmed anyway.

More and more, he says, people are saying to one another, ‘Listen, I don’t want your money--what I need from you is something much more important: the commitment to participate in raising a child.’

Such promising findings notwithstanding, neither Waynforth nor Dunbar pretends that the job of finding a mate has changed all that much. Human courtship has always been a primitive business, one conducted less with brainpower than with gut feeling. It is Homo sapiens, after all, that invented the rocket ship but also the mosh pit, the synthetic fabric but also the thong, the telephone but also phone numbers that spell out key body parts. Most people realize that, yet most people nevertheless remain in the romantic hunt. Hope, it seems, indeed springs eternal--even at $35.50 per 36-character line.
Comment on this article