A study of over 7,000 people from 14 countries has revealed that poor mating performance is a common phenomenon, with around one in four people experiencing problems attracting and keeping intimate partners. Although there were no gender differences, there was an effect of age, with singlehood being more common among younger participants. This research was published in Evolutionary psychology.
“People are born single, so singleness is something that affects everyone. In addition, I have developed evolutionary theories that can potentially explain why so many people have difficulty finding and keeping mates, says Menelaos Apostolou, professor of psychology at the University of Nicosia.
Research on mating performance among individuals who are either willingly or unwillingly single has largely been limited to Chinese and Greek contexts. In this work, Apostolou and colleagues test an evolutionary framework of singleness while expanding the geographic sample to 14 nations.
Contemporary pre-industrial societies presented a drastically different mating context than the one we find ourselves in today. Consider, for example, that in hunter-gatherer societies, arranged marriages were the common way to acquire a long-term partner. Given that these societies probably resembled ancestral ones, arranged marriage was presumably the dominant method of long-term mating in the ancestral landscape as well.
Furthermore, historical, anthropological, archaeological and physiological evidence points towards male aggression not only being a means of acquiring resources, but also of gaining access to females.
Now fast forward to post-industrial societies where humans face the same evolutionary problem of attracting and keeping mates, but find themselves in a mating environment where the adaptations that evolved to solve this very problem may no longer be effective. Mate selection was quite restrictive in the ancestral context, whereas today people are faced with thousands of options through tools such as online dating apps.
While this may intuitively seem like a way to increase mating opportunities, it often leaves people paralyzed and let down. This makes sense, given that our brains have not evolved to deal with a multitude of mate choices.
A total of 7,181 people over the age of 18 were recruited from Austria, Brazil, China, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Peru, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Great Britain and Ukraine. Participants responded to a brief measure of mating performance on a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (totally agree). This instrument has previously been associated with domains such as flirting skills, emotional intelligence and sexual functioning.
Participants reported their relationship status by indicating whether they were single between relationships, voluntarily single, involuntarily single, in a relationship, married, or “other.”
The researchers found that a third of the participants experienced problems with intimate relationships, half supported difficulties with starts relationships, and 38% of participants reported difficulty maintaining a relationship.
These findings varied drastically across cultures. For example, 19% of Chinese participants reported difficulty initiating intimate relationships in contrast to over 60% of Japanese participants. In particular, in most nations, over 40% of participants had difficulty initiating intimate relationships, suggesting that this may be a widespread problem. One in four participants reported low mating performance.
Around 38% of the participants indicated being single, 13% were involuntary and 15% voluntary. This phenomenon also differed significantly across culture. For example, while 5% of the Polish participants reported being involuntarily single, this was the case for approximately 22% of the Brazilian participants.
There was an effect of age, with singleness being more common among younger (vs. older) adults; but there were no gender differences. Participants who scored poorly on the measure of mating performance were more likely to be single.
“The brain’s hardware has evolved in a setting where free mate choice was limited, so it may not be able to effectively handle the challenges of the modern context where mate choice is freely exercised. In fact, poor performance in the mating domain is a common problem, and it can often lead to long periods of singleness, Apostolou told PsyPost.
“Mating performance and singleness are relatively unexplored topics, and much work lies ahead to understand them,” the researcher said. “Overall, we need to work more on understanding the various factors associated with poor mating performance and increased likelihood of being single. The next step would be to find ways to manage these factors and enable people to improve their mating performance his.”
Apostolou added, “In another study, we found that the amount of mating effort people show is an important predictor of singleness status—people who allocated significant effort to finding and keeping mates were much less likely to be single than in an intimate relationship .”
“However, people who experience poor mating performance may have multiple failures in this domain that may deter them from trying, effectively reducing their mating effort and increasing the likelihood of remaining single. I would advise people not to give up, as the rewards of being in a good intimate relationship is high, but instead try to work on the factors that impair mating performance.”
The study, “Mating Performance and Singlehood Across 14 Nations”, was written by Menelaos Apostolou, Mark Sullman, Béla Birkás, Agata Błachnio, Ekaterina Bushina, Fran Calvo, William Costello, Tanja Dujlovic, Tetiana Hill, Timo Juhani Lajunen, Yanina Lisun, Denisse Manrique-Millones, Oscar Manrique-Pino, Norbert Meskó, Martin Nechtelberger, Yohsuke Ohtsubo, Christian Kenji Ollhoff, Aneta Przepiórka, Ádám Putz, Mariaelena Tagliabue, Burcu Tekeş, Andrew Thomas, Jaroslava Varella Valentova, Marco, Antonio Correa Wang Paula Wright and Sílvia Font-Mayolas.