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Interview with Daniel Conroy-Beam

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

📷 UC Santa Barbara

Journalist: Luming Cao

Luming: Welcome to SciSection! My name is Luming and I'm your journalist for this episode. We're here today with Professor Daniel Conroy-Beam he's a UCSB professor in the department of psychology and he also leads the Computational Mate Choice Lab. So thanks for taking the time to meet with me, Professor Conroy-Beam.

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Oh yeah, of course. Thanks so much for having me.

Luming: Yeah. So could you tell us a little about yourself and your research?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Sure. Yeah, so like I said, I'm an assistant professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at UC Santa Barbara. My research… I'm an evolutionary psychologist. My research mostly focuses on using computer simulations to understand human mating behavior, particularly how people choose their romantic partners, but also how they navigate their relationships once they've started them.

Luming: That's really interesting. So what are some of the research projects you've been working on?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Sure. So there's a bunch right now. A lot of our research lately has been… so a lot of my research historically has been on this issue of mate evaluation. So that is, you know, how do you look at a potential partner and decide how interesting you find them. And this is kind of a tricky problem, because as we know, you know, we have lots of desires in a potential partner, right? If you ask somebody what they want in an ideal partner, they'll tell you all different kinds of things: they should be kind and smart and funny and attractive and et cetera, et cetera. But you know, when we go out and try to look for a partner, we never find somebody who just has all of those things, right? You know, some partners might be kind enough, maybe not smart enough, or other partners may be smart enough, but maybe not attractive enough. And so the question is how do you take all this information and kind of boil it down into this sort of overall gut feeling of how much you like this person? So historically, a lot of my work has been, you know, trying to understand how the mind makes, you know, what are the calculations the mind is using to come to that gut feeling. So we do a lot of work on that. And then lately we've also been trying to sort of push forward the next step. So what do you, once you have that evaluation, what do you do with it? How do you, how do you decide, you know, out of all the mates you've evaluated, which ones you actually want to pursue and which ones do you want to maybe not pursue? And then also, you know, pushing even further than that, like once you started a relationship, how do you decide, you know, is this working for me, do I want to keep doing this?

Luming: Cool. So how do humans actually make mating decisions? Is it the process actually as just what we say like, oh, we want to find someone funny and good-looking? Do we actually do that in making actual mating decisions?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: It's a very good question. The answer you get will probably depend on who you ask. This is a pretty big topic of debate within the literature right now. Do people actually know what they want to begin with? And do they actually try to pursue the people that they say that they like? There's some evidence that suggests kind of, not really. Right, so everybody says they want a kind partner and an intelligent partner. Everybody says they want a physically attractive partner. But then when you look at who people actually pursue, who they say they want is not necessarily all that good of a predictor of who they wind up choosing in lots of different situations. It's not, you know, it's not, not a predictor at all, right. There is some predictive power. If I know what you want, I can make somewhat of a guess of who you're going to choose, but not a really good guest. So lots of people have taken this observation to mean different things, right? Some people take that to mean that, yeah, people don't really know what they want or they don't really pursue the people that they think they want. But other people, you know, like myself have taken a different approach, which is, I think people do pretty much know what they want. And I think people do pretty much try to get the partners that match their ideal preferences. But the thing is, I mean, as we all know, choosing a partner is hard, right? You can't always get what you want. There's a lot of factors involved that constrain what you do.

Prof. Conroy-Beam: One of them is, you know, what I've already hinted at already, which is people vary on lots of different dimensions. And so you have to kind of balance your preferences against one another. So, you know, out of a given set of potential mates, there might be one who's attractive enough for you, but they might be really mean, right? And there might be another partner who's less physically attractive, but is more appealing because they're kinder, right? So you have to consider these kinds of tradeoffs that are happening across, you know, who knows how many dimensions. And then, you know, there's another issue, which is that humans’ mate choices are mutual, right? It's not enough that I pick the person that I like the most. They also have to pick me back. So I might not be lucky enough to pick the partner who matches what I say I want. So I think there is some good evidence that when you account for all these constraints and tradeoffs that people's mate choices do reflect them at least attempting to get what they want. It's just not everybody is always able to do that.

Luming: So what are some of the common attributes that most people find appealing?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Yeah, that's a good question. I mean, this is a really big area of research we spent, you know, probably three decades of kind of intense research effort in, in the psychology of human mating, just trying to get at what it is that people want. And we have, you know, from several kinds of large scale cross-cultural studies, a pretty good sense of what people around the world tend to desire the most. So when you ask people using standardized mate preference questionnaires, what do you want in a partner? There's a pretty standard set of findings. So around the world, three dimensions always pop up as being among the most important that I've already mentioned. There are kindness, you know, usually comes out pretty close to number one, everybody wants a partner who is kind; intelligence usually comes out pretty high too; and good health. It's important that your partner is going to be around. It is not going to get you sick, right? Physical attractiveness often pops up somewhere in the middle, you know, it's not unimportant, but it's not, it's never actually among the most important things that people want. People want it, but people want kindness, health, and intelligence more. And there are you know, some pretty reliable sex and gender differences. So around the world, David busted a kind of landmark study in 1989, where he looked at 37 different cultures around the world. And at that time he found kindness, intelligence, and health. They kind of pop up towards the top, but around the world, men consistently rate physical attractiveness as being more important than women do. Whereas in reverse women consistently rate good financial prospects as being more important than men do. And when it comes to age of partner, men pretty consistently want a partner who's slightly younger than them and women consistently want a partner who's slightly older than them. That was true in 1989, and my grad student, Katy Walter just a few months ago published a large scale replication of this. And we have data from 45 countries collected in 2016. And we see all of those patterns still hold today pretty much across all of the 45 countries we looked at.

Luming: That's interesting. So does that mean that these preferences are more biological than cultural or social if they persist till this day?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: I wouldn't say that just because I wouldn't draw this distinction between biology and culture, right? Culture is part of our biology. So there are cultural aspects to these. So there, there is actually some interesting cross cultural variation in preferences despite the existence of these universals. And you know, some of that variation is definitely going to come down to cultural factors. But of course, you know, whatever those cultural factors are. they exist because they were created by human behavior. And we react to them because we have human minds, and those human minds are the product of biological evolution. So I wouldn't so much try to kind of divide our mating behavior into biological or cultural parts. I would say, you know, instead of we should ask, you know, how did we evolve our culture and how does our culture shape our behavior.

Luming: Okay. That makes sense. So could you talk about how evolution comes into play because you're an expert on evolutionary psychology?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Yeah, absolutely. So you know, as I just kind of foreshadowed, you know, we are at the end of the day biological organisms, right? And so we are products of biological evolution. Everything about us comes about from our genes, interacting with our environments in really complex ways to create our phenotypes which include our brains and therefore include our minds, and you know, our minds then produce our behavior. So if we want to understand how it is our minds work and how it is we behave we probably want to understand how did our minds evolve. That is sort of the position of an evolutionary psychologist. So most of my work, much like most evolutionary psychologists, starts with trying to understand what are the kinds of historical, what are called adapter problems, that our species would face. These are problems that would have existed throughout human evolutionary history, and that if solved would have increased reproduction. And the reason why we want to understand these adapter problems is because adapter problems are what generate selection pressures, right? So any trait that contributes to solving an adapter problem would increase reproductive success and therefore would tend to become more numerous over time. So if we can understand the kinds of adaptive problems that humans face throughout human evolutionary history, then we have some sort of hints at what kinds of adaptations we can expect to find in the mind. And then that gives us hypotheses for features that we can test in the laboratory. So a lot of my research involves kind of identifying adaptor problems that people would have faced in the context of choosing a partner, and then trying to hypothesize adaptations that could have solved those adapter problems, and then looking for those adaptations in human mating psychology.

Luming: So what sort of mating preferences are advantageous to our evolution for our ancestors?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Yeah. And so it's a good question. And that's thought to be why those kinds of universal preferences I was talking about earlier are in fact human universals, right? So everyone would benefit from having a partner who is kind, who is you know, willing and able to support them, you know, both materially and with kind of difficult challenges. Everyone would benefit from having a partner who's, you know, more intelligent, maybe more creative, more effective at solving problems. You know, good health is going to be important because partners are both important disease vectors, right? You're spending a lot of time with them in close contact. And so you want to make sure they're not going to transmit things to you, but also they're really key cooperation partners. They’re key parenting partners. And so you want to make sure that this person's going to be around for the long haul. And those sex differences, those universal sex differences and preferences were actually predicted on the basis of evolutionary hypotheses. You know, so for one, a lot of cues in physical attractiveness turn out to be, it appears, cues to things like youth, fertility, fecundity, and longterm reproductive value. And these are very important signals to be able to detect if you're a male. And so that's why it's thought that men around the world prioritize physical attractions more than women, whereas on the other hand, women, but not men historically have faced this incredibly difficult problem of pregnancy and lactation, right? Nine months in order to produce one offspring, it takes nine months of pregnancy which is incredibly energetically costly and also suppresses fertility. And then, you know, historically years of breastfeeding following birth, which is also extraordinarily energetically costly and suppresses fecundity. So a key problem that women would have faced historically, but not men, is accruing the resources to pay for these incredible reproductive costs. That's why it's thought that women now prioritize resources in potential partners more than do men.

Luming: That's really interesting. So we'll just say that in today's society, our relationship goals are shifting away from reproduction. And do you think that will shift our preferences over time?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: It's a good question. I mean, certainly, yeah, we see around the world, especially in developed nations, we see declining fertility rates with many many countries now at sub-replacement fertility—that means we're not producing enough offspring to maintain our population. So certainly yeah, for whatever reason, there are a lot of people who are very curious about this, particularly governments that are reliant on their populations’ tax dollars. A lot of people are really curious what's going on with these sub-replacement fertility rates. But that, you know, that does suggest that, yes, people are less interested in reproduction than they have been in the past. Whether how that will shape relationships, I think is a kind of open question. I think my suspicion is, it's not as though… how do I say this, our mating psychology exists in the way it does because people who had psychologies like ours were more successful at reproducing in the past. That is true, but that's not to say that we have some sort of like unconscious goal to reproduce or increase our fitness, right? no part of you is aware of the evolutionary process or concerned with your fitness at all, right? You just, you know, you just have the mating psychology that you do because historically this psychology was associated with fitness. So I don't think it's, you know, when men look at a physically attractive partner, they're not thinking like, “Oh boy, I bet she's really fertile.” They're just thinking, you know, “she's attractive, I'm into that.” And so even though I think yes, people are having fewer children, I don't think that that necessarily is going to change the preferences that people have, but we'll have to see. It's an open question.

Luming: Okay. I see. That's interesting. And so you also use computers to kind of predict the result of mating. Can you briefly explain in a nutshell how you do that with computer algorithms?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, like I said one of the difficulties in studying mate choice is for humans, it's quite complicated. There's lots of factors that go into who you choose as a partner. And so the reason why I use computer simulations is because with computer simulations, it's relatively easy to create simulated roles where we can try to recreate all of those factors and then observe mate choice within these models and compare the results of those models to the real world. So yeah, generally a lot of my work involves using computer simulations to try to create little simulated mating markets. So we'll generate a population of little simulated people that we call agents. Each one has a little simulated mind which is, you know, a set of decision rules that governs how it evaluates potential partners and what it does with those evaluations. And then we throw all these little simulated agents into the market and we just have them choose each other as mates. And then we, what we try to do is put as many realistic aspects of real human mate choice into these little simulated markets and then compare the mate choices of those agents to real people's mate choices. And the hope is the more and more similar we can make those simulated mate choices to real mate choices, the more and more confident we are that we are accurately simulating aspects of real human mate choice.

Luming: So are the results that you got what you expected? Are they similar to real-life mate choices?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: You know, in some ways I think we're doing well, but in some ways, there are some pretty surprising results. So in particular, so we have a recent grant from the National Science Foundation, which is funding some work to develop a new methodology where we actually try to recruit people who've made real-life mate choices. And then we create sort of simulated copies of those people inside our computers. And then we throw those little simulated avatars into a meeting market and try to reproduce the real mate choices that those people made. So this is nice, because it gives us a sort of percentage accuracy value at the end. We can say we correctly reproduced, you know, X percent of the real world mate choices. So I can say, you know, the best case, the best-case scenario that we've achieved so far is about a 50% accuracy. So we have a set of algorithms that can correctly reproduce about 50% of the real world couples that we have in our samples, which, you know, on the one hand, I think is pretty good for a first step and I'm happy with 50%, but also, you know, we're 50% wrong. So there's something… there's certainly a lot of things that we're still missing about the nature of real human mate choice.

Luming: That's so cool. So what do you think are some of the challenges in your research? Are there just a lot of variables that you can't control?

Prof. Conroy-Beam: Yeah, so there's lots of challenges. One is, yeah, there's lots of factors that play into human mate choice and they interact in complex and mysterious ways. And so you know, one kind of wrangling those theoretically, just understanding what are all the processes I have to account for here and how do they relate to one another. You know, it's hard to even articulate a hypothesis because you just have to account for so many different variables. And then yeah, I mean, testing these hypotheses can be diabolically difficult. Cause exactly, I mean, it's not like, you know, we can bring people into a laboratory and kind of assign them experimentally to different relationships. So we have to come up with sort of more clever ways and yeah, I think that's a big part of the challenge.

Luming: Yeah. I can only imagine how hard it must be. Thank you so much for talking with me today. That was wonderful. That's it for this episode of SciSection!


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