Dating is hard.
Once you finally find someone you’re pretty compatible with, you’ll might just throw in the towel and settle into a long-term relationship.
It turns out that humans may be programmed to do this — or at least, this approach is the savviest move for the survival of the human species.
Settling for someone we’re happy with, even though there might be a better match out there somewhere, could be a learned behaviour that’s been passed down for generations, recent research suggests.
From an evolutionary standpoint, settling for Mr. or Ms. Right Now is a better strategy than waiting around for Mr. or Ms. Right. It’s far less risky.
Researchers from Michigan State University figured this out by creating a computer model that simulated the risk-taking behaviour of thousands of generations of digital organisms. Each digital organism was programmed to make decisions in a way similar to humans. Each organism in the simulation had to take one high-stakes gamble that mimicked real life-altering decisions, like choosing a mate.
Organisms in the simulation only evolved to take fewer risks when they were faced with a rare, once-in-a-lifetime decision that came with a potentially huge payoff.
“If the stakes are sufficiently high, people prefer the safe option,” the researchers write in in their paper. “They are therefore risk sensitive (risk averse).”
If organisms in the simulation were faced with lots of little decisions with small payoffs (like betting $US50 on the outcome of a sports game), they did not evolve to take fewer risks.
The researchers also discovered that the simulated organisms were more likely to play it safe and settle on the first available mate when living in small groups. Populations with less than 1,000 members, or groups with less than 150 people were much more likely to avoid taking risks. Smaller populations meant fewer resources and fewer mate choices, so the simulated organisms were more likely to settle for the first available mate.
Many of our ancient ancestors lived in small groups with less than 150 people. That means they were much more likely to settle for Mr. or Ms. Right Now rather than Mr. or Ms. Perfect.
This kind of play it safe behaviour evolved because our ancestors had a lot more at stake than we do now. They spent most of their time searching for food and shelter, and their primary goal was to pass on their genes to the next generation. They learned to take the safe road and choose the first available mate to guarantee they could successfully carry on their lineage.
“[Our ancestors] could either choose to mate with the first, potentially inferior, companion and risk inferior offspring, or they could wait for Mr. or Ms. Perfect to come around,” Chris Adami, one of the authors on the new paper, said in a statement. “If they chose to wait, they risked never mating.”
Even though circumstances are very different now, we could still be genetically programmed to settle.
“This behaviour [avoiding risks] will still give your genes a higher probability to move to the future, which is evolution’s goal,” Adami said. “Your goal today may not be the same.”
So even though we don’t live in such small groups anymore, and passing on our genes may not be our number one priority anymore, the behaviour may have stuck with us.
Of course not everyone is equally likely to risk holding out for the perfect match. Some of us are naturally more gutsy than others. And there are many other factors that influence how likely we are to take a risk, like age, individual circumstances and how much value we personally give each outcome. A simulation can’t possibly capture all this nuance, and it’s a simulation, not a time machine that can explain exactly how we evolved or what’s in our genes (versus our culture and our environment).
But while some admire the most daring among us, the ones who refuse to settle, being risk-averse has its benefits — especially for the species as a whole.
“There will always be some agents that are extremely risk-seeking,” the researchers write. “Such agents can do extraordinarily well by chance and persist, but their genes are ultimately destined for extinction.”
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