Evolution of Mate Guarding

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


Mate guarding is a common tactic used by both males and females to maintain a monogamous relationship with a mate and is a very important issue. The main aim of mate guarding is to prevent other competitors from poaching their mates, allowing continuous access to a mate and also ensuring a mate does not leave a relationship (Buss, 2002). There are several reasons why mate guarding evolved in humans, with sexual jealousy and emotional jealousy believed to be one of the causes. Another reason is that mate poaching must have been occurring regularly amongst early humans and have been rather successful, leading to the development of mate guarding behaviour. Mate poaching is the stealing of someone else’s mate. There are also a variety of strategies that mates use to guard their mates and these differ by sex.

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Mate guarding is believed to have evolved in humans as a response to the development of sexual and emotional jealousy when mates perceive there is a threat to their relationship. The type of jealousy differs by gender, with men experiencing sexual jealousy, whilst women experience emotional jealousy (Buss, 2002). This sex difference in the type of jealousy expressed has been extensively empirically tested, with studies in countries such as the United States, Korea and Japan, all reaching the same conclusion (Buss et al., 1999). This is because, women from an evolutionary perspective rely on men for resources and support in raising offspring. They are more affected by their mate, becoming emotionally involved with another women as it is likely that the mate will invest resources and time into the other women, depriving his original mate and any offspring of resources (Kardum et al., 2006). On the other hand, men are more affected by female mates having sexual relations with other men, because men cannot be sure of the paternity of the offspring. If the offspring is not theirs it means that, they waste investing time and resources into another man’s offspring, when ideally, they should be investing in their own offspring. This shows in part why mate guarding developed (Kardum et al., 2006). Additionally, males and females felt threatened by individuals with different characteristics. Men are more threated by other males that have more ability to gain resources and are physically strong. Women feel more threatened by females who are attractive and appear more desirable to males (Buss, 2002). An additional reason beside jealousy for the development of mate guarding, is the use of mate poaching.

Mate poaching

Mate poaching is stealing of another individuals mate either for reproduction or resources. This occurs because from an evolutionary perspective individuals who fail to find a mate, fail to reproduce and pass their genes on.(Schmitt and Buss, 2001). Males and females look for different traits in individuals they are planning to poach. Males tend to favour mated women who are physically attractive and display physical signs of fertility. On the other hand females tend to favour poaching men that share resources easily particularly for short term relationships. For females poaching for the purpose of long term relationships, ease of gaining resources matters less (Schmitt and Buss, 2001). Additionally, Schmitt and Buss’s (2001) study also found that many individuals were deterred from mate poaching for the purposes of a long term relationship. This was because of competition from current mates and also the risk that once poached, the mate may not be faithful. Mate poaching involves the use of tactics such as the mate poacher increasing their desirability in order to lure the mate they are targeting, away from their regular mate (Schmitt and Buss, 2001). Another strategy used is to derogate the current mate, by causing the target mate to question their fidelity, or desirability, causing the targeted mate to defect to a new relationship (Schmitt and Buss, 2001). These strategies have led to the development of a variety of mate guarding strategies aimed at reducing the effectiveness of mate poaching techniques.

Mate guarding strategies

A variety of different mate guarding techniques have evolved due to the roles of jealousy, in relationships and also the use of mate poaching. The use of mate guarding strategies also relies on the availability of mates, with an increase in mate guarding when mates are perceived to be scarcer (Arnocky et al., 2014). Males and females favour different mate guarding strategies with men utilising strategies such as concealing their mate, using markings to indicate mate in theirs, and use violence to deter rivals (Buss, 2002). On the other hand, women tend to make themselves more attractive and stay close to their partner as a deterrent to potential mate poachers. This increases their value in the eye of their mate, and also ensures no other females can poach the mate (Buss, 2002). The effort an individual goes to guard their mate also depends on the value of the mate. For example, men with mates of higher value, such as young, attractive female, will heavily guard their mate compared to men with mates that are older or perceived to be less attractive. The same is also seen in females, females who have a high status mate, that has abundant resources will heavily guard him, irrespective of his age or level of attractiveness (Buss, 2002). This shows how mate guarding strategies differ between the sexes and also how the level of investment changes depending on mate quality.

In conclusion, this shows evolutionary reasons that may have caused mate guarding to evolve such as jealousy and the use of mate poaching. Mate poaching has consequences such as uncertain paternity, and also for females lack of resources, additionally for both parties, there is also a loss of face, due to losing a mate to a rival. There are also a variety of mate guarding tactics that individuals employ, such as concealing mate, intrasexual violence and making themselves more attractive. This highlights some of the evolutionary reasonings behind mate guarding as well as the tactics used.

+Literature Cited

Arnocky, S., Ribout, A., Mirza, R.S., and Knack, J.M. (2014). Perceived mate availability influences intrasexual competition, jealousy and mate-guarding behavior. Journal of Evolutionary Psychology 12, 45–64.

Buss, D.M. (2002). Human mate guarding. Neuro Endocrinol. Lett. 23 Suppl 4, 23–29.

Buss, D.M., Shackelford, T.K., Kirkpatrick, L.A., Choe, J.C., Lim, H.K., Hasegawa, M., Hasegawa, T., and Bennett, K. (1999). Jealousy and the nature of beliefs about infidelity: Tests of competing hypotheses about sex differences in the United States, Korea, and Japan. Personal Relationships 6, 125–150.

Kardum, I., Hudek-Knezevic, J., and Gračanin, A. (2006). Sociosexuality and Mate Retention in Romantic Couples. Psychological Topics 15913, 159–942.

Schmitt, D.P., and Buss, D.M. (2001). Human mate poaching: Tactics and temptations for infiltrating existing mateships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80, 894–917.

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