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Unformatted text preview: CHAPTER NINE
In: Rasa, A.E., Vogel, C. and Voland,E. (eds.):The Sociobiology
of Sexual and Reproductive Strategies Chapmann and Hall,
1989, NewYork. Human courtship behaviour:
biological basis and cognitive
9.1 INTRODUCTION In 1975 Kendon described the literature on human courtship as almost nonexistent. Almost ten
years later, Hinde (1984) found our knowledge still fragmentary, and, moreover, in need of an
integrative framework. Indeed, most of what we know about courtship originates from just a
handful of direct observations. What remains consists of interviews carried out at different stages of
courtship. There are at least two reasons for this situation. First, it seems to be difficult to obtain
sufficient and convincing data, despite information gathered by questionnaires. Second,
cross-cultural comparisons seem to show that the behavioural variability is high. Moreover,
courtship seems to have undergone historical change (Cook, 1981), even though, as a result of
biological restraints, courtship behaviour appears to be a bastion for the strict performance of
stereotyped gender role behaviour. In this chapter I consider existing data and develop empirically
testable hypotheses in the light of sociobiological and cognitive theory. In this way I hope to
focus on the study of this important aspect of human life.
9.2 BIOLOGICAL THESES: CONFLICT OF INTEREST AND THE BATTLE OF THE SEXES From a biological point of view, the ultimate function of courtship is the
maximation/optimization of the reproductive success of the individuals involved. Genotypic and
phenotypic traits which guarantee this success are distributed unequally in a population (i.e. mates
differ in quality). Thus the selection of an appropriate mate will become the main theme of
courtship. 147 Human courtship behaviour
This first requirement generates sexual attraction for partners whose characteristics, when
transmitted to their offspring, will increase the reproductive success of the latter. These basic
conditions should lead to intrasexual competition for mates in both sexes.
Intrasexual competition then would accentuate advertisement for those phenotypic traits signalling
mate quality. Thus males, and to a certain degree females (Maynard Smith, 1974), should compete
through sexual advertisement. The greater the amount of advertisement an individual performs, the
greater its relative number of possible choices should be. On the other hand, advertisement means
costs in time and energy and enhances the chance of detection by predators. This forces the level of
advertisement to a competitive optimum. An individual has to display just slightly more than the
others do, as long as this is not detrimental to his/her own survival (Parker, 1983). This process
should control the intensity of advertisement.
Another assumption is that costs for mating are different for the sexes: Females Due to internal fertilization, costs to females are higher than to males. The early
survival of the offspring depends mainly on maternal care. If an infant does not thrive, a female
will have to invest more than a male to bring a second infant to the same stage (Dawkins and
Carlisle, 1976). Thus, for the female, male assistance reduces her costs for mating. As a result, a
female should show greater interest in maintaining a stable pair-bond. Moreover, if paternal care
plays an outstanding role for infant survival, males are more likely to vary in quality. Selecting a
'bad' mate could endanger the survival of the female's rare offspring. In consequence, females
should be more choosy than males (Trivers, 1972). Males In contrast to females, males have lesser costs. They could thus try to augment their
reproductive success by philandering. This, however, is only possible if the effect of paternal care
is negligible for offspring survival. As soon as paternal care is indispensable, the male faces a
problem. In contrast to the female, he cannot be sure that the offspring he is caring for is his own
Possible philandering by the female would cause fear of cuckoldry in the male and would also
threaten his investment.
Consequently we find an influence of investment on the intensity of advertisement. Direct
intrasexual competition will be most intense in the sex that invests least in a given pairing
(Darwin, 1871; Bateman, 1948; Trivers, 1972). Therefore it will be the males who experience
most intense direct competition. Thus males should tend to more overt advertisement. Also, if
inter-male competition occurs, male choice and variance in mate quality should create an effect
called assortative mating. This means that pairings should show significant positive correlations
for mate quality.
Note that all these considerations hold only for the social situation where paternal care plays an
important role for offspring survival. How far this holds for human evolutionary history may be
answered only speculatively. 148 The cognitive basis of decision processes in courtship
Nevertheless, we assume that paternal care (under given ecological conditions) does constitute a
necessity for the rate of offspring survival.
This theoretical assumption about intrasexual competition and intersexual conflict leads to the
following ultimate considerations (Hinde, 1984). Although females should compete for males,
they should be choosy. The males should compete vigorously and their selective level should be
lower than that of the females. The males should be attracted to females seen as receptive and
whose characteristics indicate that they would rear the male's offspring successfully. In contrast,
females should be attracted, in the first place, to males on the basis of their prospective
Males, then , should have an aversion
Inzest in relationships with females who are sexually promiscuous. Males should invest only in
relationships where they are unlikely to be cuckolded by a female. Females should have a tendency
to avoid exploitation and should try to test out the males' willingness to invest in the relationship.
Sex differences in perception of optimal mate qualities should cause sex differences in the tactics
and the quality of advertisement. Males should advertise in a manner congruent to female
perception of optimal males, and vice versa. We should at least expect different strategies which
can be used to prevent exploitation.
So far we have drawn a static picture of mate choice, which surely does not consist of a single
decision but is a process of negotiation between the partners. The decision to approach could be
triggered by the attractiveness of the partner. After an initial decision to approach is made, the
course of courtship should be guided by the assumed investments of the prospective partners.
Theoretically, we should expect a decision point (to stay or leave) to occur earlier for the females.
This is an effect of their higher investment in the offspring.
These ultimate considerations allow us to state precise hypotheses on human mate selection. From
these we can make predictions on the tactics that may be used in finding a mate, and in deciding if
he/she is an appropriate mate. Finally we can predict that the ego will try to convince the
prospective mate that he himself is appropriate for her, or vice versa.
9.3 THE COGNITIVE BASIS OF DECISION PROCESSES IN COURTSHIP The process of finding, deciding upon and establishing a courtship relationship may be viewed as
an attempt at social problem solving. The intentions or goals of one partner may not be shared by
the other. If success
ful mating is to occur, the goals of the partners have to converge. The question here is, which
tactics are efficient in achieving the pursued objectives? There have been numerous theories in
social psychology and recently in sociobiology stating that the choice of an action depends on the
costs of the action 149 Human courtship behaviour
and its prospective benefits. Homans (1961) and, in a comparable approach, Thibaut and Kelly
(1959), emphasized that the choice of an action depends on a plan which is evaluated in terms of
the outcome produced. Each individual tries to maximize this outcome, and tries to establish at
least equity, i.e. equalize cost and benefits with its partners The problem with an empirical
approach to such theories arises from the attempt to measure value, outcome, benefit.
Another approach, generated in linguistic theory, and derived from crosscultural research on verbal
requests (Brown and Levinson, 1978) concentrates on the central terms of risk. This theory relies
on the fact that people are quite capable of judging they can reach a defined objective. Risk, then,
would describe the assessment of the possibility of reaching a certain goal. Thus risk describes the
possibility of non-compliance by the partner.
Another individual might not even share the goals of the actor and interrupt the actor's ongoing
behaviour by constructing 'behavioural blocks' (Charlesworth, 1978). These blocks have to be
removed by the acting individual in such a way that he/she is able to reach the original goals. The
removal of blocks is, according to Charlesworth, the adaptive function of intelligence. But 'social
problem solving' is not only the art of removing existing and obvious interruptions in the
behavioural stream. It appears to be less time and energy-consuming to make a plan which reduces
the likelihood that a behavioural block occurs, than trying to remove existing blocks. An
individual should thus weigh the existing behavioural alternative. Then the individual is able to
apply a suitable strategy which lowers the probability that the goal reaching attempt will be
In order to make a plan, an individual has to assess the possible risk. This procedure has to start
with an evaluation of the goal under quest. Each possible goal seems to have a defined risk. The
knowledge regarding risk and goals is shared by all members of a group. Risk can certainly be
modified through cultural rules or norms. It can also be changed by motivational factors, as for
instance the high attractivity of a goal.
A further assessment of risk requires information that allows predictions to be made on the
possible reactions of the target person. Thus information gathering is the most prominent feature
in interactions. But the gathered information has to be processed and compared to stored
information. This can be done when qualities of interactions form constant patterns over time. If
regularities emerge in patterns, they are abstracted as concepts. These concepts form the basis for
the deduction of future events. One of the most prominent features of concepts is that they tend to
create dichotomies. Thus we should expect at least two axes in their organization: friendly-hostile
and dominant-submissive are the most prominent ones. Conceptualized as relationships they allow
a prediction of the behaviour a target person will show in a wide range of situations. This process
also works among strangers. 150 The cognitive basis of decision processes in courtship
Humans tend to show signs of dominance and social attitudes in their appearance and behavioural
style. They tend to constantly rank and classify prospective interaction partners (Zetterberg, 1966).
Dominance and social distance are negotiated and clarified even more in the opening of interactions
We assume a constant, additive relation between the above mentioned parameters, as suggested by
Brown and Levinson (1978). If high status and high social distance on the side of the actor are
predictors of the possible compliance of the target person, the perception of high status and high
social distance should create low or high risk for the goal pursued. Targets and goals thus have a
risk feature which we can describe as the external organization of the social problem-solving
attempt (Grammer, 1982). External organization provides the framework for the sequence, as well
as for the quantity and quality of tactics of a goal reaching attempt. The question is, therefore,
which tactics suit which risk conditions?
Before starting to act, the individual has to make a decision. This could be done by comparing the
risk with the necessary costs and the possible benefits. If the costs in meeting the risk are higher
than the estimated benefits, an individual will probably not initiate any behaviour at all. Thus we
should expect the following situation: if an approach takes place, an initial encounter will at least
last for a test-phase which allows the gathering of additional information.
Internal organization circumscribes the structure of a strategy selected out of a pathway network
which includes all possible ways to a goal. A prerequisite for the development of strategies is the
existence of tactics which enable the acting person to produce predictable effects (behavioural
changes). Free variation in the use of tactics, however, is restricted by a number of constraints. The
target person always interprets behaviour causally: he/she will interpret the actor's behaviour as
directed towards a goal, i.e. as a means used by the partner to maximize the outcome of his/her
behaviour. The actor is able to overcome this tendency by constructing behavioural 'detours'. If
he/she chooses tactics which prepare the grounds for reaching the goal, then the target may not
even realize that he/she has become compliant. Chisholm (1976) discusses this problem in terms
of good and bad moves. The main feature of a good move would be that it does not restrict the
actor's possibilities of further action. In contrast, a bad move would restrict the actor's possibilities
or even interrupt the goal-reaching attempt. Tactics thus have to have a risk-dependent escalative
potential. On the other hand, the limited amount of time available puts a certain restraint on the
use of detours. The amount of time can be further reduced by competition. The time limit forces
the actor to clarify his intentions within a certain time frame. Thus a dilemma arises out of the
necessity to construct detours and, at the same time, to clarify intentions. This dilemma defines the
qualities and the content of the 151 Human Courtship Behaviour
tactics and determines their sequential use. Thus not only cost and possible benefits trigger the
approach; the individual also has to include a comparison of the time limit and his/her available
If the quantity of risk is directly correlated with compliance of the target person, then low risk
allows a direct approach. On the other hand, high risk demands detours, in order to increase the
possibility of reaching the goal pursued. In this case the intentions are revealed step by step.
Empirical evidence suggests that the above mentioned hypotheses are useful for the description of,
and for predictions on the structure of strategies in all situations where goals have to converge
between interactants. Thus we might talk of a universal 'social-problems-solving algorithm'. This
algorithm describes the nature of strategies and the risk-dependent quality of possible tactics. The
basic ideas were supplied by Grammer (1982, 1985) for the organization of strategies of
intervention in conflicts among preschool children and by Grammer and Shibasaka (1985) for
access to play groups.
9.4 HUMAN COURTSHIP: GOAL DIRECTED ACTION The approach proposed depends mainly on the possibilities of observing and classifying 'goals'.
For a definition we will follow Cranach et al. (1980), who define goal as an imagined, aimed at
stage at the end of an action. According to Cranach et at, goals are structured both in time and
hierarchically. Goals are describable as higher order goals with their respective subgoals. We have
to take into account, however, that there is constant interaction between the different levels of
goals. Another complication is the fact that goals may be adapted to situational changes during
In courtship behaviour, we find a broad spectrum of goals, but the ultimate goal of
maximal/optimal reproduction is of prime importance. As a logical consequence we find sexual
intercourse on the next level. At the same level, wishes for the establishment of relationships of
different qualities will play a role. These are indeed the main goals found by Kirkendall (1961) in
interviews with 200 American college students. It is on this level that we first find differences
between the sexes. Owen (1982), analysed advertisements in a 'lonely hearts column'. In the
analysed advertisements males seem to look for partners for 'fun times' (McDaniel, 1969), whereas
females looked for permanent relationships and marriage. But this level may be complicated by the
existence of goals not directly bound to reproduction. Self-esteem, achievement, approval or
maintenance of power or status (mainly males) and even material or physical exploration are not
uncommon (Skipper and Nass, 1966).
All three types of goals have the same subgoal: the choice of a target person of the other sex. This
goal demands presentation as potential mate. The first second-order subgoal is identifying sex.
According to Skrzipek (1981, 1982) and Horvath (1979) people seem to have a sex-specific
template for the recog 152 Strategies, Tactics and Riskperception
nition of the other sex. The relationship between shoulders and waist in males (broad shoulders,
small waist) and the hip-waist relation in females (small waist, large hips) is used, among other
clues, to judge gender. This seems to be a universal phenomenon, common to all cultures. At the
same level of goals we find a necessity to identify the reproductive condition of a potential partner.
These goals are followed in time by attracting specific attention, as a first step for making
contacts. Overcoming aggression maybe crucial at this point. In a study by Sack et al. (1982) one
out of every four college students (independent of sex) reported that he/she had been either a victim
of violence or had engaged in some form of violence in dating situations.
After making contacts the evaluation of the partner is necessary. Females should be interested in
information on the males' potential for protecting and providing for her and her offspring whereas
males should evaluate the females' tendency for cuckoldry. But there are, as far as we know, no data
on the actual evaluation process. A hint may be given by Davis (1978) who found that males
proceed faster to intimate topics than females in an acquaintance exercise.
At this point the female should pursue a second goal: testing out the male's willingness for
investment. Again there are no data on the actual process or on the representation of this goal. The
same holds for the next goals: achieving coordination (Barash, 1977) and maintaining spatial
proximity. Holding attention, sexual enticement and, finally and, according to the theories
probably more important for females: avoiding exploitation. Berk reports in his observations of a
singles' dance that this is a goal women try to achieve by creating female-female alliances. This is
underlined by the fact that atrocity stories are an important topic in conversations amongst the
In a review of apparent goals, we find indications of a hierarchy and some evidence for biologically
based goal-structures. Females should weigh goals differently than males, and we should also
expect different risk assessments for the goals. The quality of the relationship pursued may play an
important role. High expectations on quality of relationships, as with marriage intentions, could
augment risk for the acting person.
9.5 STRATEGIES, TACTICS AND RISK PERCEPTION In the discussion of actual behaviour, we will follow the time structure of the goals. We will also
look for the influence of the higher-order goals. One caveat should be kept in mind: the
fast-growing literature refers mainly to American college populations.
We also have to note that free decision and courting is not the usual case. Mates in traditional
cultures are often selected by parents or relatives for socioeconomic reasons, and courtship is often
carried out as a complex ritual. 153 Human courtship behaviour
Cultural influence on decisions finds its expression in regulation through kinship, social class, and
often by the age of the potential partners.
9.5.1 Advertisement and attracting specific attention Attracting attention is the first goal. Attention is elicited through the display of signals that excite
the interest of possible mates. No doubt these include a person's physical looks, clothing and
behavioural style as a basis for the decision to approach him or her.
Observations and interviews indicate that non-verbal solicitation is mainly done by the female.
Scheflen (1965) observed many non-verbal cues demonstrating courtship readiness. Symonds, in
her observations of group-sex parties (1972), found the same signs, which she calls 'non-verbal
come-ons'. The starting point is eye-contact followed by immediately looking away or lowering of
the eyes. The next step is lowering or turning away of the head which is followed by mutual
eye-contact again. More direct signs are: not looking away (outstaring), fixing the target person and
starting to breathe synchronously. If the other person notices the contact, the eyes wander up and
down his or her body. In addition Symonds describes typical patterns of sitting, standing (flexion
of muscles or hand on the hip) and walking (flip of the hip). According to Givens (1978) the
recognition phase is marked by head cocking, pouting, primping, eyebrow flashing and smiling.
Moore (1985) who followed single females through a discotheque, indicates that it is the female
who determines and controls the approaches of males by exhibiting or with' holding displays:
'They can elicit a high number of male approaches, allowing them to choose from a number of
available men, or they may direct solicitations at a particular man'. According to Moore, the
number of male approaches correlates directly with the amount of female solicitation. Perper and
Fox (1980) observed in bars that women often make the first but subtle move, usually little more
than standing close to their target. Finally, Cary (1976) found that conversations only started when
the female glanced at the man at the beginning of the encounter.
Women seem to be exquisitely familiar with what occurs during flirtation; on the contrary men are
quite ignorant. Women can describe in great detail how they and other women flirt and pick up
men. Even quite successful men seem to have no idea how they attract women and what happens
during flirtation (Perper and Fox, 1980). 'I just knew that it would work out' was an answer often
recorded by Kirkendall (1961). According to him, males' decisions are based on the reputation of
the girl, her clothes, and the place where they found her (bars, etc.). Berk (1977) in his
observations of singles' dances found that men enhanced presentation by typical arrival and
departure patterns: coming with a friend, coming late and leaving early were widespread. 154 Strategies, tactics and risk perception
9.5.2 Target choice Besides female solicitation, other factors influence the decision to approach. Regardless of context,
physical attractiveness has been found to be the primary basis on which dating selections are made.
This is the case both in terms of what people say they want, and in choices actually made.
Coombs and Kenkel (1966) pointed out that physical attraction was the most important variable
for both men and women, but more influential for men. Men were attracted to women who shared
their sexual attitudes. Women's choices were mod)fied by race, religion, intelligence, campus status
of men and by concern about dancing ability and dress. Walster et aL (1966) added the factors of
personality and popularity and called the whole complex 'social desirability'.
The status of the male, his economic attributes and thus his abilities to offer financial security
influence the female's decision (Rubin, 1973; Harrison and Saeed, 1977). In a non-college
population, females preferred higher status males over low status males (Green et al, 1984).
Furthermore elder males and younger females had an enhanced dating potential in this and other
studies (Folkes, 1982). Sigall and Landy (1973) make corresponding observations. People usually
ascribe higher status to men who are accompanied by attractive women. Women however, do not
only seek financial security in males. Their value as a social partner also correlates with the
magnitude of emotional security a male can provide (Fowler, 1978). Finally, for the overall
weighting of traits, Coombs and Kenkel (1966) found, in general, that females have higher
aspirations for partners than men.
The basis of the main trait influencing decision, physical attractiveness, is not yet clear.
Clarification of this point would be essential for the inference that higher attractiveness would
guarantee higher fitness in the offspring. The assessment of physical attractiveness seems to be
based on a number of traits rather than any single one. Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1984) summarizes
attractiveness factors: regularity of features, smoothness of complexion, optimum stature and good
physique. Thus initial attraction is based largely on characteristics which are not unrelated to health
condition or sexual potential.
The size of breasts and buttocks correlate with sexual attractiveness, although this correlation is
culture-dependent (Hess, 1975). Cant (1981) hypothesizes on the basis of Frisch's (1975) statement
'fat is the issue', that big breasts and buttocks signal a female's potential for parental investment in
her offspring. Critical fat levels seem to be responsible for menarche and thus ovulation (showing
receptivity) and for lactation (showing possible female investment). It is possible that breast size is
an indicator of fertility and potential parental investment, but in view of this it is interesting that
breast size influences sexual attractiveness and not mate selection.
Numerous authors stress that attractiveness seems to be dependent on 155 Human courtship behaviour
cultural norms (Berscheid and Walster, 1974). But cross-cultural comparison of mate selection
(from the literature) is almost impossible at present because information, where it exists, is not
very reliable and seldom complete (Rosenblatt and Anderson, 1981). This is an open field for
The same holds for the expected influences of social class. According to Eckland (1982) it is still
an unsolved problem whether social class or spatial proximity play a role in mate selection. Clarke
(1952) found that in Columbus, Ohio more than half of the married couples under study lived
within walking distance of each other at the time of first dating. Humans do not live randomly
dispersed, however, and in western society, neighbourhoods are normally inhabited by the same
social class. We are not yet able to decide whether attempts to maintain spatial proximity, or social
origin itself, are factors for mate-choice.
We would assume that a decision to approach is made when an individual is sighted whose traits
are at their maximum value. Huston (1973) tested the selection of possible mates as dependent on
their attractiveness. He started with the assumption that males would prefer only highly attractive
females. If he gave men the information that they would always be accepted, men chose highly
attractive females. If he told them it was not sure that the females would accept them, they chose
partners slightly above medium attractiveness. Males thus perceived their chance of being accepted
as dependent upon attractiveness of the female. Murstein (1976) suggests that individuals try to
match their physical appearance, one with the other, and choose partners whose physical appearance
is comparable in attractiveness. He also presented data to support this theory using independent
ratings of the photographs of married and courting couples. The results suggest that couples are
indeed more similar in physical attractiveness than would be predicted by chance alone.
The picture of the traits used for decisions in mate selection and the actual behaviour in the
opening phase appear to reflect the biological hypotheses. Females seem to be choosy, looking for
high status males older than they are themselves; males who can provide material and emotional
security in a relationship. In contrast, males decide on the basis of sexual and physical attraction
and prefer younger females. To date, however, there is no proof that these factors are related to
fitness, i.e. that these traits guarantee more offspring.
Where individual variability for the above-mentioned traits is present, we should expect that males
and females can be ranked according to those traits. If maximum reproductive success is coupled
with maximum occurrence of traits, then competition arises. If all men like beautiful women, and
beautiful women seek emotionally secure men of high status, then beauty and dominance will be
selected for. As an outcome of competition, though, we find actual mate selection which is based
on resemblance in one or more character- 156 Strategies, tactics and risk perception
istics. Usually, in humans, assortative mating is positive (i.e. greater than chance similarity of
mates). No one has yet demonstrated negative assortative mating for any human trait in any large
population in a statistically significant way. Tharp (1963) reviewed the following traits: race,
ethnic origin, social class, age, religion, education, intelligence, various personality traits, physical
characteristics (height, weight, complexion), values, interests, residential propinquity and many
other variables. Intelligence quotient, age, and formal education showed the highest degree of
assortative mating in European and North American Caucasoid populations.
The concordance of traits in mate selection might be due to risk-perception. An approach could be
triggered by the comparison of risk, the available tactics and a rating of one's own attractiveness.
Whether an individual starts acting depends on whether he/she can handle the amount of risk
assumed to be present in the situation.
Furthermore, if he/she takes his own attractiveness into account, he/she ends with a partner of the
same value. If we add the time-limit which is created by male-male competition, we can
hypothesize that males should be more aware of their own attractiveness to females than vice versa.
9.5.3 Making contacts According to McCormick and Jesser (1983), the man is not the sexual aggressor eagerly pressing
himself on the coy and reluctant women. We saw that the first moves on the woman's side may be
subtle. Thus it seems understandable that men come to believe that they started the interaction
themselves. And indeed, in most of the cases, the first overt moves are on the male side. If males
are in competition with other males, they must take their chance as soon as they see risk lowered
through solicitation. Kirkendall's interviews (1961) show that males usually start indirectly with
suggestions and invitations. The majority of males state that it is easier for them to start with
indirect or conventional speech acts, only implying interest indirectly. There is thus no relevant
statement for the specific moment. The content of the verbal utterances does not endanger the
arising relationship. Interestingly enough, most of the students stated that men should take the
initiative for making contact. Observations on verbal invitations made by Symonds (1972) in
'swinger parties' and by Roebuck and Spray (1970) in a cocktail lounge underline this finding.
Symonds summarizes: 'I am willing to generalize, that with the male propositioner the directness
of the proposition is positively correlated with his perception of acceptance'. According to her, an
indirect proposition would be the best for both partners, because this way the propositioner does
not feel 'put clown' through rejection and the propositionee is not committed. Cook (1981)
concludes, on the basis of cultural comparisons made by Ford and Beach (1952), that direct
invitations seem to be an excep- 157 Human courtship behaviour
tion. He describes most of the invitations as vague, symbolic or non-verbal. The point about direct
verbal invitations is that they tend to require direct verbal answers, which either commit the
speaker or offend the asker. Apart from this, we also find direct, unmistakable invitations, in
contrast to the overall rule of indirectness. The reason for these could be found in risk perception. If
risk plays a role, first utterances should vary in risk, depending on their directness. Indeed this is a
critical point, because here rejection can occur for the first time. This is underlined by Berk (1977)
who describes males' strategies for the management of rejection. Common tactics are: denial (do
not look at it, it does not exist), redefinition (talk it away), enhancing presentations, l mating
involvement, putting others down (I'm better than they are) or withdrawal.
9.5.4 Evaluation and achieving of coordination First we will look at the behavioural repertoire which is used during the first stages of courtship.
Givens (1978) describes a high degree of female ambivalence: primping, object caressing and
glancing at and then away from the male. Females and males in conversation appear highly
animated and Moore (1985) found that women were highly excited while talking to men. They
laughed, smiled and gesticulated frequently after making contact. This is the point where the
woman reaffirms her interest: by nodding often, leaning close to the man, smiling and laughing at
All of these descriptions have two points in common. They portray nonverbal behaviour which
also occurs in normal interactions. In courtship, however, the frequency of performance is said to
be higher. In addition, quality of the behaviour appears to be different. Descriptions such as:
somewhat longer, transient, somewhat more than usual, vehement and quick are qualitative markers
for this. Non-verbal behaviour in courtship holds an element of exaggeration which is now directed
at a defined target person.
Achieving coordination means convincing the partner that some common base can be established.
This can be reached by establishing common ground m the first utterances. Common ground is
established non-verbally by the female through nodding (Morris, 1978) or by 'lean', a very
common solicitation pattern. 'Lean' is performed by moving the upper part of the body in the
direction of the man and thus demonstrating unison (Moore, 1985). Perper and Fox (1980) found
that they could predict by the degree of non-verbal synchronization whether a couple left a bar
together or would separate again. Dancing together plays a prominent role in courtship. Dancing is
a test phase which makes it possible to evaluate whether a partner is able to share a common basis.
Furthermore, the amount of non-verbal synchronization might signal readiness. 158 Strategies, tactics and risk perception
The Kirkendall (1961) interviews are the best source for verbal strategies.
An 18-year old male reports: 'I had it all down to a pretty good science by that time. I could take
her ideas and make them appear that we both agreed on the same thing'. Some of the students
developed sophisticated systems of verbal persuasion. Other students followed the motto: if you
start to talk, you'll talk yourself right out of it'. Verbal persuasion by males often refers to appeals
based on females' desires. These appeals are often indirect and ambiguous. We find appeals to
wishes for love and a permanent relationship, to the wish to appear intelligent or even fair. Finally
there are attempts to diminish or evoke anxiety through threats of different kinds. Self-disclosure,
i.e. the voluntary revelation of emotional cues or information on the self, is another strategy. Berk
(1977) describes the 'sad tales tactic' which utilizes appeals to compassion.
These findings apply to the males' tactics, which seem to take the active part at this stage, whereas
the female controls the situation by her non-verbal behaviour. This situation led Broverman et al.
(1972) to the assumption that in the early stages of relationships men show more structuring
activities. This was verified by Davis (1978): in a role play men were the architects of the
encounter. They chose the topics independently from the females, which was not appreciated by the
latter. The males' pleasure was the higher, the more self-disclosure occurred in the females. In
contrast to these findings Kendon (1975) found in his analysis of a 'kissing-round' that the active
behaviour of the man was controlled by the presence or absence of non-verbal signs in the female.
Vivid facial expressions shown by the women regulated and modulated the approach and orientation
of the man. If the woman smiled with lips closed, he started kissing her, if she smiled showing
upper teeth, he looked away, this being another hint of female non-verbal control.
It is a saying that the harder women are to get, the more attractive they are to men. Walster etal.
(1973) could not prove this hypothesis. On the contrary, men appeared repelled by such females.
But what was found was that a woman could augment her desirability by attaining such a
reputation and then making clear to the present partner that he was the only exception, thus
What about self-presentation on the male's side? Berk (1977) found that men foster positive
impressions by demonstrating coolness, showing that they lead an exciting life, and by claiming
prestigious occupations. In addition, it is of advantage if a third party, usually a friend, can verify
these statements. Thus the friend is able to testify credibility and respectability which, in return,
encourages females to trust the male. Kirkendall's males tried to impress their females by showing
them how many friends they had, by the clothes they
were wearing or by demonstrating their capabilities.
A further point would be to avoid exploitation on the females' side. This could be done by forming
alliances with other women. Berk (1977) observed 159 Human courtship behaviour
that women who came to the dance alone quickly formed alliances with a female friend. The allies
found thus quickly exchanged information on the exploitative potential of males.
In the further course of courtship we find that argumentative-persuasive communication
diminishes. Appeals by the males to the self-esteem and self determination of the women now
become more important. Further tactical moves are the establishment of mutual regard and
attempts to appear or to be actually predictable in one's behaviour. The female usually presses for
commitment at this point. If she does this too emphatically the male feels threatened and loses
respect (Kirkendall, 1961).
The course of courtship (for the observed college populations), so far, is structured on quite
different levels. Non-verbal signs emitted by the female show acceptance or refusal. These signs
indicate the course of risk development for the male. On the verbal level, males try to avoid
directness. In western societies, the males appear to have relative autonomy and the opening
initiative is on their side. Thus self-presentation of the male on this level seems to be the
important issue. Self-presentation is a strategic means by which risk is reduced for the next
decision. Within self-presentation, males display those characteristics the female seeks in an
With the next goal, we find a distinctly marked risk threshold. The first stage is attaining physical
contact. Most of this is done indirectly: touches appear accidental (Symonds, 1972). Moore (1985)
observed a female tactic she calls breast touch or brush which is a short contact of the female's
breast with the male's body. It was difficult to tell, except by length of time of contact, whether or
not the movement was purposeful. Here again we find indirect approach. In a study by McCormick
(1979) the answers given by students, when questioned on a hypothetical sexual encounter,
indicated that both males and females prefer indirect strategies. They state for instance: 'I would test
my limits by holding hands, sitting closer to the person.' But on the other hand, a highly direct
arousal strategy is also popular with both males and females. Male: 'If she gives me the come on,
then I would proceed very vigorously'. This occurs slightly differently on the female's side: 'I
would try to be very sexy . . . a few sighs here and there . . . this would probably be all . . . aside
from wearing something slinky and bare'. Attempts by males to persuade females to sexual
intercourse often employ indirect verbal-strategies in order to avoid simple yes/no questions. Male:
'I never ask a girl if I may unbutton her blouse. I ask if it unbuttons or unsnaps, or if it unbuttons
in the back or in the front. This way she has less chance to say no' (Kirkendall, 1961).
So far, it seems that sexual enticement is consistent with the gender role stereotype, although we
find again a high degree of non-verbal control on the female's side. But the problem seems to lie in
the analytical approach. Most of the results are generated out of interviews, thus relying on
perception and 160 The courtship game
consciously traceable information. It could be that gender roles are also generated on a perceptual
level. This is outlined by the fact that men usually say they would use seduction significantly
more often than women (McCormick and Jesser, 1983), a fact clearly contradicted by the
non-verbal solicitation results.
However, (McCormick and Jesser, 1983) both partners prefer seduction over all other strategies of
making a potential partner agree to sexual intercourse. When describing their personal use of power
via various strategies, men use power related strategies significantly more often than women do in
order to achieve sexual intercourse. Women use power-related strategies significantly more often
than men do in avoiding sexual intercourse. Aggression, as for instance verbal threat, is widespread
among males (Kirkendall, 1961). Males also report, however, that females started the aggression.
9.6 THE COURTSHIP GAME: C0GNITION AND DETERMINATION
9.6.1 Risk-estimation: prerequisite for mate selection Risk estimation seems to play a considerable role in courtship. For males, at least, high physical
attractiveness in the female creates high risks of rejection. Thus, ultimate necessities of male
choice, if high physical attractiveness marks a good partner for maximal rearing of offspring, are
modified by risk perception on the proximate level. In addition, risk perception in the male is
linked with the fact that investment might be in vain. Another male may compete and then
investment may be lost. This could at least explain why males make the first overt move in the
courtship game. Thus male risk perception depends on the quality of the partner and is modified by
A female's risk perception should be governed by ultimate considerations, because of their high
investment in the offspring. Females actually appear to follow the hypothetical rules for mate
selection, if high status males are better protectors and providers. In contrast to the males, females
show higher aspiration in mate choice: they choose actively, elicit approaches, and control the
further course of courtship. In addition, female risk-perception is modified by possible behavioural
tendencies of the partner, like philandering.
Females change the male's risk-perception through solicitation and eliciting attention. At the same
time, females induce male-male competition. High attractiveness of a female seems to imply that
she has wider possibilities for mate choice. The male thus supposes that he has to face a great
amount of competition with other males and that higher investment is necessary. This makes it
likely that the decision for an actual approach is determined by risk perception. The risk itself is
generated on the basis of the attributes of the target person and the amount of solicitation
We could also imagine that cognitive factors are responsible for assortative 161 Human courtship behaviour
mating. What has been completely neglected in research to date is the self assessment of
attractiveness. This may augment or reduce risk in a given case. If an individual searches for a
partner dependent on the maximum risk he/she can deal with, his/her own qualities will influence
risk in such a way that assortative mating occurs automatically. He/she only attains partners
according to his/her risk reducing potential.
Human mate choice thus shows two main decision lines. Mates seem to be chosen according to
ultimate necessities; an eventual approach appears to be dictated by the risk of rejection. This
forces choice to an optimum level.
The actual process of decision-making is another open question. There is evidence, however, that a
person is able to 'filter out' at the various stages of courtship those persons who would be
unsuitable intimates, by attending to a sequence of differently-based information about a partner
(Duck, 1977). This process is complicated by the possibilities of weighing or ranking traits. Males
could select a ranking method, because they rely more or less on one trait. Amongst females,
however, we find there are numerous traits and thus combinations which could result in the same
outcome of fitness for their offspring. Here, however, data on variability in choice, weighing and
ranking of factors are lacking.
It is clear that the central problem of this discussion is the weighing of risk determining factors.
Weighing is the tactic an individual will probably choose if there is competition. The possibility
of selecting between different traits which might produce the same outcome for fitness could reduce
female competition. How far such processes play a role in mate-choice has not yet been touched
upon by research. We could postulate that the single concept of attractiveness is divisible into the
factors producing it. This would allow us to take into consideration and compare the different
factors of attractiveness and reduction of competition amongst males and females.
Furthermore, risk can be modified by a series of factors, for instance individual goal conception.
Searching for a partner for fun times or a marriage partner can change risk dramatically. Other
factors are individual motivation or self-esteem. Males with high self-esteem (whatever their own
physical attractiveness may be) will tend to seek out females of high physical attractiveness, as
shown by Stroebe (1977). Thus we should expect flexibility in risk-perception, taking into account
historical and societal changes. In other words, changes in the cultural definition of risk of
Here, it has been shown that courtship is structured by a set of general rules from which there is
little deviation. Cultural and historical influences are mostly neglected in research. They must be
taken into account, however, in order to demonstrate the basic components of courtship, which
seem to be culturally invariant. 162 The courtship game
9.6.2 Internal and external organization of strategies Diminishing social distance and creating affiliation are the main objects of courtship. Risk can be
met in manifold ways. We should expect that individuals act according to the risk they perceive. In
what way the establishment of power does play a role; however, we do not know. We should
expect that for higher status males the risk should be lower.
Symonds (1972) and Cook (1981) both describe the same principle for the negotiation process in
courtship. This principle is the variation of verbal and non-verbal directness with perceived chance
of success. Here we find explicit sex differences. Females who have an overall higher investment
should encounter an overall higher risk. Females are more indirect and so employ non-committal
non-verbal invitation, in this way exerting control. Interpretation of the message is left to the
receiver and thus response is not obligatory. The overt verbal efforts of males vary according to the
risk of rejection. In verbalization, males tend to become indirect under high risk conditions. It is at
this point that we find the meshing of verbal and non-verbal signals. Nonverbal behaviour is
highly prominent in courtship, because it does not put others in a position of being obliged. So
females appear 'animated', but at the same time the situation is one of high ambivalence. For
example, the sign value of a body movement can be doubled by three processes: first, a nonverbal
behaviour can be framed by a typical movement configuration. Usually we find a fast start of the
movement up to its peak. At the peak a detectable pause occurs. Finally the movement is
accomplished by a slow move back to the starting point. Another way is by producing the
movement in rhythmical bouts (e.g. nodding). Thirdly, it is possible to change the movement's
background, for contrast.
Moreover, we have to admit that the data on verbal behaviour, probably the vain social tool in
courtship, remain little more than fragmentary. Thus research on this neglected point is a major
issue for further research.
It is not clear if consorts calculate risk out of social distance, the goal and the distribution of power
in the dyed. But it is clear that risk assessment occurs. It is certainly a cognitive tool for
cost-banefit calculations. Risk seems to be an anticipation of possible benefits and necessary
investment, determined by a complex, and probably individually variable, summing up of factors.
On the other hand, risk also seems to determine the decisions and the necessary tactics.
Thus, the point to be investigated is: who structures what? At first we find a clear but subtle
initiation role on the female's side. This finding is in contrast to the general view of gender roles.
The overt initiator is still the male, possibly pressed by male-male competition. Female initiation
only lowers risk in the perception of the male. Owing to intersexual conflict, one would expect
that the sex with the higher cost should structure the interaction 163 Human courtship behaviour
to a higher degree. Indeed, females try to force the contact in the direction of a long-term
relationship and press for commitment.
Further evidence for intersexual conflict can be seen in the high degree of ambivalence in the
female's non-verbal behaviour. This could well be a means of testing the male's willingness for
investment, i.e. coyness. We do not find an active or passive role: both partners structure
courtship. But they do it with different means at different times.
Up to this point, we assumed the existence of at least a minimal mutual interest. But what if one
of the partners recognizes that the other does not comply with his/her wishes? Here we would
hypothesize that verbal behaviour would become more indirect or vague and that the favoured
tactics would show either no solicitation behaviour or non-verbal signs of rejection. Another way
for the partners would be to impose their wishes aggressively. Surprisingly, Kirkendall (1961)
reports that it is the females who often start aggressive acts if the male does not meet with their
demands. On the other hand, we find an interesting dichotomy: males use power for attaining,
females for avoiding sexual intercourse. This again underlines the fact that the sexes assess the
sexual act differentially, with the greater risk on the female side.
All authors studying human courtship emphasize the 'invariance' of courtship. 'Variance' on the
other hand is not described. Invariance could well be a result of the interaction of two adaptive
systems. We find that large parts of the decisions made and of the repertoire used seem to be
influenced or acted out according to biological necessities. On the other hand, we find that actual
behaviour and the course of the episodes are structured by another adaptive system. This system has
its roots in cognitive restraints on interactions and goal-reaching attempts. Adding to the
complexity of the system is the fact that risk has to be met by behaviour tactics with a
predetermined function. We can speculate that the higher the risk becomes, the higher the degree of
invariance of the courtship episodes.
What is still missing in research is observation of the tactics males and females could use for
lowering risk. One of these tactics is certainly self presentation. Self-presentation with its
components could play the main role in human courtship. In self-presentation we should expect
sex differences according to the biological hypotheses stated above. Moreover, self-presentation
should occur in relation to risk perception. Out of the existing fragmentary work we could define at
least five main themes:
(a)The demonstration of qualities in the developing relationship. Status differences and social
distance can be manipulated. They can be maximized or minimized with respect to the target
(b)The demonstration of number and quality of social relationships outside
the dyed (e.g. showing the number of friends). 164 The courtship game
(c)The demonstration of physical and psychic abilities and knowledge (e.g.accentuation of physical
appearance, or showing one's driving ability).
(d)The demonstration of the available object world (the things I have or give away).
(e)The demonstration of the value of intended or executed acts (I did it this way, or we could do this
These dimensions become self-presentation through qualitative changes: over-accentuation and
under-accentuation. The first possibility is present in display, the second in ingratiation.
If we introduce self-presentation into the biological hypothesis we expect marked sex differences. A
female's self-presentation should mark her attractiveness to males and her offspring-raising
potential. Male self-presentation should be adapted to the female's wish for male investment.
Resulting from intra-male competition, self-presentation should be performed with higher
frequencies among males. Self-presentation tries to lower risk in the perception of the partner at
any stage of courtship, and thus should form a central point in research on courtship.
Although we find many hints, it is not yet clear how ingratiation and display are produced in
behaviour with respect to risk-perception. Finding out more about this is the aim of a current
research project. On the basis of the above mentioned theoretical considerations, we can state the
1.An approach depends on a comparison of necessary costs, risk and the possible benefits. It might
also be controlled by a time limit. The decision for an approach could depend on comparisons of
risk and available means. The attractiveness of the actor may play an important role in risk
2.The amount of risk controls the amount of solicitation in the female and determines the
directness of the male's first move.
Tactics in courtship follow the 'good move principle': males and females act according to a
perceived risk. If necessary, they create detours which find their expression in verbalization in direct
4.The content of self-presentation is dictated by the ultimate necessities in courtship and is thus
different for both sexes.
5.The quality of self-presentation varies with risk-perception, from direct presentation in low-risk
situations to indirectness in high-risk situations.
6.The intensity of self-presentation is controlled by female solicitation.
7. Females and males pursue sex-specific information-gathering strategies.
According to the research to date, courtship thus might really be the bastion for gender
role-performance. Most of the facts coincide with the hypotheses introduced above. At this point,
however, care must be taken since 165 Human courtship behaviour
the data base is not yet broad enough. The review presented here relies on a handful of results
gathered mostly by interviewing American and Northern European males and females. As already
mentioned, interviews might well only continue the stereotypes found that conceptualize shared
This work is part of the research project 'Male courtship: behavioural strategies of self-presentation'
granted by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (EI 24/11-1).
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