July 15, 2008
How Flirtation Affects Steady Relationships

Some social science research provides evidence for expected truths. Other times it comes up with unintuitive results. Here's a piece of research that does both at the same time. If a good-looking guy has just flirted with your girlfriend she is more likely to forgive you for a bad thing you did?

Temptation may be everywhere, but it's how the different sexes react to flirtation that determines the effect it will have on their relationships. In a new study, psychologists determined men tend to look at their partners in a more negative light after meeting a single, attractive woman. On the other hand, women are likelier to work to strengthen their current relationships after meeting an available, attractive man.

I can understand the evolutionary origin of the male reaction. When he thinks he's got other options he's more likely to be less tolerant of perceived short-comings of his mate. But the female reaction is more puzzling. Anyone got a good evolutionary explanation for the origin of this behavior?

Men may not see their flirtations with an attractive woman as threatening to the relationship while women do, according to findings from a study in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. Researchers found that women protect their relationship more when an attractive man enters the picture but men look more negatively at their partner after they've met an available, attractive woman. Men can learn to resist temptation when trained to think that flirting with an attractive woman could destroy their relationship, said lead author John E. Lydon, PhD, of McGill University in Montreal.

Researchers conducted seven laboratory experiments using 724 heterosexual men and women to see how college-aged men and women in serious relationships react when another attractive person enters the mix.

Maybe the woman is more afraid of getting dumped by her guy if she flirts and therefore she tries harder to strengthen the relationship to compensate for the potential damage done?

In one study, 71 unsuspecting male participants were individually introduced to an attractive woman. Roughly half the men met a "single" woman who flirted with them. The other half met an "unavailable" woman, who simply ignored them.

Immediately after this interaction, the men filled out a questionnaire in which they were asked how they would react if their "romantic partner" had done something that irritated them, such as lying about the reason for canceling a date or revealing an embarrassing tidbit about them. Men who met the attractive "available" woman were 12 percent less likely to forgive their significant others. In contrast, 58 women were put in a similar situation. These women, who met an "available" good-looking man, were 17.5 percent more likely to forgive their partners' bad behavior.

Do these results make sense to you?

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 July 15 11:03 PM  Brain Sexuality

Married for 20 years said at July 16, 2008 12:35 AM:

"Maybe the woman is more afraid of getting dumped by her guy if she flirts and therefore she tries harder to strengthen the relationship to compensate for the potential damage done?"

No... maybe she is afraid her inscure boyfriend will either get angry or sulk if she flirts. Men flirt and don't care, they think it makes them even more desireable in their partner's eyes, whereas females usually just want to avoid unpleasantries or a needy male to pump up.

James Bowery said at July 16, 2008 1:12 AM:

"Anyone got a good evolutionary explanation for the origin of this behavior?"

Cuckoldry drives it in both faithful and unfaithful female genotypes for complimentary reasons:

Because the unfaithful doesn't want to be perceived as unfaithful and because the faithful doesn't want to be perceived as unfaithful.

Jason Malloy said at July 16, 2008 1:13 AM:

Both men and women are happier in a relationship where the female is more attractive


The higher mate value of the woman is incentive for the man to not gamble by cheating and stick with commitment and investment (i.e. a long-term relationship). The imbalance provides mutually beneficial stability to the relationship.

So getting hit on by an attractive person means different things to the man and woman - it's already clear the woman could do better for a short-term, but not long-term, fling. (the more attractive man would more likely defect from the l-tr)

The female overcompensation in the study would work to neutralize the potential sexual jealousy and suspicion of the male partner. (preserving the relationship... and possibly protecting the female from violence) This would be necessary if she does or doesn't cuckold the less attractive partner, since the purpose of the pair-bond is to acquire resources for her off-spring regardless of the father.

Hopefully Anonymous said at July 16, 2008 1:17 AM:

I lean towards James explanation. A good empirical test: How does the ovulation cycle impact this female behavior? Women may see the attractive man as a good mating partner, and the boyfriend as a good man to raise the attractive man's offspring with her. She thinks she's more likely to be procreating, and thus she has a greater need for her relationship with her boyfriend (to help her raise the kid she has with the attractive man). However, if her behavior isn't affected by her ovulation cycle, that makes this theory less likely to be true, in my estimation.

Mthson said at July 16, 2008 1:21 AM:

Perhaps the interaction makes the women feel better about themselves and experience a subtle neurochemical high, making them feel that 'all is well with the world.' The men, on the other hand, are reacting with an economic assessment of their position.

Jason Malloy said at July 16, 2008 1:26 AM:

It shouldn't be affected by the ovulation cycle, because if she is having sex with either of the men she needs the pair bond equally.

spindizzy said at July 16, 2008 5:53 AM:

This experiment seems to be based on self-report. I don't think the results count for much.

Andrew Berman said at July 16, 2008 6:39 AM:

Sexual attractiveness is not static. Upon seeing an attractive male, a woman may be encouraged to raise the attractiveness of her mate. The best way for her to do that is probably to work on the relationship.

James Bowery said at July 16, 2008 8:49 AM:

Jason, I suspect there could be different reactions to ovulation between the faithful and unfaithful genotype females due to the "arms race" nature of this situation:

Think about the unfaithful female as parasitic on the faithful female's strategy. As with most parasite/host evolutionary arms races, the parasite genotype has the advantage of being the aggressor and optimizing behavior accordingly while the host genotype the disadvantage of reacting, in evolutionary time after the fact. For example, part of the reaction here is the evolution of male detection of ovulation, which is going to lag the female detection of her own ovulation. The parasite female knows precisely when she is ovulating and can alter her behavior accordingly. The host female can only optimize her behavior based on the degree to which males have evolved the ability to detect ovulation, which is far less certain (due to evolutionary time lag in the male-female arms race) than is the parasite female's ability to detect her own ovulation.

Kane said at July 16, 2008 9:20 AM:

I had the same initial thoughts as Mthson.

Brock said at July 16, 2008 11:42 AM:

I think the above posters have nailed it. A male maximizes reproductive fitness by having as many children as possible. The female, limited in the number of children she can have by the productive capacity of her uterus, maximizes her reproductive fitness by keeping a male around to help raise her finite children. The female knows she has sexual options (which she may take advantage of, illicitly), but she can't let her partner know it.

Michael G.R. said at July 16, 2008 2:33 PM:

"Anyone got a good evolutionary explanation for the origin of this behavior?"

Don't forget that not all behaviors have a direct evolutionary explanation, or at least, not always a single on. This could simply be a side-effect of another adaptation.

I don't know what it could be, though. Very good question.

Ben said at July 16, 2008 4:12 PM:

How was the study conducted though? Was it one woman meeting with all the guys and then one guy meeting with all the women?

Maybe the people who did the study picked the wrong people? Or tended to pick different types of attractive females or males?

Perhaps when the men flirted with the women they responded negatively and weren't impressed by it. Maybe they thought he was being too strong, etc.

DensityDuck said at July 16, 2008 4:18 PM:

Easy enough to answer.

Cute girl flirts with a guy, guy thinks: "I could hit that if I wasn't in a relationship." This is a negative thought, and affects their mood accordingly.

Cute guy flirts with a girl, girl thinks: "I'm so hot that random guys want to flirt with me!" This is a positive thought, and affects their mood accordingly.

non said at July 16, 2008 4:46 PM:

i think the women may feel guilty and so compensate by forgiving their partners flaws. the men dont feel guilty or if they do it makes them angry

Pitbull Terrier said at July 16, 2008 5:23 PM:

Both men and women benefit from having children with more than one partner. Call it genetic diversification. Having all your children with the same partner is genetically risky. It's putting all your eggs in one basket.

The difference is that men don't expect to support all their children from different women. They try to impregnate as many women as possible, hoping some of the children will survive. They can at most stick around with one of the women to help her raise her children. So, when a guy meets the prospect of impregnating a second woman, his main goal becomes impregnating that second woman. He has no reason to be nicer to his old lady. She will not help raise the second woman's children anyway. Also, getting the second woman to "yes" may still take some effort, so until then his old lady is just in the way.

Women also seek to have children by different men, but a woman actually has the prospect of keeping all her children together and even getting a guy to help her raise all of them. So, when a woman meets the prospect of becoming pregnant by a second man, she has an increased incentive to be nice to her old man. She now has a more valuable (diversified) brood for him to help raise. Also, her old man isn't in the way, since getting impregnated by the second man is relatively effortless for her.

Moe said at July 16, 2008 6:18 PM:

I think that we could end poverty if we compelled people who are prone to promoting specious evolutionary rationalizations a licensing fee. Evolutionary psychology is the new astrology.

You know that a study was conducted by women when ...

Using virtual reality scenarios in the last experiment, the researchers wanted to see if 40 men could learn not to flirt when mingling with attractive women if they formed a plan or strategy beforehand. The researchers prompted half the male subjects in this experiment to visualize being approached by an attractive woman. They were then instructed to write down a strategy to protect their relationship. These men were more likely to distance themselves from an attractive woman in the subsequent virtual reality scenarios.

All your d*cks are belong to us!

Patrick Carroll said at July 16, 2008 6:30 PM:

I'm on a second marriage. My experience is that women stop trying to contribute as soon as they marry. Once they have their hooks in, it's the guy's responsibility to provide all, even if their are no kids.

I'm sick and tired of women. I'll be happy to see the end of my current marriage, and I'll never marry, ever again.

Women sicken me.

Blair said at July 16, 2008 6:48 PM:

Michael G.R. is right. Labelling every trait as the direct outcome of natural selection is still popular, but still wrong. Read the famous 1979 paper "The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm" by Gould and Lewontin, or just wiki it. This especially applies to behavioural and psychological traits; the working of the mind are far from being fully deciphered, and any "evolutionary" reason given is pure speculation.

Cover Me, Porkins said at July 16, 2008 7:17 PM:

Easy, Carroll. Two out of about 3 billion don't add up to a representative sample.

The study doesn't appear to have had clear control variables. And, too, while a 55 percent discrepancy should raise eyebrows, 5.5 percent may as well be noise. Finally, what if the noted women were more likely to go soft, with or without a pass?

Jason Malloy said at July 16, 2008 8:19 PM:

I assume the influx of banal Gouldian pseudo-critique is a result of the Instapundit link.

A prediction of the relationship maintenance explanation is that females from populations with less sexual jealousy and incentive to maintain pairbonds will not be as artificially forgiving after the same encounters.


Chris said at July 16, 2008 8:33 PM:

"Guys see it as an opportunity, women see it as a complement." (My wife's wisdom).

I'm guessing here- for women, the opportunity cost of a good, steady relationship is too high; the opportunity cost of a steady relationship for a man is simply not as high as the next available female.

Or said at July 16, 2008 10:22 PM:

It makes perfect sense. It has been shown that women and men choose mates differently: women are far more realistic when it comes to choosing a mate, to their "hotness" than men do. A man will try out of his league; a woman is far less likely to.
Also, it is the role of the man to initiate relationship, while the woman plays the reluctant, holding-off part.

Therefore, the women in the study, who meet an attractive man but did not mate, thought they have a good, realistically available man, and went ahead strengthening that relationship. The men, even though they did not mate either, are used to this game, and came out thinking that given time, they can get the attractive woman.

willem said at July 16, 2008 11:21 PM:

Her behavior represents a dual strategy that overlays perfectly:

She seeks to avoid conflict; to reduce the risk of agonism in the primary relationship as the female's central investment in her male biologically takes the form of children produced by the coupling.

Spurning the flirt does not mean the flirt feels spurned. Attraction happens on several levels. If the female wishes to cheat rather than leave the current male, she must do so cryptically. Buttering up the current male to reassure him is an ideal masking behavior should she wish to cryptically pursue the flirt.

The two points are not mutually exclusive. The behavior facilitates the female who wants to have her cake and eat it too.

Joseph Hill said at July 17, 2008 4:57 AM:

can I, will I, get laid? that is All that matters to a guy. Scared? he won't cheat...interested? he might, with little pushing buty perhaps a few drinks...who knows what girls think or do?

Mthson said at July 17, 2008 5:47 AM:

Gould and Lewontin failed in their efforts to kill evolutionary psychology. Evolution matters, and genetic knowledge is just going to advance faster each year.

paul abarge said at July 17, 2008 7:13 AM:

Men are much more enthusiastic about polygamy.


paul abarge said at July 17, 2008 7:14 AM:

"unintuitive results"

Don't you mean counter-intuitive?

Mark Buehner said at July 17, 2008 7:30 AM:

"Men are much more enthusiastic about polygamy."

The math on that makes it unlikely I think. It takes 2 women to engage in polygamy as we think of it, and 1 man.

Overall i think the commenters nailed it- the evolutionary advantage to women would be to sucker their committed mate into raises the child of the donor with the (perceived) superior genes. The opposite pressure works on the male- the less committed he is the more opportunity he has to spread his genes.

Scott said at July 17, 2008 7:56 AM:

"Do these results make sense to you?"

Sure - women are somewhat more guilt-prone than men, in general. Men by and large do not beat themselves up for "window shopping"; we figure as long as it stays in our head, no harm no foul. We learn quickly that guys who get caught up in emotional self-analysis tend get passed over or soon dumped - a small amount of shamelessness is seen as a prerequisite for achieving "alpha male" status. And of course we are after all understood by society at large to be pigs and simpletons anyway, so we can always shrug and grin if confronted about a careless glance or conversation. "Boys will be boys" and all that crap.

Women on the other hand are constantly expected to conform at least to some degree, if only to the extent of being marginally prim and decent, and this has the effect of leaving them more sensitive to public perception and with self esteem issues - and therefore feel guilty after flirting with a man outside of their relationship where a man might not.

I think it also comes partly from a desire in women to build and maintain a "nest" i.e. create a safe environment for raising children through things like a stable relationship, steady employment, etc. This is instinctive even for women who don't plan to (or aren't able to) have kids. Since flirtation is a threat to one of the underpinnings of the nest's stability, it probably is therefore somewhat alarming to a woman.

None of which is to say that men are more prone to cheat than women, or that women aren't fully capable of wrecking a home through cheating (their own or that of a married man), just to say that the psychological side of the process may be a bit more complex for women even though the end result is essentially the same.

Joe said at July 17, 2008 9:05 AM:

Sample size issues apply, I assume. Further, the data presented do not have enough context to really illuminate the thought patterns of the study subjects. How many of the 58 women held some level of religious belief? Same question of the men. Other characteristics of the men and women would be helpful. Shy or bold. Content or insecure. And so forth.

Studies that focus on behavior or perceived behavior after an introduced stimuli cannot adequately establish a control group, in my opinion, and therefore are lacking the basic fundamental necessary for adequate analysis. Without it the results are interesting, but effectively meaningless.

Anon said at July 17, 2008 1:58 PM:

I think Density Duck is correct about mood impact

Miriam Mendelson said at July 18, 2008 6:44 AM:

I'm with Scott at 7:56


Joe said at July 19, 2008 3:35 PM:

It would be a reproductive advantage for a female to tend to strengthen her bond with her resource-providing partner when she perceives (on a primal level) the possibility of mating , whether with her partner or another man (in this case, with the "attractive" and flirtatious male). If a woman finds a man she wants to mate with, it would be to her reproductive advantage to seek to solidify her resource base by seeking to strengthen her bond with her partner. Women (at least in my experience) have the same forgiving tendency when they are seeking to become pregnant by their partner. In the case at hand, the woman's reaction may well manifest itself as a feeling of "guilt", which motivates the female to feel more tolerant of her partner.

Men would have no such reproductive incentive.

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