Let’s not rush into anything

In movies and TV shows, people fall in love and into bed (or the other way around) with amazing speed. In musicals, it’s even worse: all it takes is a single song.

In real life, though, although one hears of whirlwind romances and sudden marriages (often followed by whirlwind separations and sudden divorces) courtship is often a very drawn-out affair.

And now scientists have developed a mathematical model to explain why.

One of the lead researchers, Professor Robert Seymour of University College London, points out extended courtships are common to a number of species–but, of course, it’s the human application that most interests us self-centered homo sapiens.

Says Seymour, “Human courtship…can involve a sequence of dinners, theatre trips and other outings lasting months or even years. One partner–often the male–may pay the greater part of the financial cost, but to both sexes there is a significant cost of time which could be spent on other productive activities. Why don’t people and other animals speed things up to reduce these costs?”

The answer, he says, seems to be that longer courtship is a way for the female to acquire information about the male: the new mathematical model shows that an extended courtship enables females to screen out males who are unsuitable to mate with–and give males an opportunity to signal that, no, in fact they are very suitable.

Based on game theory, the model involves a male and female in a “courtship encounter of unspecified duration.” The “game” ends when either one party drops out of the encounter or the female accepts the male as a mate.

The model assumes that the male is either a “good” or “bad” male from the female’s point of view: good if he’s able and willing to care for children after mating, bad if he isn’t. Since the female gets a positive payoff from mating with a good male, but a negative one from mating with a bad male, it’s in her interest to do everything she can to figure out into which of those two categories the male falls.

In the model, males (this will come as no surprise to anyone) get a positive payoff from mating with any female–any female at all. However, the male’s payoff is higher if he is “good” rather than “bad.”

With those rules in place, the researchers used the model to look for “evolutionarily stable equilibrium behaviors,” situations in which both sides are doing as well as they can in relationship to the other. The result? Extended courtships, because good males are willing to court longer than a bad male. That being the case, the female can use the fact that the good male is willing to wait to screen good males from bad males. (Bad males–again, this is hardly earth-shattering news–are more likely to dump the delaying female and move on to the next.)

“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,” Seymour says.

Another of the researchers, Dr. Peter Sozou of Warwick Medical School, says 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.”

I will leave as an exercise for my readers the application of this new research to relationships with which they are intimately familiar.

I would like to state for the record, though, that my wife and I dated for more than 3 1/2 years before marrying.

See, honey? Told you you got a good one.

Permanent link to this article: https://edwardwillett.com/2009/01/let%e2%80%99s-not-rush-into-anything/

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