When I Flirted with Evolutionary Psychology: My Undergraduate Thesis on Mating Strategies and Power

11888974263_a015984662_h(photograph via Mike Boswell)

Intimate relationships are a fascinating phenomenon and have played an important role throughout human evolutionary history.  In fact, they are why we are here today.  Non-coincidentally, whom we choose as our romantic partner(s) is largely, consciously or unconsciously, strategic.  This can be seen in our mate preferences and our desire for short- or long-term relationships.  The reason for these deep-rooted desires is that they helped our ancestors solve adaptive problems (Buss & Schmitt, 1993).  Amazingly, we can make predictions about our current behaviour based on these underlying desires, better known as our evolutionary psychology.  This is exactly what I attempted to examine in my undergraduate thesis.

Specifically, I was interested in examining the factors that led people to use strategies related to short-term mating (i.e., brief affairs) and I predicted that power (i.e., the capacity to influence others) would be such a factor.

Previous research has shown that power has striking effects on our behaviour.  In particular, when we feel powerful, we tend to be less restrained, take more risks, and feel more optimistic about how others feel about us (Keltner, Gruenfeld, & Anderson, 2003).  On the other hand, when we feel powerless, we feel inhibited, anxious, and prudent about other peoples’ intentions.  It is important to keep in mind that power plays a role in our social context, and that mating strategies are context dependent.

The next question was, how can you momentarily and ethically alter peoples’ sense of power? At the time of my undergraduate thesis, there was a popular and influential study that claimed to have found that holding certain postures influences our feelings of power (Carney, Cuddy, & Yap, 2010).  Given I wanted to create a study that was fun for my participants (and entertaining for me), I joined the power pose replication party (of course, with hindsight, we now know that there is little-to-no evidence for the effect of power posing!; Ranehill, E., Dreber, Johannesson, Leiberg, Sul, & Weber, 2015).

I ran a study with participants in heterosexual dating relationships, some of which were assigned to hold high-power poses marked by open and expansive nonverbal behaviour – while others were assigned to hold low-power poses marked by closed and restricted nonverbal behaviour.  All participants were then asked to ostensibly rate photographs of attractive others of the opposite sex (while I measured how long they looked at the photographs) and complete a number of questions about their attitudes.

Unfortunately, the power posing did not have an effect on subjective sense of power (i.e., my manipulation check did not pass muster!). However both males and females in the high-power posing condition did look significantly longer at the attractive people.

I then further examined the subjective sense of power as measured through self-report questions.  On the whole, males felt significantly more powerful than females.  In addition, when participants felt a higher subjective sense of power, they paid greater attention towards attractive others.  That is, higher-power participants displayed approach-oriented behaviour toward attractive others.  This aligns nicely with previous research on power, and the subsequent approach-oriented behaviour that it has been found to produce (Keltner et al., 2003).

I was also interested in examining sex differences in terms of attention to attractice others.  Based on evolutionary theory, males should show a stronger preference for sexual variety, and therefore should exhibit greater attention to alternatives (Schmitt, Shackelford, & Buss, 2001).  In addition, females should exhibit less interest in allocating attention to alternative partners.  Both of these predictions were supported.

Furthermore, I predicted that attention to attractive others would be negatively associated with relationship quality.  That is, those who are satisfied and committed to their relationships should show less interest in paying attention to attractive others.  This prediction was also confirmed.

Overall, the results of the study for my undergraduate thesis aligned with several lines of research.  First, the findings for power support previous theoretical predictions based on the leading model of power (and added to the stockpile of unsuccessful power pose studies).  Second, the replication of sex differences provided further support to the mounting evidence for evolutionary psychology.  Finally, the connection between sex, power, and mating strategies provided further insight into how intimate relationships thrive or dissipate.


Buss, D. M., & Schmitt, D. P. (1993). Sexual strategies theory: An evolutionary perspective on human mating. Psychological Review, 100, 204-232. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.100.2.204

Carney, D. R., Cuddy, A. J. C., & Yap, A. J. (2010). Power posing: Brief nonverbal displays affect neuroendocrine levels and risk tolerance. Psychological Science, 21, 1363-1368. doi: 10.1177/0956797610383437

Keltner, D., Gruenfeld, D. H., & Anderson, C. (2003). Power, approach, and inhibition. Psychological Review, 110, 265-284. doi: 10.1037/0033-295X.110.2.265

Ranehill, E., Dreber, A., Johannesson, M., Leiberg, S., Sul, S., & Weber, R. A. (2015). Assessing the robustness of power posing: No effect on hormones and risk tolerance in a large sample of men and women. Psychological Science, 26(5), 653-656.

Schmitt, D. P., Shackelford, T. K., & Buss, D. M. (2001). Are men really more ‘oriented’ toward short-term mating than women? A critical review of theory and research. Psychology, Evolution & Gender, 3, 211-239. doi: 10.1080/14616660110119331

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