Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford

Benefit Provisioning

  • Christopher J. HoldenEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_142-1


Public Signal Mate Retention Positive Inducement Negative Inducement Reproductive Resource 
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Benefit-provisioning behaviors are mate retention behaviors that are intended to increase the incentives of staying mated to the current partner and, in turn, deter defection from the relationship. These behaviors can include things such as buying gifts for the partner, altering one’s appearance, and different sexual behaviors.


After attracting a mate, humans are faced with the adaptive problem of retaining the mate. Successful mate retention prevents other problems associated with reproduction such as cuckoldry and defection of resources (Buss 1988). Therefore, it is likely that a series of adaptations would have evolved to aide individuals in their mate retention. Indeed, an entire taxonomy of these mate retention behaviors have been identified, and these mate retention behaviors range in nature from acts that inflict costs on the partner (i.e., cost-inflicting behaviors) to behaviors that bestow benefits on the partner (i.e., benefit-provisioning behaviors; Buss 1988). Despite their difference in tactics, each of these mate retention behaviors is intended to deter the partner from defecting from the relationship.

Mate Retention Domains, Categories, and Tactics

As mentioned above, simply attracting a mate is not enough to ensure successful reproduction and the survival of offspring. Humans must also make efforts to prevent their partner from defecting from their relationship (i.e., losing a reproductive resource). It has been demonstrated that both sexes engage in extra-pair mating (Greiling and Buss 2000), as well as mate poaching behaviors (Schmitt and Buss 2001). Thus, the risk of defection is present both within and outside of the relationship. Therefore, a series of behaviors should be present to help counter these risks and should also be focused on the partner, as well as sexual rivals. Indeed, we see that a variety of behaviors have been identified, which target the partner and/or sexual rivals.

In some of his early work, David Buss (1988) sought to develop a complete taxonomy of human mate retention behaviors. Through an act nomination procedure, 104 different acts were determined, which can be classified into two broader domains, five distinct categories, and 19 tactics of mate retention. The domains of mate retention behavior reflect whether benefits are being provided to the partner, or whether costs are being inflicted to the partner, and thus are given the names benefit-provisioning and cost-inflicting behaviors, respectively. Put another way, benefit-provisioning behaviors operate to incentivize the partner to stay in the relationship (e.g., by buying an expensive gift for the partner), whereas cost-inflicting behaviors operate to make the partner’s defection from the relationship costly (e.g., by limiting their access to members of the opposite sex). Therefore, both domains operate to solve the adaptive problem of mate retention by ensuring that the partner remains invested in the current relationship while reducing the likelihood of their defection from the relationship.

Subsumed under these two domains are five distinct categories of mate retention behaviors; each of which distinguish whether these behaviors are ultimately targeted toward the partner or the rival. Under the domain of cost-inflicting behaviors are the categories of direct guarding (e.g., watching over the partner, controlling their free time), intersexual negative inducements (e.g., derogating competitors in front of the partner, manipulating the partner), and intrasexual negative inducements (e.g., derogating the partner in front of competitors, acting violent toward rivals). Under the domain of benefit-provisioning behaviors are the categories of positive inducements (e.g., buying gifts for the partner, showing love and affection for the partner) and public signals of possession (e.g., publicly commenting about the partner, using physical reminders that the partner is mated). In turn, the categories of direct guarding, intersexual negative inducements, and positive inducements can be seen as targeted toward the partner, whereas the categories of intrasexual negative inducements and public signals of possession can be seen as targeted toward rivals. Benefit-provisioning behaviors as a whole, and the categories under benefit-provisioning behaviors, will be discussed in detail below.

Benefit-Provisioning Behaviors

Broadly speaking, benefit-provisioning behaviors involve doing things that incentivize the partner to stay in the relationship and to broadcast the nature of the relationship to rivals. Put another way, the individual is attempting to change their partner’s assessment of the relationship to be more favorable and is signaling to others that their partner is taken. In turn, these actions can increase the partner’s relationship satisfaction, and make defection from the relationship less likely. The various benefit-provisioning behaviors are classified into the separate categories of positive inducements and public signals of possession, as well as in the tactics that make up these categories.

Positive Inducements

The category of positive inducements includes behaviors that are intended to convey to the partner that remaining in the relationship is beneficial. For example, positive inducements include showing affection toward the partner, buying gifts, and performing different sexual behaviors for the partner. Additionally, there are a variety of positive inducement behaviors that an individual can employ to make their partner’s assessment of the relationship more favorable.

Moving to the tactic level, the details of the positive inducement behaviors can fully be seen. The first tactic under positive inducements is resource display. Here, individuals are attempting to convey to their partners that they have the ability to acquire resources and provide these resources to their partner. Thus, they may do things such as buying an expensive gift for their partner or taking their partner out for a meal at an expensive restaurant. In both actions, the individual is making an attempt to convince their partner of their ability to provide for them and any potential offspring.

The second tactic under positive inducements is love and care. Using this tactic, individuals are displaying to their partner that they are emotionally invested in the relationship. Thus, they may do things such as professing their love to their partner, acting kind or nice to their partner, or complimenting their partner on their appearance. Across these behaviors, the individual is displaying their investment in the relationship and, in turn, their willingness to invest in potential offspring.

Outside of displaying affection and resources, individuals may also make efforts to enhance their appearance. Therefore, in the third tactic of positive inducements, appearance enhancement, individuals may be doing things such as wearing fashionable clothing or using makeup or other means to make themselves more attractive. Each of these behaviors attempts to signal high mate value to the partner, which should in turn increase their commitment to their partner and decrease the appeal of attractive rivals.

Individuals may also engage in mate retention behaviors that involve particular sexual behaviors. More specifically, when employing the tactic of sexual inducements, individuals may perform sexual favors for their partner or engage in sexual activity to please their partner. Therefore, this tactic is intended to keep the partner sexually satisfied and, in turn, decrease the likelihood that they seek out mating opportunities outside of the relationship.

The final tactic under the category of positive inducements is submission and debasement. This tactic is unlike the others, as it is more of an attempt to appease the partner, as opposed to directly bestowing benefits on the partner. Using this tactic, individuals may drastically change their behavior in order to fit the desires of their partner. For example, they may be willing to forego their own desires in order to let their partner have their way. Therefore, this tactic makes the relationship more favorable by conferring the benefit of having the partner’s desires met without sacrifice.

Public Signals of Possession

The second category of benefit-provisioning behaviors is public signals of possession. Here, individuals may engage in some behaviors that involve giving gifts to the partner. However, the main focus across these behaviors is to signal to others that the partner is currently taken (mated). In turn, the individual is signaling their investment to their partner. This signal of increased investment is what incentivizes the partner to remain in the relationship (i.e., this is how the benefit is being bestowed on the partner). As was the case with positive inducements, there are a series of tactics under the larger category of public signals of possession.

The first of these tactics is verbal possession signals. Here, individuals may make remarks that refer to their partner in conversation with others, particularly same-sex rivals, in an attempt to thwart any attempts to disrupt the relationship. In a similar manner, individuals may brag about their partner to same-sex rivals or describe how much they and their partner are in love to dissuade these rivals. The second tactic under public signals of possession, physical possession signals, is identical in intent. However, instead of describing the nature of the relationship to others, individuals may engage in behaviors such as kissing their partner in front of others or placing their arm around their partner as a physical sign of their commitment.

The third tactic, possessive ornamentation, takes on a slightly different approach to convey the same message to same-sex rivals. Using this tactic, individuals may engage in behaviors such as having their partner wear a ring to signify that they are taken, along with wearing other forms of jewelry and clothing to signal the status of the relationship. Therefore, this tactic involves doing things to convey to others the status of the relationship without the individual being present. In turn, although these behaviors involve giving something to the partner, their intention is focused on same-sex rivals (i.e., they are intrasexual in nature).

The tactics described above include a variety of individual acts that are included in single items of the Mate Retention Inventory (MRI; Buss 1988; Buss and Shackelford 1997; Buss et al. 2008). Additionally, these tactics describe behaviors that a variety of individuals have reported engaging in. Therefore, it is likely that the use of mate retention behaviors varies across individuals and across different points in the relationship. Indeed, previous work has demonstrated that individual differences such as mate value, self-esteem, and personality influence the use of mate retention behaviors.

Mate Value and Benefit-Provisioning Behaviors

Broadly defined, mate value reflects the degree to which an individual possesses traits associated with reproductive success (e.g., health, youth, and beauty). That is, individuals who have a number of these traits are considered to be high in mate value. Therefore, selecting for, and retaining mates that are high in mate value would be reproductively advantageous. However, having a partner who is high in mate value may influence the degree to which individuals have to engage in mate retention behaviors. Additionally, individuals who are high in mate value may be able to engage in mate retention behaviors that their low mate value counterparts cannot.

As mentioned above, individuals mated to partners higher in mate value face the problem of retaining these partners and maintaining their access to these valuable reproductive resources. Individuals who are high in mate value are more likely to be the subject of mate poaching attempts (i.e., attempting to secure others’ mates as your own) and, in turn, are more likely to defect from the relationship. Therefore, their partners should be more motivated to engage in mate retention behaviors and may be particularly motivated to engage in specific mate retention behaviors.

Indeed, it has been demonstrated that individuals mated to partners higher in mate value engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors and less cost-inflicting behaviors (Miner et al.2009; Starratt and Shackelford 2012). These effects have been most extensively studied in men and suggest that men who are mated to women of higher mate value engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors (Starratt and Shackelford 2012). Additionally women who report their partners to be high in mate value also report that their partners engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors (Miner et al. 2009). However, one’s own mate value does not appear to influence self-reported benefit-provisioning behaviors (Starratt and Shackelford 2012). That is, men who rate themselves as higher in mate value do not report engaging in more benefit-provisioning behaviors themselves. Therefore, it appears that the partner’s mate value has the most direct influence on mate retention behaviors.

Self-esteem and esteem for the partner have also been used as measures of mate value (Holden et al. 2014a). More specifically, it was proposed that those high in mate value should also score higher on measures of self-esteem. Additionally, those who are high in mate value should in turn be held in a higher regard by their partner (i.e., more esteemed by their partner). Using these measures of mate value, results similar to previous studies are observed. That is, women who hold their partner in a higher regard also report that their partner engages in more benefit-provisioning behaviors and less cost-inflicting behaviors (Holden et al. 2014a). Therefore, these effects of partner’s mate value on benefit-provisioning behaviors appear to be robust and stable findings.

Personality and Benefit-Provisioning Behaviors

A number of personality traits have been found to be associated with benefit-provisioning behaviors. These personality traits span multiple models of personality and include both normal and pathological forms of personality. The earliest work on personality and benefit-provisioning behaviors investigated connections between the five-factor model of personality and specific tactics of mate retention.

The five-factor model of personality (FFM; Costa and McCrae 1992) is one of the most widely studied and influential models of personality. This model characterizes personality across the five factors of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness. Each of these five factors has been shown to be associated with mate retention tactics under the benefit-provisioning domain. However, neuroticism, extraversion, and agreeableness all appear to be particularly associated with benefit-provisioning behaviors. More specifically, neuroticism and extraversion have both been found to be positively associated with the benefit-provisioning tactics of verbal possession, physical possession signals, and possessive ornamentation (de Miguel and Buss 2011). This suggests that those who are more sociable, but also more socially vigilant and emotionally unstable, may engage in the most of these types of benefit-provisioning behaviors. Interestingly, agreeableness was found to be negatively associated with each of these tactics that signal possession (de Miguel and Buss 2011). Therefore, it may be that individuals who score high in agreeableness refrain from using these tactics to avoid upsetting their partner. Alternatively, it may be that individuals who score high in agreeableness also see these tactics as disingenuous in nature. For the tactics of sexual inducements, appearance enhancement, and submission and debasement, an identical pattern of associations emerges. That is, neuroticism and extraversion are both positively associated with these tactics, whereas agreeableness was negatively associated with these tactics. Taken together, these findings suggest that personality influences mate retention behavior and that certain individuals may be more willing to bestow benefits on their partner.

Personality traits under the HEXACO model of personality (Lee and Ashton 2012) have also been considered in relation to benefit-provisioning behaviors. The HEXACO model of personality provides an extension of the FFM by adding a sixth factor of personality. This sixth factor of personality is referred to as honesty-humility and assesses the degree to which an individual is concerned with acting in a fair, modest, and sincere matter. Therefore, individuals who score high on honesty-humility of personality may avoid doing things that could be considered disingenuous or false.

This aspect of personality seems to influence the mate retention behaviors that individuals use, as it has been found that honest-humility is negatively associated with the benefit-provisioning category of positive inducements (Holden et al. 2014b). This suggests that individuals who score high on this personality trait would avoid engaging in behaviors such as buying gifts for their partner, displaying their love, and enhancing their appearance to please their partner. However, it may be that these individuals avoid engaging in these behaviors in contexts where they feel as though these actions could be considered false. That is, individuals high in honesty-humility may not consider it fair or sincere to give a gift, for example, without a reason to do so. Therefore, individuals high in honesty-humility may not completely avoid these benefit-provisioning behaviors and may be concerned with how these behaviors are perceived.

An alternative explanation of this negative relationship would suggest that those who score low in honesty-humility use positive inducements as a means to manipulate or deceive their partners. Indeed, honesty-humility has been found to be negatively associated with a number of cost-inflicting behaviors, some of which involve similar forms of manipulation (Holden et al. 2014b). More importantly, low scores on honesty-humility have been found to be associated with each of the Dark Triad traits (i.e., narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy), which are characterized by having an inflated sense of self-worth, along with acting in a cold, callous, and manipulative manner (Paulhus and Williams 2002). Interestingly, the Dark Triad traits have been found to be associated with increased use of a number of cost-inflicting behaviors (Jonason et al. 2010), which would further support the idea that individuals low in honesty-humility may be using positive inducements in a manipulative manner. Furthermore, these findings suggest that various aspects of personality influence the decisions that individuals make about their mate retention behaviors and that it is worthwhile to investigate how other individual differences influence mate retention. For example, the associations that different attachment styles have with mate retention behaviors are currently being investigated (Barbaro et al. in press).


Although mate retention is a universal human concern, there are a variety of behaviors that individuals may employ to retain their mates. Some of these behaviors function to increase the costs associated with defection from the relationship (i.e., cost-inflicting behaviors), whereas others function to increase the benefits associated with remaining in the relationship (i.e., benefit-provisioning behaviors). The focus of this entry has been on these benefit-provisioning behaviors, which involve doing things such as displaying love and affection for the partner, buying gifts for the partner, and engaging in various sexual inducements. Additionally, the associations between a number of individual differences and benefit-provisioning behaviors were discussed. Individuals who are higher in mate value tend to engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors, as do individuals who are high in extraversion and neuroticism, whereas individuals who are low in honesty-humility and low in agreeableness engage in more benefit-provisioning behaviors. Therefore, despite being a universal concern, it appears as though different individuals may attempt to solve the problems surrounding mate retention in a variety of ways. However, regardless of which specific act individuals employ, all benefit-provisioning behaviors function to incentivize the partner’s continued investment in the relationship.



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© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Western Carolina UniversityCullowheeUSA