The perception of friends of the opposite sex can be a manifestation of developed mating strategies

A series of two studies published in evolutionary psychology examined how the characteristics of the current romantic partner and those of their opposite-sex boyfriend predict sexual interest in the opposite-sex boyfriend for men and women. The results largely supported the mating activation hypothesis.

Friends of the opposite sex can be a way to seek intimate short-term and long-term romantic relationships. This possibility suggests that it may be an evolutionary adaptive strategy to initiate and maintain friendships with opposite sexes (i.e. potential reproductive success).

Study authors Aleksandra Szymkow and Natalia Frankowska write: “If natural selection has shaped psychological mechanisms that motivate individuals to seek friendships, then we should expect a strategic search for specific friends, which should also be different for women and men.” Various studies suggest that forming friendships with opposite sexes can be a way to gain short-term sexual access to the opposite sex, protection, long-term partners, and even surrogate partners.

Men and women can seek out friends of the opposite sex to make friends in general. However, in certain circumstances, such friendships can serve to find a short- or long-term partner. The surrogate mate hypothesis posits that cultivating potential surrogate mates could have served as an effective solution to various adjustment problems (e.g., declines in mate value of the mate). In ancestral settings, the lack of a surrogate partner could have put women at risk of protecting children and providing resources for them. Therefore, having friends of the opposite sex could have served as “partner insurance.”

Previous research has observed parallels between preferences for friends of the opposite sex and mate preferences, with men prioritizing physical attractiveness in friends and women prioritizing physical protection and economic resources. But these preferences are flexible, indicating their adaptability; for example, “an unconstrained sociosexual orientation predicted that physical ability would be given a higher priority in females but not males, while in mating, OSF economic resources would be given higher priority in females and lower priority in males”. As such, sexual interest in friends of the opposite sex can be an adaptive response to cues such as environmental conditions and personal characteristics, and a means of solving adaptive problems.

Study 1 included a total of 146 cross-gender pairs of friends who were in committed heterosexual relationships. The variable of interest in this study was sexual attraction to a friend of the opposite sex. Participants were asked to imagine this person and rated cognitive, affective, and behavioral items such as: “I have sexual fantasies about my boyfriend”, “Do you get sexually aroused when you’re with your boyfriend?” or “If your friend wanted to have a friendship relationship with you, would you agree?” on a scale from 1 (never) to 7 (very often). Predictor variables included participants’ current partners and physical attractiveness, resources and support of the opposite sex. Levels of overall satisfaction with the romantic relationship, length of romantic relationship, and friendship were also measured.

Study 2 included 161 heterosexual participants in committed romantic relationships who were friends with a heterosexual man. As in Study 1, the researchers rated sexual attraction to a friend of the opposite sex. Predictor variables included the romantic partner’s and friend’s perceived financial resources, satisfaction with the romantic relationship, and sociosexual orientation. Sociosexual orientation refers to “participants’ attitudes toward, history, and desire for noncommittal sex.”

These studies attempted to provide additional support for the mating activation hypothesis, specifically the moderating role of the qualities of a current partner and the qualities of a friend of the opposite sex in shaping sexual interest in friends of the opposite sex. The results indicated support for this hypothesis that the physical attractiveness of one’s opposite-sex friend positively predicted sexual interest in that friend. This effect was greater in men than in women. This effect was stable among males in that it was not moderated by any of the current partner’s characteristics; For women, however, there was flexibility depending on the characteristics of their current partner. When a woman’s partner was very attractive, offered a high level of support, or she was very satisfied with her romantic relationship, the physical attractiveness of a friend of the opposite sex no longer predicted sexual interest in him.

Finally, the perceived financial resources of friends of the opposite sex predicted sexual interest in them for women with severe sexual limitations and those in romantic relationships with high-income men.

The authors emphasize that different moderators shape men’s and women’s sexual interest in same-sex friends. They conclude: “These include characteristics of the current partner, characteristics of friends of the opposite sex, as well as individual characteristics of the participants. Finally, our research demonstrates the predictive value of an evolutionary psychological approach to understanding opposite-sex friends.”

The study “Moderators of Sexual Interest in Conposite-sex Friends” was authored by Aleksandra Szymkow and Natalia Frankowska.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.