Study Shows Single Women Prefer to Date Attached Men

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Mate Poaching - Ninety percent of the single women in this Oklahoma State University study on "mate poaching" were more interested in dating a man who was already in a relationship than a single man. Psychology studies have shown that some women may try to lure a man away from his current partner, a phenomenon known as "mate poaching." But a new study conducted by social psychologists Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., and Jessica Parker M.A., of Oklahoma State University and published in the current issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology shows that most single women actually prefer men who are already in a committed relationship.

Melissa Burkley, PhD

This may be because a man who is attached has already shown his ability to commit and, in a sense, has been pre-screened by another woman.

Psychology studies have shown that some women may try to lure a man away from his current partner, a phenomenon known as "mate poaching." But a new study shows that most single women actually prefer men who are already in a committed relationship.

The mate poaching study conducted by social psychologists Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., and Jessica Parker, M.A., both from Oklahoma State University, is published in the current issue of Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Men and women in the study were asked to describe their ideal romantic partner and were told they would be computer-matched with a like-minded student. Researchers told half of the participants that the person with whom they were matched was single. They told the other participants that their "match" was currently in a romantic relationship. Participants then answered a series of questions on how interested they would be in pursuing a relationship with their match.

Surprisingly, single women were much more interested in pursuing a relationship with a committed man than with a single man.

Specifically, when researchers described the man as single, 59 percent of single women were interested in pursuing him. However, when they described the exact same man as being in a committed relationship, 90 percent of the women were interested.

Men did not show this preference, and neither did women who were already in a relationship.

"This finding indicates that single women are considerably more interested in pursuing a man who is less available to them," said Dr. Burkley. "This may be because a man who is attached has already shown his ability to commit and, in a sense, has been pre-screened by another woman."

Although the practice of mate poaching is commonly depicted in movies, television shows and tabloids, this study provides the first empirical confirmation that most single women actually do engage in mate poaching.

The practice of mate poaching appears to be prevalent worldwide, with one study* suggesting that as many as one in five long-term relationships began when one or both partners was already in a relationship with someone else.

The Oklahoma State University study shines new light on gender differences in mate poaching. According to a recent poll in Women's Health magazine, most women who mate poach don't believe the relationship status of the man influenced their behavior, but this study proves that belief to be false.

Melissa Burkley, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of social psychology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, OK, and runs the Social Cognition Research Lab at the university. She writes "The Social Thinker" blog for Psychology Today. Dr. Burkley received her Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2006. Her research interests include prejudice, gender and racial stereotypes, stigma, and implicit attitude measures.

Jessica Parker, M.S. is a psychology PhD student at Oklahoma State University. She received her M.S. in psychology from Oklahoma State University in 2008. Her work with Dr. Burkley explores gender differences in relationship commitment.

  • David Schmitt, PhD, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2004

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