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On romance and context-dependent mating

The Bell Museum's Caf? Scientifique explores the psychology of romance

By Shanai Matteson

February 10, 2006

Most of us don't need scientific evidence to prove that, when it comes to romance, men and women can be fickle. One day we revel in the thrill of flirtation, and the next we long for the security of a lasting relationship. Not surprisingly, the features that we find most attractive in others can change according to the context of the relationship we're aiming for. In one situation, looks may matter more than personality, while in another we go gaga for someone because they make us laugh.

This phenomenon of "context dependent" mating behavior led University of Minnesota research psychologist Jeffry Simpson to question existing theories about the differences between and within the sexes. What he found is that not only are women's mating preferences and strategies much more variable and context specific than previously assumed, there may be a biological basis to our fickle fever. "What we've discovered," says Simpson, "Is that the specific traits a woman prefers correspond to phases in her reproductive cycle. When a woman is ovulating, she prefers very different physical and behavioral attributes than at less fertile points in her cycle." What's more, Simpson believes that this tendency to change mating behaviors in response to fertility and environment may have evolved in order to increase human reproductive success.

So what do women want? Simpson may not have a final answer to that question, but he will explore his research and related topics at a special Valentine's Day edition of Caf? Scientifique--a happy-hour forum for science and culture hosted by the Bell Museum. Drinks and psychology will be on tap at Dinkytown's Varsity Theater (1308 4th St. S.E.) near the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis, beginning at 6:00 p.m. Bring a date and test some romantic strategies of your own!

Caf? Scientifique is sponsored by the Bell Museum of Natural History, with generous support from Sigma Xi and the Varsity Theater. Participants must be 18 or older to attend. For more information or a list of scheduled events visit www.bellmuseum.org. The Bell Museum is part of the University of Minnesota's College of Natural Resources.