Are the Best Wingmen Actually Women?

November 5, 2009

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The pursuit of love may be more a cooperative team sport than a one-on-one pick-up game.  New research published in this month’s Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin reveals that both sexes cooperate to achieve romantic goals—either to create barriers that potential suitors have to overcome, or by teaming up to circumvent (or downright break down) such barriers.  Additionally, an individual’s relationship status may influence the type and intensity of help s/he gives.

Does this seem familiar?  If, dear reader, you are a female, have you ever gone to a social scene with a few of your girlfriends and found an unsuitable guy trying to pick you up the moment your friend goes to restroom?  When she returns, does his friend suddenly appear to chat-up your friend and prevent your getaway?  If you are a guy, have you and your friends ever employed such a tactic?  It’s not just flirting, but a time-tested mating strategy.

These behaviors are common across several animal species as well: male lions banding together to protect access to a lioness pride, or male monkeys collaborating to increase mating opportunities.  Researchers Joshua Ackerman and Douglas Kenrick extend this theory to humans, surmising that these cooperative mating strategies help both sexes achieve either short or long-term relationship success.  Given that any sexual relationship has more potential cost for women (due to pregnancy and increased resource depletion to take care of the child) over men, it follows that women are going to be more selective—creating thresholds or barriers that potential mates will have to overcome in order to prove their worth.  Women would therefore cooperate to maintain said barriers and avoid mates.  Men, in response to this cooperation, would band together to display characteristics that surpass these thresholds or get past barriers.

Not surprisingly, their theories turned out to be true: across several studies, women overwhelmingly gave help to avoid dates, and men lent their hand for access-based help.  The reverse was also seen for both sexes (e.g. women helping other women pick up men), although to lesser degrees.  In general, women were thought to cooperate on date-avoidance strategies, and men reported using date-access (i.e., barrier-breaking) strategies.   Relationship status played a role as well: single women reported that they gave more help than attached women, and romantically attached men tended to give more access-based help.  It seems that men off-the-market may be the most willing to be the wingman, since they have the least potential for competition for the desired mate.  It’s possible that the committed man is most likely picked by his single friends for this reason as well.

But what about helping out your opposite-sex friend, or going out in a mixed group?  The researchers found that if a woman goes out with her platonic guy friends she is most likely to receive help from them in avoiding potential mates.  In fact, the deterrent could be unobtrusive and unintentional: women in the company of a group of men could be sending the signal to outsiders that she is in a relationship, or generally unavailable. Of course, a woman seems to make a better “wingman” for a guy: not only is the information about a potential mate better received from a woman, the image of a guy with a group of girls sends the signal out that the man is “accepted and acceptable”  by other women.

The researchers found another interesting tidbit: these strategies are overwhelmingly used when in the company of friends rather than strangers, family, or on their own.  Men and women each have an equally hard time approaching and avoiding each other when alone.

The moral of the story?  Girl groups are naturally cooperative at repelling unsuitable mates.  If you’re a guy on the search for a potential mate, your best wingman might be a group of women.  If you’re alone, you might have your best chance when your potential love interest has separated from the group.

Ackerman, J.M., and Kenrick, D.T. (2009).  Cooperative courtship: Helping friends raise and raze relationship barriers.  Personality and social psychology bulletin, 35, 10, 1285 – 1300.

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