Once I attended a large party with a date. We separated and each began talking to different people. I was introduced to a stunningly attractive woman, and it was instant sexual chemistry. As we continued our animated conversation, an older woman approached, looked at the two of us, and said “You are such a perfectly matched couple.” I insisted that were not a couple at all, and in fact had just met. She refused to believe me. I saw my date approaching just in time to overhear the older woman’s comments.
My date said that she was ready to leave the party. As we left, she casually mentioned “Did you notice that her thighs were heavy?” Well, I hadn’t. But I was in the midst of writing up a publication on “derogation of competitors,” the ways in which people use verbal tactics to denigrate same-sex rivals to make them less desirable. The research gave me insight into the tactical arsenal people use to compete for mates—not just tactics of attraction, but also disparagement of rivals.
Men worldwide place a premium on physical appearance in mates. And my research showed that women, far more than men, are especially observant about the most minor physical imperfections in other women, and in mate competition point them out in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.
What is strange is why verbal input would have any influence at all on a man’s perceptions of a woman’s attractiveness. A woman’s attractiveness should be something that men can gauge perfectly well with their own eyes. But in fact verbal input matters. The next time I ran into the attractive woman, I found myself looking at her thighs. And indeed, they were a tad heavy. She still looked good, but my perceptions of her attractiveness lowered a bit.
I think there are two reasons for this. One is that pointed out imperfections amplify their perceptual salience in men’s minds, making them loom larger. The second is that men have evolved to desire attractive women not merely because cues to attractiveness signal fertility. Men also want attractive mates because they raise their social status. So other people’s perceptions of a mate’s attractiveness are important.
Perhaps none of this puts men and women in an admirable light in the mating arena. Derogation reveals one of the dark sides of mate competition, and men may seem superficial for putting such importance on attractiveness. But armed with research findings on derogation of competitors, I was able to understand more deeply the psychology of mate competition that goes on all around us.
David M. Buss is Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas and author and editor of more than a dozen books, including The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating and Evolutionary Psychology: The New Science of the Mind.