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Doctoral Studies
>> The mating game

The birds do it, the bees do it-even the monkeys in the trees do it. So why don't human beings do it? Ask James Roney. The "it" in question involves courtship displays, and the Ph.D. candidate in the Committee on Human Development observes that humans go about it differently than our branch-swinging cousins.

IMAGE:  James Roney studies th psychology of human mate attraction.

Roney theorizes that-unlike in many nonhuman vertebrates-sensory cues from human females prompt a psychological reaction in males rather than a physical one. Where in other vertebrates an aroused male might exhibit motor and vocal displays, the human male undergoes a subconscious change of behavior designed to attract the female. In other words, instead of howling and beating his chest, he'll flash the keys to his Lexus.

"Previous studies have found that characteristics such as wealth, social status, and ambition figure prominently in both female mate preferences and male mate attraction tactics," says Roney, who began his graduate work at Chicago in 1992. To test his belief that exposure to women might prime the importance of these qualities in men, Roney conducted a 1995 experiment that had Chicago high-school students divided into same-sex and mixed-sex testing groups to fill out attitude surveys. Although female responses were similar in both groups, males in the mixed-sex groups placed much higher values on both future wealth and dating success than did their counterparts in the same-sex groups. These results suggest, says Roney, "that the presence of females caused male evaluations of wealth to become linked to dating success."

In another experiment in 1997, Roney asked one group of male U of C students to look at advertisements featuring "young, very physically attractive women" and another group to look at advertisements featuring women over 50. Both groups were told they were taking part in an advertising study and were asked to rate the ads for effectiveness before filling out surveys assessing attitude, mood, and personality. As predicted, men in the first group placed more value on financial success and reported stronger feelings of aggression, ambition, and extroversion than did those in the second group. "The men in these studies basically adopted the psychological profile characteristic of high-status men, at least in Western cultures," Roney says. "Furthermore, this all appears to occur outside of conscious awareness."

A question Roney is investigating now is whether the brain pathways that mediate visual cues and psychological responses in humans are the same that mediate courtship displays in nonhuman vertebrates. "Mate attraction is a major topic in evolutionary psychology, but there are some big unanswered questions," he says. "Research has so far used survey methodology, but there hasn't really been any work done on the cognitive processes involved, the actual psychological mechanisms that are implemented in courtship and mate attraction."

A graduate of the University of Michigan, where he majored in Russian studies, Roney had to start from scratch learning the biosciences when he came to Chicago. Now he is finishing his degree and braving the academic job market, hoping to continue his work on those big unanswered questions.
- C.S.



  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4


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