The Regularisation Headline
A few days ago, CBS announced they are finally going to retire their flagship sitcom The Big Bang Theory after 12 seasons. I was shocked at this news. I couldn’t believe it’s been going for so long. It turns out that TBBT is actually the longest running multi-camera sitcom in history and is only approaching an end because Jim Parsons, who plays the show’s golden goose Sheldon Cooper, has finally tired of the role.
People tend to assume I’m a fan of The Big Bang Theory and are mildly surprised that my feelings toward it are lukewarm at best. “But you’re a Science a nerd!” they say, to which I reply yes I am, and proud of it. But TBBT is not really a show for Science nerds, it’s a show about science nerds written by people who clearly aren’t.
Full disclosure though, I did quite like the first few seasons. It was refreshing to see nerds as main characters rather than sidekicks to a hero. Nerds are usually comic relief characters, so making a show about them as the stars felt different and worth paying attention to.
As a Science teacher I was also grateful to the show because it managed to introduce a lot of terms into the general vocabulary which students then asked me about. It was one of the most watched shows on TV, pulling 15 million viewers per episode, and got people googling things like string theory and quantum mechanics, which is fantastic. It also made an effort (sometimes at least) to portray Scientists as real people with personalities, and I always like seeing that.
It was a well-written show too, with snappy dialogue and I'm sure if I ever wrote a sitcom it wouldn't be half as good, so this is not a stab at the show's writers, its cast or the production team. I just want to express why my personal sensibilities didn't gel with it. This is - shock and horror - an opinion piece, so take it all with a pinch of bias folks.
And no, this has nothing to do with the fact that people keep saying I remind them of "someone off Big Bang Theory". I think they mean it as a compliment anyway??? Although that's probably a good place to start.
The Characterisation Expansion
Howard was the creepy sleaze-bag of the group. The joke was that he objectified and leered after women, using ever-more elaborate ploys to trick them into dating him. His schemes would always fall through by the end of the episode however and, after licking his wounds, he'd try again next time with a cunning new tactic. Kind of like if Wile E Coyote was a sex-offender.
Howard reminded me of a live-action Glenn Quagmire from Family Guy. In both cases the humour comes from off-colour shock jokes, which I'm fine with, but Family Guy kept Quagmire as a ludicrous side-character whereas TBBT made this thoroughly unlikable toad one of the heroes. Personally I found it hard to cheer for someone whose motivations were so sinister.
He’s played extremely well by Simon Helberg but he wasn’t really someone you could admire. He epitomsed a certain type of nerd who saw women as characters in video-games to seduce by hitting the right combination of buttons and you could easily imagine him slipping something into someone’s drink and posting about it later on 4chan. In fact, there were even stories which involved him videotaping women without their consent which, having lived with a guy who actually did that once, I just didn't get it. Oh and he had an overbearing Jewish mother which I guess you have to be American or Jewish to get the humour in?
Raj was a more interesting character and they managed to mostly bypass the stereotype of him being Indian. Occasionally they made reference to his heritage and demanding parents, but when you consider how far The Simpsons push racial stereotyping with Apu, Raj seems kind of mild.
Played superbly by Kunal Nayyar, the character himself wasn’t a problem for me. He’s generally the most suave, meterosexual and thoughtful of the four guys and the one with the least hangups. With one notable exception. Raj’s main joke is…drumroll…he can’t talk to women unless drunk.
Something about that gag just seemed iffy for a prime time sitcom. For one thing, it’s one of the oldest cliches in the book - nerdy guys can’t talk to women, fused with another cliche - being drunk gives you courage. Neither of those things are true by the way - I’m a nerdy guy and I can talk to women fine, and the dutch-courage effect of alcohol is a placebo. Sorry to bust ya bubble there.
My issue is that this running gag simply made me uncomfortable. Imagine if the situation were reversed and it was about a woman who could only go on dates with guys when she was inebriated. We’d question the guys' ethics and consider them predatory. Likewise, when Raj is taking his drugs and flirting with women, is this an OK joke for a show children watch? He’s putting on a drug-induced persona and women are potentially taking advantage of that. I’m not saying it was wrong to joke about it, it just left a bad taste in my mouth is all.
Leonard was the most likeable of the four to me. Certainly the most believable and relatable. He was highly intelligent but that came at the price of being neurotic. Smart enough to recognise social situations, just quick to forget them because he had other things on his mind. A lot of nerds feel like this. We know exactly what the expected behaviour is, we’ve just got other stuff to think about.
Leonard was really easy to root for too. He was a geek but wanted to be normal and settle into a quiet life with a nice girlfriend. He wanted to be a muggle while holding onto his magical abilities, and that’s something a lot of nerds relate to. He’s also fairly modest about his intellect, despite being a skilled quantum field theorist. He wasn’t defined by his IQ or his profession, he just liked Science and sci-fi. Who doesn’t?
Leonard should have been the main character in my eyes. His constant internal conflict between adolescent obsession and living in the adult world were endearing, relatable and hilarious traits. But he wasn’t quite the main character. Sheldon was.
In his portrayal of Sheldon Cooper, Jim Parsons channels undiagnosed high-functioning autistic spectrum disorder - what used to be called Asberger’s syndrome. This is typified by being intellectually remarkable often in one specific area, but socially uninterested and happily autonomous, often obsessed with ritual, detail and personal tastes which go beyond hobbies.
The show never explicitly states Sheldon is autistic in fairness, but it’s assumed by everyone, including Parsons himself. People on the autistic spectrum often come across a little weird or eccentric, so there's definitely potential for humourous situations there. But the show makes out that Sheldon's autism is funny to the point of him not quite being human.
The joke usually came in two forms. Either 1) he’s socially inept or 2) he’s intelligent which makes him overconfident. He’s kind of like an anti-Homer Simpson, the key difference being that Homer’s overconfidence came from rank stupidity. What also made Homer different to Sheldon, is that Homer is a sweet guy who cares about his wife and kids. Sheldon is just a jerk.
To be 100% clear on this, being on the autistic spectrum does not make you act like a callous ass but the implication with Sheldon seems to be that he is so uninterested in people’s social rules he has stopped caring about their feelings as well. He dislikes anyone who doesn’t do things his way and is unprepared to compromise to the point of conflict. He looks down on women and considers anybody intellectually inferior as worthy of contempt.
There are plenty of TV shows which center around an anti-hero clashing with normal people of course, but it’s hard to empathise with someone who is mean to everyone. If you compare Sheldon with, say, Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty or Gregory House from House MD, we again have antisocial geniuses who despise everyone else, but Rick and Morty/House's nihilistic tone made no secret of this. Rick and House were written to be thoroughly unpleasant, and as we learn more about them, we realise how tortured and alone they are. These were very dark themes for very dark shows.
In TBBT they play the outcast-genius thing for laughs and I never found it funny. I guess the reason is that a lot of Science nerds really are lonely and withdrawn. A lot of them become bitter and sharp-tongued to keep people at bay, so while everyone was giggling at Sheldon as a pariah, I found myself wondering if he was alright.
I’m not saying the show shouldn’t have made fun of him - humour is all about taste and never right nor wrong, but I just didn’t find the joke particularly amusing. For me, lonely, antisocial characters work fine in dramas or twisted sitcoms but it was always jarring seeing it played for hoots in TBBT. Also, Sheldon’s favourite Star Trek character was Wesley Crusher. Nobody likes Wesley.
Rachel from Friends but blonde.
The Feminine Assimilation Hypothesis
After about four seasons the writers began to realise, I think, that they’d taken the characters as far as they could and the show was at risk of becoming stale. Character humour is short-lived and after four years, it was probably time to stop. But rather than doing that, they made the slightly unusual choice for a sitcom of introducing two new protagonists - girlfriends for Howard and Sheldon in the form of Bernadette and Amy.
The show’s dynamic shifted significantly to watching the frustration of Penny, Bernadette and Amy deal with their nerdy boyfriends, with Raj as a neutral party. I really respected the writer’s self-awareness in recognising the show could become old, but the execution began to bug me.
My main problem was that the women were kind of normal. Amy, played by Mayim Bialik (who actually has a PhD in neuroscience) had her moments of dry awkwardness but she was still written as an emotionally reasonable woman who didn’t “get” the nerd culture of the four men. Her role was to soften Sheldon around the edges and extract his human side. She was a nerd but wanted to be normal, so it was as if Sheldon was dating Leonard. Perhaps they should have gone with that?
Bernadette was likewise, written as a calming, taming influence on Howard who brought him around to being a sort-of gentleman. And so the show’s two most exagerrated characters were made to mellow. Which takes away their purpose.
It seems like I’m complaining about it both ways with Howard though. I didn’t like him when he was an obnoxious sleaze and I found him boring when he became a “nice guy”. But I think they shot themselves in the foot from day one. Introducing a shock-character gives you two options over time. Either keep him as he is (in which case he becomes tiresome) or rewrite him as an ordinary person (in which case he loses comedy value).
And as for Sheldon, he just treated Amy badly. Apparently in later seasons he begins to treat her with kindness, and I’m vaguely aware that they settle and get married? That’s sweet, but I never made it that far because Sheldon was just horrible to this good-hearted woman and I couldn't watch. I was annoyed that the women were written as foils for the men. Why couldn’t they be eccentric nerds too? Why did the show’s dynamic have to be about women being human and nerds being nerds?
Gradually, the show started to lose the one thing which made it different for me. It stopped being a show about nerd culture and became a show about relationships…like every other sitcom on the air. The number of science-related subplots died down and it was suddenly all about dating and sex. Basically it turned into Friends if all the male characters were Ross. Ewwwww.
What originally made the show unique got phased out and it became a kind of box-ticking exercise. “Have we referenced a superhero movie yet this episode?” Great. Let’s get back to jokes about how men leave the toilet seat up and women love eating chocolate on their period. It became indistinguishable from other sitcoms and that’s when I started to get bored.
The Demographic Algorithm
The very opening scene of episode one of TBBT features Leonard and Sheldon discussing the infamous double-slit experiment with an analysis of the quantum measurement problem. And it’s accurate. I remember watching this and getting a warm glow of “hey that’s cool, they actually got it right!” something you don’t normally get watching fiction.
Moments later, they managed to spin this dialogue into a neat joke about how bizarre scientists can be and it made me feel hopeful for the series. A sitcom in which the main characters talk accurately about Science sounded great. This could be funny, educational and good for scientific exposure and depiction.
It was still poking fun at nerds a little of course, but I’ve got a sense of humour about myself - we often are obsessive about sci-fi shows, comic books and get a bit socially awkward sometimes. That’s fair game. By all means take your shots. At least you’re getting the science right for once!
Over the first few seasons, they managed to keep to this theme of poking fun at nerds while getting the facts right. The characters would make reference to genuine discoveries, the equations on whiteboards in the background were authentic (I paused often enough to check) and they had debates about Star Trek I remember having myself. There’s even one episode where a character makes a discovery which, in the real world, is coincidentally named after him. The writers had clearly done their homework.
A lot of people claimed this was therefore a show making fun of nerds but also being respectful; laughing at them and with them simultaneously. And it did feel like that for a while. Until it began to dawn on me that this wasn’t the spirit of things at all. The jokes were still at the expense of how nerdy these guys were and how socially poor their behaviour was.
At no point does the show mock non-nerds for their scientifically empty lives. The show doesn’t champion skepticism or reasoned discourse either, nor does it celebrate intellectual achievement and hard work in school. It was just the same old “haha nerds are weird and don't get invited to the party!” joke most of us had to put up with through our teenage years. Nerds were the main characters of the show yes, but they were still figures of ridicule.
I began to suspect the way the show was written was that they wrote a sitcom, then got Science experts to add references and make it sound authentic. I could imagine scripts looking something like “Sheldon describes a room being as messy as - INSERT SCIENTIFICALLY MESSY THING”. Which I later found out is pretty much exactly what happens.
There are Science consultants on the show who make sure the vocabulary is legitimate, but they are brought in long after the jokes are written. To me this is the writers paying lip-service to nerds to stop them feeling teased…while simultaneously teasing them. Watching TBBT for more than four seasons felt like unmasking the Scooby-Doo villain and discovering there was nothing magical going on at all. Just someone trying to squeeze money out you.
The Mixed State Postulation
The Big Bang Theory was a jumbled bag for me overall. I like that there was a show about nerds on TV and I like that they did their research. There were also nice Easter Eggs for sci-fi fans and a lot of witty exchanges in the dialogue. But they still went for the easy target of nerds being weird and portrayed us in a less than favourable light sometimes. It also reinforced the stereotype of the dumb blonde waitress being sexually promiscuous and seemed fine with men talking down to their girlfriends, as long as the women "got the last laugh" in the final moments of the show.
Overall, I thought of TBBT as a kind of humane Victorian freak-show. The freaks are treated well and there’s great information to be learned. The keepers obviously care deeply about their pet freaks and members of the public are encouraged to get to know them as people. But it is still, ultimately, a place where people pay to come and gawk at abnormality.
If you want a show which really is made for nerds, you want Star Trek itself. That was a show which included accurate Science, mixed with philosophy of Science, as part of the storylines and everyone in the show was a nerd of some sort. Plus it had robots and space battles.
In Star Trek there were also two Sheldon-esque characters: Spock in the original series and Data in Next Gen. But what set these shows apart is that while both characters were socially clueless, they weren’t jerks and they were always respected. There were misunderstandings and frustrations at times, which was played for both dramatic emphasis and for humour, but Star Trek had a deep respect for scientific curiosity and knowledge. The nerds were championed and usually vindicated.
Sheldon says something super-smart on TBBT and Penny raises an eyebrow at his nerdiness, cue peals of laughter. Spock says something super-smart on Star Trek and everyone listens to see if they can follow his logic. That’s the difference between a show about nerds and a show for nerds. In The Big Bang Theory nerds get pitiful charity-laughs for liking Science. In Star Trek nerds get to live long and prosper.
It's a well-known joke that men care about the size of a woman's chest and women care about the size of a man's wallet. You've undoubtedly seen some hideous yet stupidly rich man in his nineties walking around with a 20-something super-model and thought "I know what she's after". Similarly, you've probably seen guys lining up around the block for a vapid woman with no personality who just happens to be good-looking. "Men are shallow" we scoff, feeling smug and holy about ourselves. It seems we judge men for going after beauty and women for going after financial wealth, but is this fair?
I recently saw a series of cynical YouTube videos in which a woman is approached by a man and asked on a date (harassed, really). She turns him down but then the twist comes...he is revealed to be extremely wealthy e.g. he gets into a sports car, pulls a ton of notes from his pocket, or reveals himself to be the author of a popular Science book available now from Amazon. Suddenly the woman reverses her stance and asks if the guy still wants to go on a date. The man responds by laughing in her face and accusing her of being a "gold-digger". Classy stuff.
I can't help but feel it would be easy to do a gender-reversed version. Some guy is approached by a traditionally homely woman and propositioned for a date, which he turns down. Then the hilarious gag is revealed "oh that's a shame, because I'm asking for my friend..." cue woman suddenly appearing from behind a tree who is stupendously pretty and the man reverses his mind. Television networks, I await your call.
I suppose we could all try not judging other people for their relationship choices and accept that human beings are emotionally complicated, but where's the fun in that? Everyone loves a gossip, so today I thought I'd look at the question of dating stereotypes and ask whether it's biologically accurate. What do we look for in a partner and do these couples last?
Oh, I should point out that although this is always a family-friendly blog, I will be referencing the fact that humans (spoiler alert) have sex for the purposes of reproduction and fun. I'm sorry we're like that as a species. I'll see if I can do something about it!
The Game is On
Biologically speaking, the point of finding a sexual partner is to pass on genes. Males do this by producing millions of sperm cells every day, making them expendable and easily replaceable. Females however are born with a few dozen eggs which never get replaced, making them valuable.
Females also endure a long and uncomfortable pregnancy, removing them from the mating-arena for several months. This is followed by the pain of childbirth and in some species a lifelong commitment to child-rearing. Biologically, a female has to be careful when selecting a mate because it represents a greater investment. If you breed with a weak, unhealthy male the offspring are less likely to survive and you’ve just wasted a precious egg.
Males, on the other hand, can produce genetic material on demand so they don’t need to exercise as much caution. For them, the optimum strategy is to breed with as many females as possible. Because both sexes are trying to do different things, a balance has to be found and most species tend to adopt one of two strategies. Either they enter into pair-bonding arrangements, or they enter into a tournament.
In pair-bonding species like gibbons or owl monkeys, males and females find a mate and remain with them for many years. The advantage for the female is that the male will help with child-rearing, the advantage for the male is that he is guaranteed a mate and doesn’t have to use energy searching for new females.
In this kind of species, males and females are sizing each-other up in order to choose who to have sex with. Both want to make a careful selection and impress partners simultaneously, so everyone is trying to make themselves look good but also scope what’s on offer.
In a tournament species like chimpanzees or gorillas, the females are in charge of breeding and males have to compete for attention. Once a female has chosen a mate, a brief sexual union takes place and then the male often leaves, trying to impress someone new. The advantage for males is that they breed with more females, while the advantage for females is that they control which males are worth their time and only select the very best of what's on offer.
In tournament species the males tend to appear very different from the females since they are the ones having to look impressive (think of the difference between a peacock and a peahen). Males also tend to have a large testicle-to-body ratio in order to produce lots of sperm cells. We call this disparity between the sexes 'sexual dimorphism'. In pair-bonding species however, the two sexes look similar because neither is in charge of selection. The testicle-to-body ratio is also smaller because males don’t need to go to the trouble of having large ones (a potential risk of injury).
The human species, as you might have guessed, sits awkwardly in the middle. Human testicle-to-body ratio is halfway between tournament and pair-bonding species. There are also some sexual differences between men and women but not too many e.g. women have breasts and wider hips while men have muscle mass and broader shoulders, but if you’d never seen humans before you might find it difficult to tell them apart.
Humans are a species where males try to breed with many females but also search carefully for a worthy female to settle with. The reverse is also true; females will be on the lookout for an advantageous male but are also trying to advertise themselves for selection. The outcome is that men and women are both trying to impress each other with a slight tendency toward men wanting multiple partners and women being picky.
Incidentally, this means the belief that men are more sexually promiscuous on average is completely false. In fact, it’s mathematically impossible. Because the number of men and women are equal, the number of pairings which occur on average has to be equal too. If we had five men and five women and one man mated with each woman, the female average is one partner each. But since there were five men and five encounters, this is an average of one partner per man. If each woman had sex with all five men however, the men’s average would increase to five but so would the women’s!
Logically, men and women have the same number of sexual partners on average. Where the myth arises is that men apparently try to have more partners than women, but because women are more selective everything balances out.
Do I look good in this?
Now we can ask the real question: what do males and females in a species look for in a potential mate? Typically, there are five characteristics which drive the process:
1. Symmetry – Having a symmetrical shape tends to be the result of a good immune system (nobody knows why). If you are symmetrical you are healthy and therefore will have healthy babies. In fact, the Biologist Craig Roberts found that women’s faces literally change shape around ovulation to become more symmetrical, increasing attractiveness. Men, on the other hand, don’t go through a monthly cycle of sexual change so their shape remains fixed.
2. Sexual exaggeration – We look for members of the opposite sex who are extreme versions of what typifies that sex. The reason, known as the Zahavi handicap principle, is also to do with health. Your immune system takes a lot of energy to maintain. In fact, it’s the third biggest energy demand after muscle movement and brain activity. If you have a really strong immune system you therefore have lots of energy spare and a good way to advertise that is by showing off, wasting energy on secondary sexual characteristics. Look at my ridiculous antlers, check out the size of my tail feathers, see how big my throat-pouch is! My immune system’s so good I’ve got energy to spare on growing these.
3. Fertility characteristics – This one is obvious. If you’re not fertile then mating with you is a waste of time, so you have to look as fertile as possible and advertise it constantly. Having lots of testosterone as a man gives you things like a deep voice, body hair, muscle mass etc. as well as higher sperm-cell production. Subsequently looking more masculine is an advertisement that you are a good baby-maker. Likewise for women, chemicals like estrone and estradiol are responsible for feminine characteristics as well as fertility so the more feminine you look the more likely you are to be good at baby-making.
4. Homogony – You tend to seek out breeding partners who are physically similar to you (but not too similar). If you’re a chimpanzee your brain wants you to mate with other chimpanzees. It’s far less likely for a successful breeding to occur if you have sex with a gorilla (chimpanzee-gorilla crossbreeding is theoretically possible, but has never been achieved). Your brain encourages you to breed with similarity so you go after people who remind you of yourself a little. The flip-side is that breeding with someone too genetically similar is not favourable because it increases the chances of genetic diseases being inherited. That’s why we usually avoid mating with close relatives. But it may explain why some species show a slight bias for sex with cousins (looking in your direction Einstein).
5. Child-rearing – If you’re going to be passing your genes into a smaller unit, you need reassurance it’s going to survive and if the potential mate is a capable parent, they are obviously going to be a suitable partner. The first four characteristics are to do with appearance and are driven by finding good genes to produce a healthy baby. The fifth is about parenting of that baby and this is the crucial difference between the sexes.
Parenting is the most important factor because it has a bigger impact on whether the baby actually survives. If the child is born healthy but the parent doesn’t protect or feed them, they’re going to die no matter how good their genes are. However if the child is born unhealthy but the parenting is good, they still have a chance of living. If you’ve got to choose one over the other parenting skills dominates good genes.
This means if you’re picky with mate-selection and you’re only planning on doing it a few times, you’ll have to stick with top priority - child-rearing. Quality of genes (physical attraction) is a luxury. If you’re not picky however you can look for good genetics as well as child-rearing skills. Not only that but if you’re attempting to have sex with many partners you don’t have to worry about child-rearing so much. Chances are one of those mates will be a good parent so physical attraction (good genes) becomes your only motivation.
You can see where this is going. If you’re the female of a species you’re more likely to take your time finding out about a male. If they are a high-ranking male in your troop, good at hunting, good at defending against predators etc. they’re more likely to provide for children.
If you’re male, you’re trying to partner up as often as possible so you don’t spend time sussing out female behaviour and personality. You’re more likely to make quick judgements about the quality of genes on offer which means emphasis on physical attraction.
We don’t deliberately do any of this of course. Men aren’t consciously deciding which women are attractive and women don’t deliberately give more consideration to a man’s status, it’s just what we’re drawn to. Men will still consider the personality of a female and women will still consider the physical appearance of a male, but it isn’t the bottom line. Women want a provider for the kids, men want good genes for those kids. Eggs are valuable, sperm are not. Women make something precious, men make something common.
It might therefore be unhelpful, even naive, to criticise people for picking the partners they do. Attacking women for choosing stability or attacking men for caring about looks is to criticise people for something they aren’t in control of. Not only that, this arrangement might actually be the optimum strategy for our species. We’re in a difficult position, halfway between pair-bond and tournament, with both genders wanting different things. There is no way to make everyone happy so a compromise must be reached.
What does the research say?
Psychology research is always a minefield. There are so many variables in human behaviour and social interactions that refuting a hypothesis is difficult. Psychology is an invaluable branch of Science but its data is often more open to interpretation than physics, chemistry or biology. Nobody ever debates that F = ma or that Helium has two electrons, but psychological studies are more broad. This is a good thing in my view however, because the human mind is complex and context is everything. We need to keep our understanding loosey-goosey otherwise we end up sticking to ideas that are precarious.
One of the most famous studies carried out on human pairing was the 1978/1982 Clark & Hatfield study. The experimental setup was simple. At Florida State University, strangers were approached by members of the opposite sex and propostioned for a date or for sex.
The words used by each propositioning party were: "I've noticed you around, I find you very attractive, would you go to bed with me/go on a date with me?" A few years later these words from the research paper were remixed into the jazz-punk song Would You by Touch and Go, making it the only pop song to get its lyrics from a scientific journal. I'm trying to persuade the other three members of my rock band to do a similar song with lyrics taken from this paper on quantum cosmology. Fingers crossed.
Clark and Hatfield found that both sexes were equally willing to go on a date (about 50% of both groups) but when it came to sex, the picture looked very different. About 75% of the men immediately said yes to sex, while 0% of the women were up for it. This would appear to confirm the breeding-selection hypothesis.
Obviously we've made the assumption that the people being approached were heterosexual. That's unlikely to have been true but statistically, heterosexual behaviour is more common among humans, so the results shouldn't be skewed too much. It looks like that's fairly cut and dried then: men are more willing to mate with a female after meeting them. But what of the status preferences of women?
One of the most shocking (to me, as a man) studies I ever came across is unfortunately one I can no longer find. I remember Professor Robert Winston making reference to it in a documentary but I cannot find the original paper...anyone out there able to help? The study carried out a simple experiment. A group of women were positioned outside a restaurant and told to rank men for attractiveness as they pulled up in their cars.
The twist was that on multiple occasions the same man walked past but with a different social status. On the first attempt he drove up in a shabby, bruised car and got out in scruffy clothes and was ranked as a bad choice. The same man, a few hours later, drove up in a swish sports car, an affluent suit and was ranked as an ideal choice by the women. It's the exact same guy, yet different status made him literally unrecognisable.
As a man I found this result shocking, but that's because men tend to focus more on looks, and it's unlikely I would mis-recognise the same woman in different clothes. Women I've spoken to about this study aren't shocked however. A man's status really does change his attraction factor.
So does that settle it? Well...not so fast. In 2015 Andreas Baranowski and Heiko Hecht updated the Clark/Hatfield study. Initially they replicated the results on a modern campus and nightclub, finding it to be the same today as back then. But in the second phase of the experiment they decided to do it in private. Women and men were invited into a "dating agency" and asked to select partners for dating or sex, being reassured that the people's profiles had been vetted by the agency. Each subject was shown ten pictures and asked to select who they would have sex with.
Men on average selected just over three. Women on average selected just under. There is a slight difference to be sure, which perhaps confirms the hypothesis, but both men and women had closer behavioural patterns than Clark/Hatfield suggested. It would appear that when men and women are asked about sex and it's done in private, with reassurance of safety, they're about even.
Perhaps one of the reasons women turn men down regularly is related to the fact that 45% of women have experienced some sort of sexual violence, coercion or intimidation from a man during their adult lives. Maybe it's also because society condemns women for having sex, so accepting a proposal in public is a shameful thing?
I've sometimes heard men justify their sexual confidence (harassing of women) by saying it's biology and everyone should accept it. But this may not be true. It looks like women and men are just as interested in sex, but the reason the discord arises is because women are treated worse than men, both by society and by men themselves. More women are raped than men. More women are shamed by their families/friends/colleagues/religious groups for having sex and so on. It's possible the stereotype of women refusing sex is actually men's doing so they should stop complaining about women being so cautious?
Maybe, just maybe, men need to stop harassing women or sexually intimidating them and defending their behaviour by saying "it's guys being guys." Maybe if men treated women better on average, women wouldn't feel sexually intimidated and everyone would actually have more sex and society would be happier as a whole? Just a thought.
What about love?
What these studies look at is sexual attraction and the desire for breeding. But where does emotional connection come in? This is where things get not only optimistic, but surprisingly touching.
A 2014 study conducted by Elizabeth McClintock reviewed 1,507 couples and assessed where they were in terms of attraction to one another, relationship stability and how long the relationship lasted. What she found, overwhelmingly, was that pairings based solely on attraction (physical or status) did not last. What a shock.
The model of men going for beautiful and women going for rich is definitely there and it can lead to a lot of relationships starting...but not surviving. McClintock found that relationships which actually work best (happiest couples) and survived the longest were when people go for what she calls matching. Simply put, nice guys pair with nice women. Hot women pair with hot men. Wealthy men pair with wealthy women and so on.
A relationship where a rich man propositions an attractive woman and the two "hit it off" is definitely a common occurrence, because the woman gets security for raising kids and the man gets a beautiful partner, but such relationships are, statistically, unlikely to last or be happy. It's a short term strategy only.
People should instead look for matches in personality...which sort of confirms another long-held truism. Relationships built on attraction or convenience rarely work. Personal connection wins out. How about that? Science actually confirms that loving relationships work better.
Is Evolution Really That Sentimental?
Arguably the world's leading expert on the evolutionary development of love, attraction and human relationships is David Buss of Austin University (much of whose ideas I used in this blog). Buss has spent over thirty years studying differences between sexes and in one of his most famous studies (1986 with Michael Barnes) Buss asked hundreds of men and women to decide what features of a partner were most important to them.
Buss and Barnes found there was certainly a tendency for men to go for physical appearance and for women to seek wealth. Men were slightly drawn to younger women and women to older men, but what they found was that the number-one thing both sexes looked for is simple...someone who treats you nicely. Not someone who provides for you or someone who looks good for you - someone who is nice to you.
Short-term attraction strategies are all about sizing someone up and that's when physical attraction or social status come into play. But long-term success is about something so obvious it seems ridiculous we needed Scientists to research it. But there you have it. You might be a super wealthy man who owns a flashy sports car and a business; that will probably help you get women for short term sex. And you might be a gorgeous woman with a voluptuous figure and flowing hair that will draw men's attention. But if you want to build a relationship with someone you have to do something else. Be kind to each other.
But why did we develop this desire for connection over attraction? As far as we can tell, while many animals exhibit sexual desire or social loyalty, deep feelings of love seem to be unique to humans. Does it have an evolutionary advantage or is it simply an accident? Poets, musicians, painters, authors, film-makers, scientists and philosophers have been grappling with that question for a long time and I don't think I can offer an answer. Love does seem like an anomaly.
After all, there is an alternative route which guarantees equal reproduction for all. It’s the one chosen by bacteria...bypass sex altogether. Bacteria reproduce autonomously, so they have no need to develop competition strategies which makes them more efficient breeders. However, because there is no need to find a partner, there is also no need to develop the emotions which encourage it to happen. Bacteria don’t feel companionship, they don’t feel love and they don’t feel empathy. Personally, I think those features are worth hanging onto, accidental or otherwise.
Love may indeed be a Darwinian screw-up. But even if it is, it's one of the most important driving forces in our emotional lives. Feelings of love, be they romantic, family-oriented or whatever, are the reason we're good to one another. I might even go so far as to say that's why kindness is more important in a relationship than anything else. A person who is attracted to you wants you as a possession - a person who feels compassion for you is going to treat you well and that is what makes you want to stay with them.
I say on my home page and at the end of my book "Science will save our species". It's become one of my catchphrases and I stand by it as a mantra. But I think something else might be even more important. Science is the tool we need to save our species, but a desire to be kind to each other tells us how to use that tool. I think it's possible that kindness and love, more than Science, are the things which will save us from extinction. They are perhaps the reason we will save not just ourselves, but each other as well.
I love science, let me tell you why.