Does it feel like you’re getting more attention now that you’re in a relationship? If so, there’s a scientific explanation behind your new popularity.
When women prefer a man they know to be taken over a single counterpart, they are engaging in a phenomenon scientists call mate-choice copying. Specifically, the phenomenon describes what happens when a woman “observes a romantic or sexual interaction between a male and another female (referred to as the model female) and preferentially chooses that male as a mate” (Pruett-Jones, 1992). In other words, the woman on your arm or the the wedding band on your finger are letting other women know that you’ve been pre-screened.
Finding a compatible partner isn’t easy—and the equation becomes even more stressful with a biological clock ticking in the background. To help filter worthy candidates, women look for clues. They evaluate men for the usual trademarks of great genes: height (Sheppard & Strathman, 1989), facial hair (Waynforth, Delwadia, & Camm, 2005), and facial symmetry (Little, Jones, & DeBruine, 2011). Women are also analyzing contextual clues; they rated men with status symbols like expensive cars (Dunn & Searle, 2010) and expensive clothes (Townsend & Levy, 1990) more desirable.
But, what about the other factors? Like temperament, passion, or sociability?
Personality does count but, unlike evaluating external cues, getting to know someone requires a substantial time investment. Instead of running her own due diligence, a single woman might take a shortcut with mate-choice copying. If a man is with a girlfriend, the single woman will use the girlfriend’s judgment to determine that the man would make a good partner.
So, I should only leave the house with a woman from now on?
It’s a bit more complicated than that. For a single woman to value the girlfriend’s judgment, the girlfriend must be as attractive if not more attractive than the single woman. To understand how much the girlfriend’s attractiveness matters, scientists gave participants pictures of potential mates alone and also pictured as part of a couple. Each potential mate was pictured with a “girlfriend” who was either unattractive, moderately attractive, or very attractive.
The desirability of the man was directly correlated to the attractiveness of his female partner. Participants rated men with attractive “girlfriends” much more desirable than the same men photographed alone. But, if the man is holding company with an unattractive partner, he’s actually rated as less desirable.
Mate-choice copying might sound like a conniving dating strategy specific to some morally questionable single ladies, but scientists assert that it’s more benign. It’s less about a single woman trying to steal another woman’s mate; instead, it’s probably just a single woman adapting her opinion to mirror that of a peer. We use other people’s opinions to help shape our own. If a woman sees a man who has been highly rated previously, it’s likely she will do the same.