Deceptive Signalling of Mate Quality in Men

This entry was written by Chloe Tan as part of a project done in BIAN 2133 ‘Human Reproductive Strategies’ at The Australian National University in 2019 Semester 2


Signals allow animals to communicate with one another about the environment or sender. The evolution of communication has also inevitably resulted in the evolution of the ability to deceive. Natural selection is no moral force; it merely propagates any fitness-enhancing gene. In the context of mate choice, signals are important because they convey information to members of the other sex about one’s own value as a mate. It is optimal to mate with a high-quality partner whether for direct benefits, such as securing ample resources to invest in offspring, or for indirect benefits, such as good genes. However, not all is lost for individuals of poor mate value. In humans and other animals, deception may be employed as a mating strategy to obtain mates, or even to obtain a mate of higher quality than one could honestly acquire (Benz et al, 2005). As such, a gene for deception is liable to invade a population of honest signallers, because the deceiver may reap the benefits of a high-quality signal whilst not paying the cost of actually having to maintain the high-quality trait. This essay aims to review briefly two types of deceptive mate quality signals men may send, and how they might have evolved in humans.

Main Text

Female mate choice criteria

It is imperative that the concept of mate choice criteria is introduced before assessing the deceptive signals of men. Women have an obligatory gestation period of 9 months with a subsequent period of nursing afterwards, constraining the quantity of offspring they can produce in a lifetime. Females may thus increase their reproductive success by investing in the quality of their offspring. In humans, where altricial babies undergo a period of long development, male parental care can significantly affect the quality of offspring produced (Buss, 1989). Thus, Buss (1989) found that females prefer committed mates who have the capacity and desire to invest resources in them and their offspring.

Deception in relationship commitment

Women prefer mates who commit to them and their future offspring in a long-term relationship. However, males may increase their reproductive success by siring more offspring, which is an endeavour limited by restricting themselves to just one mate. As such, men may employ deceptive tactics to convince women about their commitment and faithfulness in order to gain sexual access (Gorelik & Shackelford, 2011). A woman might be conned into thinking a man is a worthy partner and proceed to have sex with him if he succeeds in lying about the depth of his commitment to her. In one study, the proportion of men who admitted to have overplayed their feelings to have sex with a woman was almost twice that of females towards men (Buss, 2017).

It is complicated to figure out what the evolutionarily stable state of the population is – that is, the frequencies of deceptive and honest males that may stabilise in a population – without assessing the costs and benefits of biparental care (with an honestly committed mother and father) and that of uniparental care (when a dishonest male abandons the mother and his child). However, it is not hard to imagine that it is possible for deception to evolve and spread in a population of honest men, as dishonest males are likely to achieve higher reproductive success. Deceptive men would be able to produce offspring at a faster rate than honest, committed men. Conditions that favour this may be the availability of alloparents, where other people apart from parents help to take care of offspring, a phenomenon common in humans. This enables deceiving males to abandon their offspring without compromising on offspring quality, while increasing offspring quantity.

Deception in resource holdings

Another mate quality that women value highly in men is wealth. Men were found to inflate their income stated on online dating websites (Buss, 2017). Men may also send visually deceiving signals about their resource availability by sporting fancy cars and expensive watches, even if they might not be able to comfortably afford these luxuries. It was also found that undergraduate males were likely to exaggerate their career expectations and ambitions (Borgerhoff Mulder & Rauch, 2009). This makes evolutionary sense, because resource gain is a direct benefit that females can attain by choosing mates. Choosing a resource-rich mate allows for greater offspring quality by means of inheritance, whether it be the inheritance of high status or material goods. The evolution of deceptive wealth signals in men may have been promoted by short-term mating and culture.

Short-term mating may allow deceptive men to enjoy a higher mating success, because women would not have the luxury of time to properly assess the honesty of a male’s mate quality signals (Borgerhoff Mulder & Rauch, 2009). Given two men of equal resource holdings, where one is a dishonest signaller and the other an honest signaller, a female might be prone to choosing the deceptive male over a short courtship period as he appears to be a better fit of her mate choice criteria. For example, the deceptive man might be able to sustain bringing her out to expensive, fancy restaurants (out of his typical budget) over a short dating period relative to a long dating period. On the other hand, the honest man might bring her to cheaper restaurants that he can genuinely afford over the long term. The production of cheap, fake designer goods such as knock-off Rolexes could have stimulated the evolution of deceptive signalling, as males may appear to have a higher purchasing power than they actually do, at a low cost.


In this essay, I highlighted two ways men may deceptively signal their value as mate – by appearing more committed in a relationship and wealthier than they genuinely are. This is not to say that males are the only deceptive sex in humans, as females also deceive men in mating, albeit with different strategies that play on male mate choice criteria for women. Briefly, women may exploit men’s attraction to younger females (who are more fertile) by using makeup to appear more youthful, amongst other strategies (Soler et al, 2014). I also touched on the possible reasons why these behaviours could have evolved in humans. However, it is important to note that the evolutionary history of deception traces far beyond humans, with other animals also employing deceitful tactics to gain mates. Evolution is a fascinating process, and it is noteworthy that counter-strategies have evolved to help receivers detect dishonest signals. With females and males acting as both receivers and signallers, mate quality signalling is a coevolutionary arms race well worth studying.

Literature Cited

Benz, J.J., Anderson, M.K., & Miller, R.L. (2005). Attributions of deception in dating situations. Psychological Record, 55(2), 305-314.

Buss, D.M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypothesis tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12(1), 1-14.

Buss, D.M. (2017). Sexual Conflict in Human Mating. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(4), 307-313.

Gorelik, G., & Shackelford, T.K. (2011). Human sexual conflict from molecules to culture. Evolutionary Psychology, 9(4), 564-587.

Mulder, M.B., & Rauch, K.L. (2009). Sexual conflict in humans: Variations and solutions. Evolutionary Anthropology, 18(5), 201-214.

Soler, M., Batiste, F., & Cronk, L. (2014). In the eye (and ears) of the beholder: Receiver psychology and human signal design. Evolutionary Anthropology, 23(4), 136-145.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License