Mating Game Is a Waiting Game

How long do you wait before having sex with a new sweetie? Three dates? 10?

A new study suggests that both males and females benefit from extended courtships in which mating is delayed: By holding out, females can more accurately screen for potential providers, while waiting males can prove they're suitable mates.

The study, published this month in the Journal of Theoretical Biology and conducted by researchers at University College London, University of Warwick, and London School of Economics and Political Science, invoked game theory to examine the strategies used by potential partners of various species, including humans; the game ended when either the male or female quit, or when the female accepted the male as a mating partner. Scientists used a mathematical model dependent upon evolutionarily stable equilibrium behaviors, in which both males and females are doing as well as possible against the other's actions.

The team wanted to know if the duration of the courtship itself — essentially, how long the male is willing to stick around — was a factor in the female's decision to mate.

"A male can reject a female if he gets too impatient," said Robert M. Seymour, leader of the study. "In this case, the male can be construed as taking the female to be a 'bad bet.' But only a 'bad' male (from the female's point of view) is likely to do this."

The upshot: When a male is impatient and gives up, he probably wasn’t the right one from that female's perspective.

Before you grudgingly admit that Mom was right about good girls and bad boys, know that the study has real-world limitations.

"The model we develop is very simple and does not take account of important human attributes like language, memory, and social environment," Seymour said. "Nevertheless, we do claim that at some quite basic level — which may be experienced as instinctual — the principles we uncover are likely to be active."

Good things, it seems, are biologically hardwired to come to those who wait.

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Sally Law has written about health and sexuality for the Cleveland Clinic, and has appeared regularly as a guest host on Sirius Radio. Her column, The Science of Sex, appears weekly on LiveScience.