In the second part of this two-part series, Peter McGraw continues his conversation with Martie Haselton, a scientist who specializes in evolutionary psychology, and Shane Mauss, a comic who has material about dating and mating from an evolutionary perspective. The guests continue their far-ranging conversation covering topics from how the modern mind has not adapted to the invention of birth control, to why children may be viewed as parasites, to the puzzles that evolutionary psychology struggles to answer. They also explore the tension between a solo lifestyle, people’s evolutionary motives, and a culture shaped by ancestral desires.
Listen to Episode #27 here
Solos, Sex, And Evolution – Part 2
This is part two of a fun, fascinating conversation with Martie Haselton, an Evolutionary Psychologist, and Shane Mauss, a comic who is a student of Evolutionary Psychology. If you haven’t read part one, stop here and please read first. I hope you enjoy this. Let’s get started with part two.
Is it the case of this rise of single culture? Let’s talk about it in those terms. Is technology, culture and the intersection and development of those things overriding what might typically be an evolutionary drive? I am not an expert in this.
Probably both of the things that you’re saying are true. The way that my PhD mentor put it was a menu of sexual strategies. You can look through the menu and decide which of those you’re going to pursue. The way to think about it from a functional and evolutionary perspective is to think about what environment you’re in, what problem you’re facing, and then what mate choice makes sense from that or no mate choice makes sense from that. If you are the woman who’s paired with someone who’s a five, who’s paired with another mate who’s a five and you get that ten opportunity, that is a particular context that’s going to yield one mating strategy. A different context altogether would be that let’s say that you’re the five and the five, but for either of you to leave that relationship, you would be in some parallel. Maybe you are in that relationship living very close to the margin. The threat of violence, somebody leaves them, complete economic collapse of the family and so on.
You married a gambling addict. Get out.
Forgoing reproduction so that you can work on growing up and growing a strong, large body, maybe achieving some modicum of status in your environment. You’re not trying to conquer the mating problem at that particular point in time, but rather you have the motivation to increase your social standing. We have competing motivations and sometimes we can trade them off at various points in our lives and then check all those boxes eventually, or maybe one of those motivations overrides or it wins out. One is no less evolved than the other, it’s just that we have a variety of motivations. You add to that some cultural innovations like birth control and the ability to inherit wealth. We’re not so dependent on another individual and acquiring wealth ourselves.
The right to vote, access to education, all of the things that you’ve seen in terms of the rise of women economically, especially in the United States, which has allowed greater freedom and choices that exist. Previously, we tried to answer the question, “What is a remarkable life?” I put forth a model that I like to use, which is Martin Seligman’s PERMA Model in terms of what are the goals that you have in terms of living a good life? Our evolutionary ancestors, to my knowledge, didn’t have the pursuit of creativity as something that drove them as much as it is now, making a podcast, making art, and so on.
It was still impressive to how off your big brain and impress your mate.
I don’t think that that the pursuit of engagement is in the PERMA Model. The E has to be to get laid. It’s satisfying in and of itself. You can do it as a hermit and be compelled by it.
When birds dance, from our point of view, it’s like, “That bird is clearly impressing this female,” but from their point of view, it might be like, “I don’t know what it is. I love dancing.”
That’s fine but the opportunities to engage in art and creative activities are infinite now because of language, for example and so on. Apes can’t write poems. Part of the point of this are these goals, which get crowded out by these parasitic children, to use someone else’s term. The idea essentially is we have limited resources in the world. If you do pair bond and have your 2.5 children, it doesn’t have to be the case. It doesn’t have to be zero sum, but it crowds out some of these other activities that are enjoyable. That might be building a business. It’s harder to do science when you have to split time between your lab and a family.
The question might be, why are those things enjoyable in the first place? How did it come to be the case that our species was interested in displaying their creative intelligence? That might have evolved because it achieved us some status. It achieved us some attractiveness in the eyes of others. In those ancestral environments, it would have resulted in greater chances of reproduction.
I get that. At some point, that has to clearly be the cases that these things become disconnected. In the same way that you masturbate for pleasure, not that you may write poems for the pleasure of writing poems rather than having children.
Once the pleasure machinery is there, then we will exploit it however we can.
Whether the status machinery is there, “I want to build a business, but I’m not doing it just because. Correct me if I’m wrong, there’s a great irony here, which is let’s suppose you do pursue remarkable things and as a result of it, you become a more appealing mate. You’re not playing video games. You’re playing guitar. You’re not watching football, you’re building a business and these kinds of things. You’re doing things that create status, that make you interesting. Maybe you weren’t even doing it for that reason, or maybe you were doing it for that reason. I joke that a lot of men do a lot of things to be appealing to women. Suppose you’re doing for pure interest and then because you become more appealing, you can get that ten rather than a five and then you pair up and then the pressure either becomes, “I can’t do all these things,” or your partner goes, “Why are you traveling all the time? Why are you writing all these poems?” There’s this irony in that sense.
My podcast, Here We Are, I go around interviewing scientists. If you were to ask me where this drive came from, I would tell you that the only related mating stuff was that I was confused about trying to understand newer relationships and why we went through a breakup, understanding why I do things that I do. More generally, I’m curious. I want to know more. I’ve always been curious about life and was also frustrated by my religious upbringing. It didn’t make sense to me. I give you all these reasons and I would never say that I’m doing it to get laid, but I do also cast a pretty nice net out there. There are listeners that sometimes come to shows that are attractive women that we think in much the same way, we have the same interests. It is tough to say like, “That’s a nice little byproduct.” When you look around at every other species and see that most of that artistic stuff seems related.
I’m buying both of your arguments. I’m going to take a strong approach here because I have a lot of data that suggests that people aren’t pair bonding the way they used to. There may be these incentives to build resources or to work out to look good, to eat well and to do all these kinds of things. There are these proximal reasons to do this, which is I eat well and I work out to fuel my body in a way to feel good, to excel in the work that I do to live a more pleasurable in gait, energetic life. It may also have this effect of making me 5% more attractive. I wouldn’t be otherwise. My point is that these things, as we’ve moved away from our ancestral past, they become more disconnected.
They do in terms of the connection from the causal connection from A to B is you become more attractive and then you have more offspring. In terms of the motivation and understanding where the motivation came from, can we say that that doesn’t have anything to do with mating if that was the feedback that throughout our evolutionary history produced? That creative motivation was that it did result in reproduction.
That’s fine, except we don’t exist to procreate.
We need to survive long enough to procreate. It’s also inclusive fitness, which is taking care of your young and setting them up.
We make decisions to not procreate. Men get vasectomies and women get IUDs. We also have people who are not engaged in heterosexual sex and so on. That may underlie our motivations and it certainly shapes our culture. There’s no doubt that it shapes our culture and the things that we become more interested and so on. My argument is it’s not the primary goal.
That’s why I remind you, both you and I are evolutionary dead ends. This is all well and nice to talk about now but if humans evolve enough of a psychology to be like, “These things are too costly. Now that I have these systems set up and built to be artistic or be creative or be remarkable or whatever, now I’m going to go off and do that for my own sake.” It might be the people that in future generations do have kids are the ones that didn’t share that same preference. That might shape our future preferences as well. Otherwise, there’s not going to be anyone here. If anyone takes our same approach, the world will empty out in a hurry. Obviously, we’re a long way from that.
I do think that humans are the most flexible species on Earth and incredible toolmakers and everything else. In terms of mating, it’s the same way. You have these environmental, these cultural influences where you take an area where say females have been being aborted for a long time, so there’s more men than there are women. You might make a prediction that the men there are going to have to be more competitive, whether they’re more violent or whether they’re conspicuous, consuming things more and trying to stand out by spending more money. You have these bizarre mating habits of a female having two husbands. It turns out that this only happens in these rare cases when the food is scarce and usually it’s brothers.
This is another human being and you can plop pretty much any human being into this environment and evolutions built so many different tools that one of these will come online. It’s possible that people like you and I, which I can tell you in terms of intelligence being a way of advertising yourself, being from Wisconsin, and knowing that people can get by fine with a very limited vocabulary and do all the things. It does seem like there’s an additional, unnecessary cost of learning all of these new words. It seems like someone like myself or you, we’re in LA. I’m in comedy, you’re trying to write, but we’re doing things to stand out. There are these adaptive features that are coming online for the very specific environment that we’re in right now. It’s still evolved, I would say.
Martie, I want to hear what you think about this. We have to be careful about saying adaptive is good.
That’s definitely a trap. That’s logically incoherent.
Sweet things were good for us back in the day and now they’re not so good for us because the world has changed. The open question is children were good for us back in the day. The question is do they continue to be good for us? My thing is it’s not that no one should have children and no one should get married. My argument is it’s over-prescribed.
I agree with you 1,000%. I try to say the same thing to as many people as I can.
What I want to do is offer an alternative to some person who it doesn’t feel right to do this. They don’t feel the pull to have a family. They’re not so good at relationships. They envision their relationships as being more short-term, to be more focused on, as you say, short-term meeting and pleasure. They’re more varied, whatever those things are because back in the day, it was adaptive to do this.
It could have been that for any individual or for any particular slice in time, executing the adaptations that served the cumulative history of the ancestors before them, it didn’t result in a good outcome. It got you killed. Mating is one of the most hazardous things you can do. You can get a disease, you can accidentally mate with somebody who’s already taken and get killed. You can die in childbirth. There are all kinds of terrible things that can happen to you. For any one individual, I don’t think that we could ever say this will be adaptive in the way that we tend to colloquially use the word. All bets are off about whether something’s currently adaptive or not. We need to take that part off of the table and ask, how do we understand the motivations that we are equipped with?
An evolutionary perspective is going to be very important for those. Given those motivations and given our motivational systems tied to pleasure how can we achieve whatever it is we decide as individuals living in this current environment we want to achieve best? In some cases, maybe it is finding a mate and having children. In some cases, maybe it’s something else entirely. If we can reverse engineer our motivations, then we have more control over them. By having more control over them so we can decide whether when we feel like a particular impulse or a nudge, whether we want to understand that as something that may be served to our ancestors. Our ancestors in the past doesn’t serve us now and how to maximally exploit our pleasures now given the way our minds are designed.
One of the things that the average Solo reader struggles with is that they are in the minority. I like to say you’re single for now or forever. What this conversation helps to do is explain the pressure that’s very clearly there. It’s the default. It’s the assumption, it’s the question you get. When you answer non-normatively, the surprise and the pushback that you get. What you’re describing is that this evolutionary background, we still are very much connected to that.
We may be motivated to get into other people’s business because a lot of what you said was about the social pressures to mate and have kids. Why would anybody care what anybody else is doing and why would you get this question every Thanksgiving? It’s because you’re can have an interest in seeing you do things that would potentially replicate their genes, which they share with you. None of this is in our explicit conscious mind, but rather if you’re encouraging them to find a partner. If you’re encouraging steering them towards particular kinds of partners who look like they might be good mates and helpful in rearing children, should it come to that?
By the way, friends too can do this. I have friends whose wives are like, “Pete, I’m worried about you.”
I always feel like it’s justifying their own crap.
They may not be sharing your genes, but you have a commentary on the strategies that they have chosen by not choosing to do this yourself.
It’s like an attack on what they do almost. This goes back to a question you asked Martie that I would love to answer too because it affects my life. Does learning any of this stuff help you in your day to day behavior? I used to have horrible road rage issues. I don’t have anything like it anymore. Maybe I’ve gotten older, but that it was deeply connected with understanding the stress response system and now able to tell myself like, “The thing that I’m feeling right now is this response that was adapted for other things like running from a lion or something like that. It’s a complete inappropriate signal and erroneous signal right now and it’s hurting me and I can cool down.” For someone that’s mindful, this can be like, “I want to kill my kids right now.” This is this frustration where you want to take control over a situation or you’re becoming hyper-aware of the cost. You have a chance of cooling yourself down more than someone that’s like, “I want to kill my kids, so maybe I should kill my kids.” Most people are following whatever their thoughts are or whatever guiding them towards without ever questioning them.
Anytime we’re having conflict with somebody else and we can instantaneously shoot messages back and forth with that person. If we recognize that we’re responding as if we’re going to die if we don’t respond to this giant stressor, then if we recognize that there’s a big mismatch between what we’re doing right now in this moment, where we’re trying to work something out with somebody we have conflict with versus what we would have encountered in the ancestral past, then we can put it down. We can call the person back or whatever.
Also understanding that like why we might not be perceiving the actual threats. We haven’t adapted very well for having a sense of global warming issues is something that you need to train yourself to understand. We don’t have any tools to comprehend what global warming feels like.
It’s that specific threat in the moment.
In that same way, I have concerns about overpopulation. I would love if birth control and vasectomies and everything else were free for everyone that wanted them. I’m very much for the solo life. Becoming mindful of these evolved pressures and biases and preferences can help you choose to help you break free of them or pause a moment before deciding whether to take action on a given drive.
This is enlightening because these effects are very real and profound. I like this idea of telling your aunt at Thanksgiving to stop acting like a monkey. I’d like to do a few things here, a little bit more rapid-fire. I have some questions that I want to ask and then I have a few topics that I feel like are probably lingering in the air for a few readers. Martie, one of the things that comes up a lot is homosexuality. One of the things is a lot of single solo people may be gay or lesbian and not doing a traditional marriage and so on. What is the evolutionary view in terms of this?
There are lots of sexual orientations out there. There might very well be different evolutionary explanations for each of them. Exclusive male-male homosexuality. We can start there. This is an evolutionary puzzle. This is a prime example of something that is a puzzle. It doesn’t make sense from an evolutionary perspective. It reduces the number of offspring that you’re going to produce and yet, there appears to be at least a partial genetic foundation. It runs in families in some interesting ways and so on. How is this happening? How do we understand how genes can continue to exist and not be selected out these genes for homosexuality or that that make one susceptible to feeling this way?
One possibility, and this is the best evolutionary explanation we have so far at least in terms of what’s been supported, is that the same genes, when they are present in a man, have the effect of making him like men a lot enough to forego opportunities with women. Those same genes when they are present in his mother or his sisters make her that much more interested in men. It has a favorable impact on the female relatives in the family. For the male relatives in the family, it makes them gay. The genes are themselves being selected for and perpetuated through generations because they have a favorable effect on one family member but not the other.
We can understand its genetic basis and its evolutionary foundation, but it’s more complex than thinking about, how are those guys reproducing? It’s instead what’s happening with their family members. For women, sexual orientation appears to be set and not terribly fluid in men, whereas for women, it can vary a lot over the course of their lives. It’s a different phenomenon and it probably has a different explanation. Women being more open in their sexuality than men, there are lots of possibilities there. One is that women may have had to reside in households with other wives throughout some of our evolutionary past. Maybe that makes women a little bit more flexible, so that there can be more getting along than there might be otherwise.
Humans are the most flexible species on Earth.[bctt tweet=”Humans are the most flexible species on Earth.” via=”no”]
I asked this question in part because it does seem like a puzzle or given the assumptions that we started with at the beginning of this. Also, this is a group of people who generally are living a more solo lifestyle. Although obviously, unfortunately we now have the choice to get married if they want to, in places. I have a question from a reader that’s related to this. It says, “I identify as aromantic and asexual. How does evolutionary sciences view those who don’t have the ‘natural’ urge to procreate, what evolutionary functions might we play?”
We’re getting back to this issue of the thinking about the adaptiveness of a single person’s behaviors at the point in time. Asexuality is something we’ve started studying in my lab. Asexuality is sexual desire is present in these people. The engine is turned on or it’s like being hungry. You feel hungry, but then you look at the menu and nothing looks good. That’s asexuality. Aromantic, I know a lot less about that. Sometimes people are both, but that’s relatively rare.
What is aromantic?
Aromantic means you’re not particularly interested in having a partner of any sort, whether you’re having sex with that partner or not. Some asexual individuals will have so a young woman who I know at UCLA who identifies as asexual. She’s got a boyfriend. That is her romantic partner, which is different from her having a traditional sexual relationship with that partner. She’s not that interested. She might do it because he’s interested.
There’s a term for this.
It’s a service sex or something like that.
Both of those doesn’t sound very nice.
Gift sex might be more fun and nice sounding.
It could be affectionate sex. Maybe it’s because the other person desires and you want to get along with them.
I was going to say that again, going back to the flexibility of a species. You take something like conscientiousness and you take two people, like me, there’s going to be tremendous costs to being as low in conscientiousness as I am. You take someone like Pete, you’re going to end up having probably some anxiety. Your friends are going to think you’re a little overboard with the shoes at the door thing sometimes. There’s going to be like some cost there as well. Most people fall in the middle. There are sex addicts that can’t stop banging as many people and then there are asexuals. Most people fall in the middle.
One of the things that’s clear to me, especially if you spend any time on the apps and especially if you’ve surveyed a wide variety of these apps, is that the proclivities and what people identify as what they’re interested in is more varied than ever. We now have more transparency and how much of this has fulfilling this. It’s giving people license. They start experimenting, “I like this.” They developed new preferences as a result of that. Let’s keep going with a couple more. This one’s for Shane. Shane, you taught me about the mate expulsion hypothesis.
It’s one of my favorite things to think about. As I’m not a scientist, I can gravitate towards some of the more speculative things that aren’t necessarily as backed up by data. I also don’t mind applying things to my own personal life. As someone who’s been a serial monogamist who genuinely has gone into relationship after relationship, deeply in love and then legitimately wanting this to be my life partner, it was part of my frustration. I was like, “Why does it start that way? Why isn’t it working out?” This idea of this mate expulsion, there are some species of bird that does do full pair bonding, doesn’t fool around and stuff. The only time they break up as if they get together and they don’t have eggs. They’re genetically incompatible. It doesn’t mean that they aren’t compatible with others. It doesn’t mean that they’re infertile. It doesn’t mean one of them is sterile, it just means that together they’re incompatible.
Evolution probably figured out some internal mechanism to drive them apart so that they would break up and go and find other mates. Otherwise, you wouldn’t pass your genes on if you didn’t do that. The idea is applying this to a modern world where all of a sudden there’s birth control. You’re banging it out for like a year or so. There should certainly at least be signs of pregnancy by this point. You might’ve missed a few windows here and there, but there should be something. Much in the same way that these birds don’t know that like, “We’re genetically incompatible. That’s that.” They’re probably like, “He doesn’t wipe off his feet before he gets in the nest.” He’s like, “I’m trying to put worms on the table.”
That’s probably what it feels like a little bit to them. It’s probably anthropomorphizing a bit much, but it’s probably a little bit something like that. Humans, maybe a year goes by or two years goes by and there’s no babies. Maybe there’s these psychological pressures like, “I got to get away from this guy.” It doesn’t mean that it’s true. Even if it is true, it doesn’t mean that it’s an explanation for my life. There could be a variety of other things, but it models not just my personal life, getting along with someone, but also the sex and everything. After that first year, then the second year is always like, “Some problems are bubbling up. Thirty years, always a nightmare.”
This is one of my favorite evolutionary mysteries and that is, why does anybody stay together if they don’t have kids? This should be a major alarm that goes off in the head that says, “You need to find a different mate. You’re not reproducing.” Granted, we may have made a conscious decision, any of us, to not reproduce, but you got to remember that what we want and what our brains are telling us to do aren’t necessarily the same thing. Throughout our evolutionary history, the alarm bell that gets you to expel your mate and choose another one would have been the thing that would have been selected for and retained. Why is it that we do stick together as much as we do? That’s an interesting mystery.
Shouldn’t it be the case that there are, as Shane was talking about, a normal distribution around people? There should be natural individual differences in, for example, how pleasurable sex is.
How pleasurable cuddling is or how pleasurable commitment is.
That could explain some of it.
There a lot of people who choose not to have kids and stay apparently happy for a very long time.
You’re assuming that having kids makes you happy.
No, I’m not.
That’s the darkest thing of the whole thing. There’s no answer to this puzzle. Having kids isn’t going to solve much of that.
A divorce is financial stress. What creates financial stress? It’s having kids. The fact is that people stay together is surprising to me.
This is a reason that is hidden from our conscious awareness. The financial stress, we’re aware of that. Everybody’s looking at the bank books. Whereas this uncomfortable feeling that we have with a mate after a little while of having regular sex with them and no offspring.
Is there data that suggests that’s indeed the case? We know it happens in birds.
Do we lose interest over the course of their relationships and their partners? Yes. There’s a honeymoon period.
No, but that is the same whether you have children or not. The mate expulsion hypothesis suggests that no kid shows up and then you go, “I must reject.” If you have kids, then you go, “This is a good match. Let’s keep this rolling.”
There are other considerations there too. Kids are stressful and financially stressful. You have to include all of those variables.
Plus, there’s a roommate situation. I like living with a female. I will move in at the third date. No matter how much you like that, there’s still the, “Now you’ve got a roommate. Now you’re seeing this person.” I’m way high on the cuddle scale. Bonding, pair bonding and having children, these might’ve all been favored by evolution and humans are exceptionally social. There are still other pressures of the more time that you spend in having to see this person day in and day out, the more you’re probably going to get on in one another’s nerves.
Louise asks the question, “My question is given that single-person households with the standard of living that we have, such as we live alone when we can afford it, are humans the social creatures we have been painted as?” If I can interpret this question, I would rephrase it as obviously humans are social creatures, how much of our socialness has to do with needing to survive and having some familial unit to keep us safe, keep us warm, till the land, and so on? When you don’t have the needing to keep alive, it allows us to express a greater variety of preferences with regard to how social we like to be or want to be.
This is another thing evolution could have never seen coming as the internet, this woman questioning whether we need to be social as being social through internet and able to reach out to you.
Whether you are cohabiting with someone, you could be more social and be living alone because you’re spending all your time out with friends.
Thank you for bringing that up because that came up in episode two. I talked to Bella DePaulo.
I’m glad you talked to her. I was going to suggest it.
One of the things that this found is that single people are often more interconnected. One is this need that you don’t have one person who you can rely on for a variety of things, but also then you have opportunity. There’s no one to be threatened by the fact that you’re going out a lot.
You’re not going to be social by default. You’re going to be social by plan. Maybe that’s going to lead to a different social life anyway. You’ve got to make those plans. You’ve got to get together and go out and do something.
The point in this question underlies that there was a time where it was nearly impossible to live alone. Even if you had a predisposition, let’s say you’re a disagreeable person. Disagreeable people are hard to live with. You’re disagreeable and so you’re like, “I’m going to live on my own,” or you have something quirky about yourself, whatever that might be. Now, you can.
As someone who spends more time alone than certainly anyone in this room, and certainly most people on earth that aren’t truck drivers maybe, I spend so much time by myself.
Especially touring comedian, he basically is home-free right now.
When I used to stay in hotels and I stayed in Airbnbs, but in hotels I would often be getting room service and stuff, but not even going out. I wouldn’t see people for days sometimes consciously. I absolutely loved it. That was consciously my happy place. That was by design. I realized that I’d have to force myself to go out and go to restaurants and interact. Depression would start bubbling up. I had to do trial and error experimenting with it. You might be able to go solo easier than ever, but there might be these underlying little warning signs that express themselves in like depression or anxiety that pops up. You’re never able to connect the dots to what it’s from.
I’ve been fussing around with this saying about solo, but not alone. This is not a podcast for hermits.
You’re a very social person. You’re a more social person than I am by a long shot. Pete’s exceptionally outgoing. When we leave here, we’re going to maybe have a quick bite together. Pete will be making conversation with the waiter and everything and then we’ll get in an elevator and leave. If there’s someone else in the elevator, Peter will start up a conversation with someone that we’re going to be in an elevator with for fifteen seconds. I would never dream of it doing such a thing. It’s a testament of this show isn’t necessarily about being a hermit just because it’s called Solo.
We’re not doing any bonus material because we’ve gone longer than I would normally do. We don’t need it. Plus, this has already been so good. How do we top it with bonus material? Martie, I have one for you and then one for Shane. When I was first researching this, I was thinking about doing it for men only. I went deep into the manosphere and it’s not a pretty place.
The reason I know that is because they’re fans of my work. I get reached out on a regular basis.
First of all, I will say this. I feel bad for many of the men who were in the manosphere. I don’t resent them. I think that they need more help and better information and a different perspective. One of the ideas within the manosphere that I notice is this idea of being the alpha. This alpha male mentality. I’m going to give you my view of this and then I want your reaction if you don’t mind. This is a personal view and this is one that I have developed in some conversations with a good friend of mine. The idea is that this alpha male, obviously it exists very clearly in the animal kingdom and there are great benefits as well as some great costs of this alpha approach.
You put yourself at great risk, you’re fighting and stressed out all the time but you also get this great benefit, which is lots of mates and this idea of passing your genes along. Some men look at that world and they say, “I need to be more alpha.” As I said, in the same way, that our modern-day world is disconnected from that world, there are other needs and other considerations. A lot of men hurt themselves because having an alpha mentality, and these are my words, is giving them an incomplete view of masculinity. While there are some benefits to being assertive and confident, I’ll take that as a closely related to alpha, there are also benefits from being easygoing and sensitive.
There are times when you need to be assertive and confident and there’s times when you need to be easygoing and insensitive. A man who can have both of those strategies and move between them as necessary, not only is his romantic life is better but also his social life is better, his work life is better and his emotional makeup is better. A lot of men would benefit from embracing what might be considered a softer side or more balanced side to that. I want to get your reaction to that as someone who’s thought much more about these kinds of topics.
When I’ve thought about it, I’ve thought about it in terms of what kinds of men can pursue which mating strategies. The men who are the more alpha types can potentially have a long-term mate if they wish or they have the opportunity to pursue short-term mating opportunities. Whereas men who are not as clearly higher on the 1 to 10 scale on whatever dimension you want to measure, more dominant, they cannot. They’re not in demand as much. Part of the demand comes from this idea of the woman mating up.
It’s not only he could secure a long-term mate, but he also could have these short-term mating opportunities if he’s higher up in the mating hierarchy. That’s the standpoint that I’ve come from. My personal view is what is exactly what you’re saying is true. If, if somebody is being hyper-masculine in this alpha male way, but is so driven to compete and so driven to be at the top of the heap, that regardless of context and that is extraordinarily stressful. I would think that you’d be constantly stabbing others in the back. It would be a difficult way to live. You’d always be watching.
It would be difficult to have good, strong, male friendships because you’re constantly competing. It would make it difficult oftentimes to be cooperative at work and a lot of work, especially innovation, requires cooperation. As someone who has thought more about masculinity as he’s gotten older, and I have friends who have this balance, they do well in their dating lives and there are good partners because they have this flexibility that depending on context and situation to assert either one or the other.
I think I toggled in between a bit often when I’m hanging out with Pete, I’m always like, “I’ll let Pete be in charge,” which is great. I also don’t mind like taking charge or what I need to in situations. I can certainly command a room on stage and stuff. I’m happy to turn on that muscle when need be. Part of it’s been finding a balance of because one of the more ridiculous and the worst strategies that you can do is to try hard to be something that you’re not. It’s often a very false signal. It’s often fairly transparent. A lot of people tend to put a very defined a mask over their insecurity, so much so that it only makes them stand out more.
When you were talking about you and I being lanky and we used to both wear baggy pants to cover up our lanky legs, but it only made it stick out more because we’re swimming in these things. Much in the same way like a big bouncer is usually the nicest guy around. He doesn’t need to worry about proving himself to anybody. That’s who he is, whereas like the short man syndrome is a thing for a reason. There’s no reason to not try to be whatever you want to be in life, but there’s still going to be certain things that are going to be a better strategy for you.
To dive into this a tiny bit deeper is it goes something like this. If you have this perspective that being alpha is overwhelmingly good, it can make it difficult to ask for help. It can make it difficult for a man to the people who he is closest with, whether it be a partner or a friend or a family member to say, “I’m hurting. I’m uncertain. As I like to say, the patriarchy also oppresses men. If you want to grow and live a good healthy life, there are going to be times where you go, “I’m in trouble, I need help. I feel weak.”
You can recognize those weaknesses and then you can course correct. If you are always having to posture as being the top guy and not making any mistakes, then you never had the opportunity to reflect on where you’ve been and how to get to where you want to be.
There are some interesting lessons of what makes someone a man and what makes someone an alpha and what makes someone tough that is different than being an alpha can be very different than like Rambo that I grew up watching as a kid. If you look into the world of Evolutionary Psychology and Biology and look at something like a handicap principle, which is the way in which you’re advertising your fitness is you’re conspicuously putting obstacles in your path. You’re incurring costs on yourself in ways and then overcoming those obstacles. Conspicuous consumption, like buying a fancy car, it’s like an advertisement to like, “I have so much money. I can burn it right in front of you.” In that same way, making yourself emotionally vulnerable is a very real sign of strength for many men. This is why, like Martie said, the lead character in every romance novel, he’ll win the fight at the bar but he can also get sentimental and share feelings and write poetry.
I will say this for the male readers, that being vulnerable is an act of courage because it’s in many ways more threatening than getting punched in the face.
Especially in a modern age where no one’s fighting, and real fights last for two seconds before they’re broken off.
The last one, and this is for you, Shane. This might be your hypothesis about the bringing a lady flowers idea.
Have you ever seen anyone present this idea of Martie? The idea is that I was thinking about why in the world are we bringing people flowers? I was listening to Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works ages ago or whatever, and he was talking about plants and the flowering. That means that there’s future fruit going there. I was thinking, “Future fruit also means future mammals going there.” I was thinking about it. Flowers are this clear sign of future resources. I was thinking like, “The hunter gathers. The hunters would be out and about.”
This is exactly the comedic thinking that I find so fascinating. It’s why I wrote this book coming out, which is lessons that we can learn from the world of comedy because comics, they think about and live in the world differently. They’re naturally so creative and innovative. As Shane takes us through his logic here, it’s like you get there either through deep deliberation that Martie does as a scientist. I noticed this.
I was thinking like, “Hunters certainly weren’t hunting,” because it seems like strong evidence that bringing meat back from the hunt wasn’t all it was cracked up to be and gathering was a bit more important. They would have also been scouting new territory and looking for signs of future growth. I was like, “Let me bring a flower back.” You have this symbol of future girls. What makes it so much better is that one, this is something you could do pre-language potentially. You could bring this back. What’s even a little cleverer about it is because you’re pulling it. You know where this is. It’s like a savings account or you have this resource locked away. You know where the lockbox is or whatever, and you don’t necessarily have to tell or have the capacity to. Now you hold that information in your mind. Now, people better do what you say or follow along or be impressed by you or whatever. That commands something if you’re someone that’s able to bring these regular bouquets, it might be that you have a good eye for these new future areas to inhabit.
Do you have a name for this hypothesis?
No, I’m surprised that it’s mine. Every time I think, I’m like, “I had this great idea that’s going to change the way people think.” I’ll interview someone on a related field about like memory or something like that and they’re like, “That’s already been studied.” I’ve come up with it, which is nice that I stumbled upon it.
I have not heard of that before, but I like the idea.
This is a high compliment because at various times, Martie has written down a couple of ideas in her notebook and I’m like, “Is that something I said? Maybe it was something she came up with.” This has been as fascinating as I thought it would be. I recognized that it doesn’t have like the same clear takeaway that some of my previous ones have, which are about nutrition where you’re like, “I know exactly what to do now.”
I prefer to make life more confusing for people. That’s mostly the main point of my podcast is to be like, “There’s so much more you need to know than you could ever realize.”
What I do hope that a reader walks away from with this is that I’m not sure I can articulate it well. I’ll probably do it better in this teaser for this is while these ideas have great explanatory power, that in many ways, the variance in behavior that they can explain has decreased over time. As we move away from our chimps, monkeys, bonobos, ape’s behavior, we might have these more proximal goals and considerations that drive us and that those are okay. That’s the idea. That even though the culture and what may be the average person’s beliefs may still be shaped by those, you may be living your own solo life. You’d be maybe making it remarkable and other people might have trouble recognizing why or how remarkable it may indeed be because you’re walking a different path.
It’s going to take forever for our brains to evolve and catch up with the modern world. To be able to be mindful of these things and be able to free ourselves from some of the pressures that we’re for a cause that has nothing to do with you, I don’t give a shit about my genes. No one on Earth gives a shit about their genes being passed on. Who cares? Most people don’t even know what a gene is. I would need to take a genetics course again to articulate clearly what to achieve. It’s not like I care about my genes. I’m not worried about my genes. Who is? Knowing that your genes are also not caring about you and are also blind in this process, maybe you can ignore or accentuate some of the things that you like or don’t like that are driven by those genes.
That’s a freeing perspective. I like that.
Shane, I’m glad I invited you. Martie, thank you so much for your time. I’m a big fan of your work. Thanks, both of you. Cheers.
- Martie Haselton
- Shane Mauss
- Here We Are
- Bella DePaulo – previous episode
- How the Mind Works
About Martie Haselton
Martie Haselton is a professor of psychology and communication and a member of the Institute for Society and Genetics and UCLA. Her research interest span a wide range of topics from cognitive biases, to mate selection and sex differences. Martie is the author of Hormonal: The Hidden Intelligence of Hormones—How They Drive Desire, Shape Relationships, Influence Our Choices, and Make Us Wiser.
About Shane Mauss
Shane Mauss is a professional comedian, who specializes in comedy about science. He hosts the science podcast, Here We Are, and tours with two shows –one is stand-up science – half comedy and half science show – and the second head talks (which is a special psychedelic version of the show). You can find him in the documentary film Psychonautics. Shane is also special contributor to Peter’s new book, Shtick to Business.
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