If it seems that all your girlfriends have found great men with whom to share their lives, it can also conversely seem as if all the “good” men are taken. The first phenomenon can actually fuel the latter because of a psychological process called mate copying, which is evident in many species, from humans to birds to fish.
Peers influence mate choices across many species.
Mate copying can inflate your opinion of the boyfriends of your close friends, possibly even causing you to put on emotional blinders that don’t allow you to see the other terrific men all around you. Here’s where mate copying comes from, what factors influence it, and why mate copying is different for women and men.
“Mating” Is Generally a Bigger Investment for Women
Even in societies where women enjoy equal rights with men, there’s no getting around the fact that the subconscious goal of finding a mate (reproducing) is a much bigger investment of time and effort for women. A woman may be married to a man who plans to become a stay-at-home parent, but she still has a nine-month investment in producing that child, an investment that includes a number of physical risks.
Nobody wants to make a bad choice in a mate, but there are generally more in the way of “sunk costs” for women due to the physical requirements of pregnancy and childbirth, and in many societies, the expectations placed on mothers. Avoiding a bad choice in mates is especially advantageous for women seeking men.
Your Friends’ Mates Are “Pre-Screened”
Your female friends, presumably, are women who have qualities you like, and the men they commit to must have a lot going for them to be worthy of these women, right? So unless one of your girlfriends has a pattern of choosing partners poorly, she must have found enough worthy qualities in the man she chose in order to devote her time and affection to him. In other words, if “she” chose him, he must be a good guy.
Mates of Your Most Attractive Friends Are Seen as More Attractive
The men your most attractive female friends choose appear more attractive as well.
Here’s where it gets a little more interesting. The man who manages to capture the attention of your most attractive female friend is generally seen as more attractive, even if he would seem quite ordinary in another context. Psychologists believe we subconsciously conclude that our most attractive friends have the luxury of being pickiest about mates, so the men they choose almost by definition have a lot going for them, including physical attractiveness.
Men Appear More Attractive with Women Who Are Clearly “Into” Them
Furthermore, your friend’s attitude toward her male partner influences how attractive you find him. If she is positive toward him, smiles at him, and generally appears to be really “into” him, this makes him more attractive in your eyes. The man who is paired with your friend who is indifferent or blasé toward him won’t appear nearly as attractive as the man who has truly captured your friend’s attention and affection.
Mate-Copying Happens Among Men, But to a Lesser Extent
Men do the same thing: they tend to find their friends’ mates more attractive than they would find these women in another context. But with men, a male friend’s attractiveness and his ardor or disinterest toward his female partner don’t have a measurable effect on how attractive the female partner seems. This could be because a man’s “investment” in mating is physically less daunting than a woman’s, so how “pre-screened” a woman is makes less of a difference.
What all this adds up to is that dating really is complicated. Women generally avoid entanglement with their female friends’ male partners, but those friends and partners can still have a strong effect on women’s dating preferences. Simply being aware of this phenomenon can help you recognize when you’re idealizing a certain “type” of man because he reminds you of your best friend’s husband.
Furthermore, nobody said you can’t do your share of pre-screening men and influencing your friends’ romantic choices. Knowing when you’re needlessly narrowing your mate choices can help you broaden your horizons and make dating a little less daunting.