Who could forget this iconic scene in When Harry Met Sally?, in which Sally’s mid-meal outburst of pleasure entices a woman at a neighboring table to “have what she’s having?” Recent research suggests that the influence of endorsements made by same-sex others is not limited to diner fare or exaggerated displays, but encompasses a variety of social interactions and contextual cues, including the inherently social world of dating. In fact, even the slightest suggestion of another’s interest in a potential romantic partner may heavily inform our assessment of that potential mate’s desirability.
A phenomenon coined “mate choice copying,” in which an animal is more likely to select a mate previously chosen by another, has been observed in a variety of nonhuman species. From an evolutionary perspective, copying another’s mate may act as a shortcut by which the costs of active mate assessment (like time, energy, and predation risk) are diminished while also improving the mating outcome; choosing a mate who has previously mated with another helps ensure that an individual less experienced in selecting a mate will indeed mate successfully.
As humans, our tendency to copy others’ choices has been well documented by researchers across a variety of human activities, including fashion decisions, business strategies, “copycat” crimes, and, yes, restaurant orders. Recently, mate copying has been further indicated in human mating, as humans are particularly skilled at incorporating the social cues of others as a means of determining their intentions and attitudes (Jones, DeBruine, Little, Burriss, & Feinberg, 2007). Subtleties such as one person’s proximity to another, their facial expression, or a slight gaze potentially relay a wealth of information regarding the value of an unknown individual before you even learn their name. Given the highly ambiguous nature of social dating, in which it seems utterly impossible to size-up every potential partner you see, mate copying may allow our already-overworked brains just the shortcut they need.
This is especially true for women, as their ideal mate preferences are influenced by those factors that best indicate that a man will be able and willing to stick around and invest in herself and her offspring, like his socioeconomic status, career, and social dominance. Unfortunately, many of these qualities cannot be determined simply by giving a man a good onceover, and instead women must employ other means of assessing a potential mate’s value (unless Sally is around to offer her screaming approval).
So how has the female species adapted to differentiate the good guys from the bad ones with just a glance? Read more to find out…