The Evolution of the Bad Boyfriend

What happens when the human biological imperative to maximize the passage of one’s genes comes into conflict with its own practices? One study by an interdisciplinary group of scientists concluded that this conflict results in a realization of the stereotype of parents’ disliking their daughter’s choice of partner. Embedded in the problem are economic practices by parents intended to assure the best possible environment for the grandchildren. These practices ironically create a disincentive for female children to aggressively seek partners who will fulfill this same goal: the bad boyfriend.

Each interested in different aspects of evolutionary imperatives, the scientists conducting the study were Piet van den Berg, a Ph.D. candidate in theoretical biology, Tim W. Fawcett, a research fellow in the modeling animal decisions group; the biologist Franjo Weissing; and the social psychologist Bram Buunk. Together, this group constructed a computer model premised on the theory that females originally sought out partners who shared a goal to invest maximum resources in raising children. This goal would assure that the progeny of these children would be able to apply these resources to the benefit of the next generation, thereby assuring additional grandchildren, successful and proliferate passing of their genetic material. 

The model played out thousands of generations with this premise, and a recognizable phenomenon developed. The parents would allocate their resources among their female children unequally, giving additional resources to the children paired with less able partners. This allocation was intended by the parents to equalize the resources that each child would have towards to nurturing of the next generation. However, this pattern had the consequence of stunting the female children’s imperative to emulate the originating females’ pursuit of the males most likely to share this focus on resource investment. With the assurance of redistribution of resources by the parents, the female children did not have the need to find similarly minded partners in order to maximize resources for their children.

The model developed by these scientists demonstrates that, given the legacy of laxity among female children in seeking a partner to fulfill the parental goal, both parents and female children come into conflict. Parents, aware of this possibility, view all partners introduced to the family by their female children as unsuitable. Female children, aware of the parental practice of resource allocation, feel no imperative to select a partner likely to diminish their allocation. Furthermore, female children may even resent parental disapproval of their partner choice, since a more ‘suitable’ partner would diminish their share of the parental resources: a guaranteed resource unlike the chosen partner who would only represent the possibility of developing into such a resource. 

I think the problem with this model is the underlying premise that parents will rely on resource distribution to maximize the proliferation of their genetic material. Other factors like intense indoctrination and rewarding of compliant behavior seem to be equally likely strategies enacted by parents. Female children demonstrating the highest likelihood of emulating the parental imperative, and therefore more likely to create a multi-generational proliferation of genetic material would be favored in this context, and the weaker candidates for success would be pushed to the periphery. It would be interesting to see the results of putting these parameters into the same model developed by the scientists. I think the daughter selecting the good partner would be more likely to obtain additional “reward” resources in this model.

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9 Responses to The Evolution of the Bad Boyfriend

  1. nicolina1215 says:

    As GreenDC hinted at the end of his post, it seems like an easy way to reverse this cycle is by rewarding daughters that make partner choices more aligned with her parents’ preferences. By doing so, the other daughters who are less likely to choose suitable partners would regain the incentive and thus work harder at choosing more apt and resourceful partners. In turn, males would have to work harder and improve themselves if they wanted to be seen as suitable partners, and thus have their genes passed on to the next generation. On the surface, this method will motivate both genders to work harder at becoming suitable parents to nurture and provide for their children and grandchildren.

    Furthermore, I agree with GreenDC that the model does not take in every factor that influences a daughter’s partner choice. Not only monetary relief, but also the overall praise and acceptance of parents is often important to children. Genetically, the most important factor in a suitable parent is ability to obtain resources that will help offspring better their chances at also having offspring. One reason I believe that the “choosiness of females gradually declined over evolutionary time,” as the NYTimes article stated, is because daughters grow accustomed to praise and rewards throughout their lives. By the time she is looking for a mate, she has no incentive to be choosy because she knows that either way, she will get the resources she needs from her parents.

    There is new research that says constantly rewarding young children for good behavior is actually a detriment to their motivation in later years. An article by the Natural Child Project states that, “However, when the little gold stars or jelly-beans stop coming, the behavior we were trying to reinforce tends to peter out. Children that have grown used to expecting praise, can feel crushed when it doesn’t come. This dampens their perseverance. There is plenty of evidence that in the long term, reward systems are ineffective.” ( This is evidence that rewarding daughters who have made more choices is only reinforcing the mentality that choosing partners who are suitable to give child support is alright or even praise-worthy. Instead, it is important to remind children that their decisions for child-rearing are important not only for parents but mostly for them. It is in their best interests to choose suitable mates and good choices will be rewarded.

  2. freddie1994 says:

    I like agree with both GreenDC and nicolina1215 when they both talk about how the model doesn’t take into account every factor in a daughter’s choice of partner. For some girls choosing a partner isn’t always completely about child raising resources, sometimes it’s about great sex, or they enjoy each other’s company. I don’t like to think that gold diggers are ‘the more evolved’ girls (, because they don’t seem to me to be thinking of the future generation, just thinking about themselves. That being said I like the idea that daughters could use an ‘it’s evolution’ for dating a bad boy.
    In relation to nicolina1215 talking about rewarding, I find it interesting that rewards can lead to girls becoming more of a gold digger, in the sense that they will focus more on child raising resources, rather than whether or not the male partner is actually a nice guy. Successful mobsters are the attractive males of the future.
    On GreenDC talking about how girls of the future will be less chooiser, I guess the nerds and geeks will get the girls in the future. I feel for the jocks and wish them luck. On a slightly more serious note, I don’t understand why people let their parents have such a big sayin such an important life choice. If humans have evolved to where we need parental approval to choose a partner, I think that we have taken a backwards step, in relation to evolution.

  3. findwhatwind says:

    The logic expressed in both the original experiment and all the responses to it makes an astounding number of assumptions which are insulting to say the least, and completely astoundingly inaccurate. And even if they were accurate, if you follow this theory to its end, it produces a conclusion which is so far from reality its laughable.

    To begin with, this entire experiment assumes that the only “gold diggers”, as freddie1994 likes to say (which is a phrase which is so insulting that I had to take a break and come back because I was too angry to physically be able to type this response) are women. This assumes that a.) men are the only gender physically capable of providing for a family, b.) parents will only provide financial support for their female offspring, and c.) women rely on men and their parents (actually if you follow this theory they would be relying solely on their fathers) for financial support, which are all disgustingly sexist assumptions that haven’t even remotely true for at least a century. These ridiculous outdated assumptions are enough to turn any at least vaguely intelligent respectful human being away from believing anything this study says. If these “scientists” cannot even comprehend the way society actually works today, there is absolutely no way I would ever trust them on more sophisticated topics.

    That being said, let’s hypothetically assume that all the ridiculous assumptions made in this experiment are viable, and that the claim that women don’t feel the need to find financially supportive partners due to the support of their parents is true. Now, let’s introduce one more aspect of reality into the mix of this experiment, the possibility of multiple partners after having children. If the females in the generations in this experiment were able to split from their initial partner to find a new one, who would they logically choose? Well, someone with whom they could keep the support of their parents, and who may not be personally affluent, but can also provide for their offspring. And who in this experiment fits this description more perfectly than the women in this experiment? So, logically, according to this experiment, if the ability to find another mate to help provide for one’s child were introduced to the mathematical model, all women would end up lesbians after having children.

    Hey “attractive males of the future”, how’s that for gold digging?

    • shoutoutjfk says:

      As you and darwinslegacy1 stated, this view of women who are unable to provide for themselves is severely outdated. For example, in the United States, 35 % of children are raised by single parents and more than 50 % of these kids are raised by single mothers ( The modern women can not only care for herself but multiple others around her. Here is the catch: the view of women held in this article doesn’t address (unfortunately) the evolutionary vestiges that provide this false impression because for a long time, this view was not false. Among vertebrates, and mammals in particular, the male’s role is to serve and provide for the female who’s main purpose is to raise the children. Considering humans evolved from these mammals or very similar intermediate species, it’s not unreasonable that ancient humans continued these beliefs for thousands of years. Findwhatwind, you make the statement that women have demonstrated their equality with men for over a century. But even today, religions such as Islam cause women to be subjugated within society. In certain places, women still have no say in their future partner, or even the ability to drive a motor vehicle! I think that to bring up evolution in order to describe these types of cultural phenomena is all that the study attempts to do. Thus the arguments made by the study are not necessarily inaccurate but the initial generalization of the modern female population probably is. And lastly, I just want to say that your comment about women becoming lesbian after having children is self-contradictory. You say that assuming the mothers are searching for a mate to provide for them, they would pick others in similar situations. However, this contradicts the initial idea that these mothers are searching for mates because they are unable to support their families. Why would they pick someone else who shares this same inability, in accordance with your initial supposition?

  4. freddie1994 says:

    Findwhatwind, There is absolutely no sexist intent at all. ‘Women who only marry men for their money’ (if you prefer that phrase) do exist, and I clearly did not say that all women were gold diggers. Obviously there are ‘Men who only marry women for there money’ but as the article only talks about girls selecting boyfriends I decided to only talk about that. The article doesn’t at any point say only women can be gold diggers and doesn’t at any point say that men are the only ones that provide for children, the article just talks about a model where parents like their daughters to have a partner that can provide childcare resources. Don’t blow every tiny comment out of proportion.

    • greenDC says:

      Freddie1994, I understand what you are saying and I also do not believe that the study was designed to show any trend in abusing one’s resources in a relationship. The argument is slightly ambiguous but remains consistent on the front that it is regarding the allocation of parental assets to their offspring (daughters).

  5. sm1414 says:

    I find the comments of nicolina1215 very interesting and agree with some of the key points that she made. If females know that they can rely on other people to help support their children, they may choose less suitable mates based solely on physical appearance or other non-biologic factors. With a model like this, there is no incentive for the female to choose a mate who could best provide for her children. However, this also adds the new element of parental involvement in a female’s choice of mate because the benefits she receives from her parents may not be supplied if her parents disapprove of the mate she chooses.

    On the other hand, I respect what findwhatwind had to say about gold digging and the negative portrayal of women that the article seems to insinuate. I would also add that the article fails to recognize the structural changes the American and world economy has undergone in the last century. Many women are now the primary bread-winners for the household and offer most of the financial support to their children. This may also contribute to bad mating choices because instead of being concerned with the financial security of her family, a female feels that she has the ability to provide financially for the family and can pursue a mate who makes less money or is not as intelligent. A further safety-net in this endeavor is added by the support of her parents as well as the growth of the welfare state. If she or her husband cannot provide for their children, then the grandparents or the government will supply the family with what it needs to survive.

    I would also like to note that I think this article and the argument it makes would better be classified as sociology rather than biology because it deals with mating habits, not genetic traits. Financial support is not a genetic trait nor is it something that evolution actually influences. Women choosing different mates based on financial stability and taking care of their offspring has little to do with the evolutionary fitness of the family. A healthy poor person can produce just as many, if not more, offspring than a sick rich person can. In terms of evolutionary fitness, the poor person in this case is more fit and a better mate even though he cannot provide for his family. In this sense, this is not a biological argument, but a sociological one that involves human interactions with one another.

  6. I find it interesting that this article talks about how society influences evolution, while only talking about one type of society. Interactions between parents and their daughters are social and thus fall under the realm of society, in this article the only society mentioned seems to be that of a modern western society, in which the daughter picks a spouse and her parents approve or disapprove. The article attempts to explain this phenomenon through natural selection while completely ignoring the fact that human society is constantly changing and there are completely differing different societies all over the world. There is no doubt in my mind that the evidence presented in this article could account for why modern western society is the way it is, but bad boyfriend problem has more to do with societies flaws rather than genetic predisposition. If genetic predisposition played as big of a role as the article suggests, then there would be clear genetic differences between people of two different societies. In addition the article ignores the fact that the bad boyfriend phenomenon is relatively new, and until relatively recently, even in western societies, parent approval was needed for marriage. There is not been enough time for the evolution to take place.

  7. johnd0pe says:

    This study definitely explores the issue from an evolutionary psychology perspective more-so than any other evolutionary perspective, which I consider an intriguing approach in itself. Dr. Schell has expressed some distaste for overly-speculative analyses using the evolutionary psychology lens, so I’d be interested to hear her take on it as well (paging Dr. Schell…). I’m hesitant to prescribe to or oppose the stance held by the article, as it’s clearly an issue which can’t be attributed to any one factor. This behavior could be influenced by both evolutionary factors, social factors or personal ones, not to mention that it is far from universally exhibited among women.

    As darwinslegacy1 points out, it’s unlikely that the nature of this behavior can be explained through genetics, as the amount of time needed to spawn observable genetic differences within a species (probably) exceeds the time in which the supposed family dynamic has been present. Furthermore, the proposed explanation in the article turns a blind eye to the other widely prevalent attitudes and techniques exhibited by parents. For one, at least by many American and certainly Indian social standards, daughters are expected to find a partner within their own social status level, or higher. There’s a great amount of pressure for girls to continue the line of social elitism in their family and in extreme cases, they may be disowned by their families if they fail to do so. This results in girls striving to achieve the expectations of their families, rather than obstinately rebelling against them.

    That contrasting example is sufficient to prove that the idea put forth by the article is far from bulletproof. It is an interesting idea and there very well could be some validity to it, but I believe it must be taken with a grain of salt and for no more than what it is; a largely speculative theory explored in a scientific manner, but ultimately possessing more popular appeal than scientific.

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