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Halifax professor boils down the methods of romantic competition

Putting down your romantic rivals could be risky business, says Maryanne Fisher

3 min read
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Olivia Malley

“No rose without a thorn, or a love without a rival.” That’s the Turkish proverb Maryanne Fisher used to start her lecture on Monday night.

The Saint Mary’s University professor gave an overview of her 20 years of research in evolutionary psychology during an event at the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, hosted by the Nova Scotian Institute of Science.

Her research has been focused on heterosexual cisgender women and how they compete with one another for mates. But in the question period after her lecture, she revealed that due to other research available, she believes her findings would apply to all people identifying as female.

She said one way women compete for mates is by competitor derogation — by putting down their rival.

“There are all sorts of beautiful nuances,” Fisher said during her lecture. “But to give you some examples, you could tell a mate that a rival is sexually frigid or promiscuous, or you could highlight negative personality or physical attributes.”

Yet this method is a gamble between risk and reward.

Fisher wanted to see how an attractive woman would be viewed by a mate after saying negative things about other women.

“It turns out men think she is really not kind,” said Fisher. “But they still think she is kind of attractive … they view her as more promiscuous, they view her as not a good relationship partner, and they really don’t want to have sex with her.”

Despite the mate’s opinion of the woman being unfavourable, her negative comments did sway his opinion toward the other women.

In a study, Fisher had men look at 45 images of “average” women’s faces and rate how attractive they considered them. After some exercises meant to distract them and instill a blank slate, they were asked to look at the images again.


The twist was that for the second round, the images were accompanied by negative, neutral and positive statements on the other women’s appearances from the woman they had ranked most attractive. Fisher referred to each participant’s highest ranked woman as Julia, after Julia Roberts.

“When the beautiful Julia, when she says a negative statement, men’s evaluation (of the other women) significantly plummet,” said Fisher.

The professor also had women do the same study, but Julia’s negative comments did not change their opinions. But both men and women did rank the images of the women higher when presented with Julia’s neutral and positive comments.

Fisher found that women also responded negatively to the derogatory comments, stating they would not want a friendship with women who use derogation to secure a mate.

But there are methods of attracting a mate that don’t tear women down, like self-promotion. Women can do this by taking care of their appearance and making it known to their mates.

“It is easy. When you dress up to do something, you’re competing against a whole slew of people all at once and you feel good while doing it,” said Fisher.

The other two methods Fisher included was mate manipulation, where a person tries to blind their mate to any rivals, and competitor manipulation, where someone tries to make their mate look bad in the eyes of their perceived rivals.

After 20 years researching how women compete with their same-sex competitors, Fisher wants to continue to branch into women’s view of rivals in relation to mothering.

“There is no academic work, as of last year, I could find on mommy judging,” said Fisher. “But 22,000,000 (Google) results in about a second (shows) it exists. Lived experience proves it exists.”

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About the author

Olivia Malley

Hailing from Dartmouth Nova Scotia, Olivia is a journalist passionate about the HRM. Outside of reporting she enjoys singing in King's a capella...

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