Do people flirt like guppies?

From Atlanta, Ga., at the annual meeting of the Animal Behavior Society

A complexity of flirtation, known as mate copying, may be common to both guppies and college students.

Typically, female guppies go for the orangest males, explains Lee A. Dugatkin of the University of Louisville in Kentucky. Yet he’s found that a female chooses a not-so-orange mate if other females seem to have fallen for him.

Dugatkin and his colleagues have now performed what they say is the first test for such mate copying in people.

Working with Louisville social psychologist Michael Cunningham, Dugatkin showed about 130 psychology students one of several versions of a fictional report on screeners’ opinions of someone named Chris. The screeners supposedly ranked Chris’s physical attributes on a scale of 1 (yuck) to 10 (yum) and noted whether they would date Chris.

The researchers found that students were willing to date Chris on the basis of this report. In one version, Chris ranked a pathetic 3 in physical attractiveness, but four out of five screeners still wanted a date. The chance to study mate copying in people intrigues Dugatkin, since at last he has experimental subjects he can talk to.

Susan Milius is the life sciences writer, covering organismal biology and evolution, and has a special passion for plants, fungi and invertebrates. She studied biology and English literature.