Unreal dabbles in social psychology

Intro to Mate Theft
Unreal has just been informed that the biggest question that plagues single women is: Why are all the good men taken?

This came as a surprise to us, because we always believed the lament of the single woman (well, actually, women in general) was: Why are men such assholes?

But we came across the good men being taken question in an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which told us right away that this was a question of serious scientific import. Or maybe the asshole question is far too complex to be resolved with one experiment on a group of undergrads who need the credit for their Intro to Psych course. (Remember when you actually got money for participating in a psych experiment? Unreal does — with longing.)

Doctoral student Jessica Parker and her advisor, Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., the authors of this article (called "Who's chasing whom? The impact of gender and relationship status on mate poaching"), hypothesized that "taken men are perceived as good" and set up an experiment on 184 undergraduates, 97 of them female, at Oklahoma State University to prove it.

"It was a Web experiment," Burkley tells Unreal. "We set it up as a questionnaire, like on eHarmony or Match.com. They logged in and answered questions about their likes and dislikes. We told them we found a match in our database and sent them pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex — always attractive. Then we asked a series of questions about whether they would initiate contact with this person or flirt, all the way up to 'actively pursue.' The only difference is, we told one group that their match was in a relationship."

After that, Burkley and Parker did a lot of math, which Unreal will spare you. The upshot: "As expected, single women were more interested in poaching an attached target rather than pursuing a single target, whereas single men were not." (Well, technically, men, single and attached, are just as interested in poaching, but the key here is that single women are much more interested in attached men than single ones. Men, it appears, think they have a better chance with single women.)

Unreal was, frankly, disturbed. In the past, we have noticed an exclusion of single women from couple-y dinner parties while single men were welcomed, but we attributed that to the assholish qualities of the hostess, not actual scientific fact.

Burkley began dating her husband in high school and has no personal experience with poaching or being poached. And since her study was done on the sly — on the assumption that women would be less likely to actually confess to wanting to poach someone else's boyfriend or husband — she doesn't have any real explanations for her findings.

She does, however, have theories.

"There's a more classic evolutionary or biological explanation, that women evolve to look for a partner with resources which, if he's attached, he must have. I'm a social psychologist, though, and this was a social experiment, so I think it's driven by self-esteem. Women are socialized to compete with each other, with fashion and makeup — and luring a man away from his partner.

"You see it a lot in the media, too: Jon Gosselin, Gossip Girl. In movies, women are always competing for the man. There are examples in real life, too, like Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt." (Unreal begs to challenge the assumption that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are real people, but maybe the lives of Burkley and her friends are as un-soap operatic as ours, and she needed to find a "real-life" example somewhere.)

But would the fact that Burkley and Parker's subjects were undergrads and only told that their matches were "in a relationship," not married or even engaged, have any effect on the outcome of the study?

"I don't think many people would want to break up a marriage," Burkley admits. "The tendency to poach may decline as women get older."

In two weeks, Burkley and Parker will run their next experiment, which will have a design similar to their first one, except that before the dating-questionnaire part, women will be told that their photos were put on a site like Hot or Not.

"Women will get positive or negative feedback about their appearance," Burkley says. "Negative feedback will be a threat to their self-esteem. If a woman's self-esteem comes from her looks, and she's not feeling attractive, she may resort to mate-poaching to get her self-esteem back."

The same day we read Burkley and Parker's study, we came across an article by Caitlin Flanagan in the September Atlantic about Helen Gurley Brown and her seminal work Sex and the Single Girl. (There was also a lot of blather about Rielle Hunter and John and Elizabeth Edwards, but Unreal has chosen to exercise our amazing selective-reading powers and pretend that part doesn't exist.)

Behold the wisdom of Brown: "A wife, if she is loving and smart, will get her husband back every time. He doesn't really want her not to. He's only playing."

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