Self-Evaluations Track Perceived Mate Value
Self-evaluations are defined as the subjective judgments individuals make about their personal qualities.
Mate value refers to the desirability of an individual as a long- or short-term sexual partner, relative to intrasexual competitors.
Since successfully producing offspring is critical from an evolutionary point of view, men and women should be especially concerned with monitoring their status in intrasexual competition for mates (Buss and Schmitt 1993). Relative desirability as a long- or short-term sexual partner is defined as mate value, and individuals are expected to track this in order to help guide adaptive decision-making in mating contexts. Thus, individual’s self-evaluations should reflect relevant social feedback regarding their mate value. Furthermore, assessments of mate value are also expected to predict self-esteem, since this is defined as a global evaluation of the self.
Social Comparison and Mate Value
Mate value is an inherently relative, zero-sum construct (Brase and Guy 2004) such that in order for some individuals to be highly desirable (have high mate value) others must be less so (have low mate value). Since mate value is defined as an individuals’ desirability relative to intrasexual competitors, individuals’ judgments about their mate value should be influenced by social comparisons with others.
Gutierres et al. (1999) provided strong experimental support for the contention that social comparisons influence individuals’ self-perceived mate value. They exposed men and women to images, which were either high or low in physical attractiveness, and short descriptions, which contained cues to either high or low social dominance, of individuals and asked them to subsequently rate their self-perceived attractiveness and dominance, together with their desirability as a date, sexual, and marriage partner. Women, but not men, who were exposed to highly physically attractive images subsequently rated themselves as being less desirable as marriage partners than those who were presented with unattractive images. Conversely, men, but not women, who were exposed to high-dominance descriptions subsequently rated themselves as less desirable as marriage partners than those who had read low-dominance descriptions.
Gutierres et al. (1999) suggested that these results can be understood from an evolutionary perspective emphasizing intrasexual competition for mates. Since physical attractiveness is a more important determinant of mate value in women, and social dominance is more important for men (Buss and Schmitt 1993), these results can be interpreted as demonstrating that individuals are sensitive to social comparisons on dimensions most relevant to their mate value and adjust their self-evaluations of their desirability according to their perceived relative standing.
Further support for this analysis was provided by a more recent study by Castro et al. (2014). These authors exposed participants to pictures and short descriptions of same-sex individuals which varied in their perceived physical attractiveness and desirability as a romantic partner. Participants who were exposed to more attractive and desirable individuals subsequently reported more negative self-evaluations, and lower overall desirability (i.e., mate value) than those exposed to less attractive and desirable individuals, suggesting that social comparisons influenced their subsequent judgments about their own personal qualities.
Self-Esteem as a Global Self-Evaluation
Self-esteem can be defined as a global self-evaluation, which includes both attitudinal and affective components. A number of correlational studies have demonstrated that self-assessments of overall mate value (Brase and Guy 2004), and its specific determinants, such as physical attractiveness (Bale and Archer 2013) and social status (Twenge and Campbell 2002), significantly predict self-esteem.
Furthermore experimental studies have demonstrated that directly influencing participants’ self-perceived mate value by providing false social feedback regarding this influences their subsequent self-esteem (Kavanagh et al. 2014). Such studies support the finding that self-esteem, as a global self-evaluation, tracks perceived mate value.
The prediction, derived from evolutionary theory, that individuals’ self-evaluations track their perceived mate value has received empirical support from a range of experimental and correlational studies. A number of evolutionary theorists have suggested that self-evaluative systems serve to regulate relational behavior in humans (Buss and Schmitt 1993). Accordingly, studies have begun to examine how self-perceived mate value and self-evaluations influence aspects of individuals’ relational behavior, such as their mating aspirations (Kavanagh et al. 2014). Future research could profitably further explore whether self-perceived mate value and self-evaluations predict other aspects of mating behavior such as mate attraction and retention tactics (Buss 1988a, b) and investment in romantic partners (Ellis 1998).