Personal ads indicate you’re not as free as you want to believe

August 9, 2007 | By | 5 Replies More

Are you sure you want to be “free”?  Freedom is such a strange concept. I’ve never understood it in the context of personal decision-making. 

Americans claim to love “freedom,” but how much freedom can you stand?  Freedom implies occurrences that are unhinged from naturalistic laws.  Freedom implies a mechanism that is not hooked into the laws of physics, chemistry or biology. Freedom implies a capricious mechanism that guides one’s most important decisions.  To have a truly free mind, then, is to have a lawless mind, a random mind.  How would you possibly make any sort of rational decision if your mind operated in a lawless fashion?  Is that really what anyone wants? 

Many thinkers have spent their careers trying to figure out how to justify freedom in the happy sense (I freely chose to marry my spouse) without having freedom in the three-of-natural-law-sense.  There are lots of ingenious approaches to this attempted maneuver, many of them invoking spiritual beings or quantum physics. None of them persuade me in the least. I am convinced by the evidence.  I prefer to let the chips fall.

Also, I am happy being a law-abiding animal with law-abiding cognition.  It doesn’t concern me that my mind is really shorthand for the effects of a law-abiding brain.  It is my guess that someday (perhaps not in my lifetime) we will be able to fully account for all that we perceive to be beautiful or boring or logically compelling.  In my mind, a mind/brain that “obeys” the laws of physics can generate the full gamut of human emotions.  I am in the minority on this point, though.  Most people fear the thought that their minds could be subject to natural laws.  They flee from this thought with such energy that they run straight into the arms of random (and therefore unpredictable) cognition, a worldview that is allegedly controlled by ghosts and particle-waves.

I thought of the quirky concept of “freedom” while reading an article called “Mating Intelligence in Personal Ads,” by Charlotte De Backer, Johan Braeckman and Lili Farinpour.  This article is found in a brand-new book: Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Minds of Reproductive System (2008) edited by Glenn Geher and Geoffrey Miller. 

This personal ads article is a comprehensive review of research that’s been done on the types of mates people seek in their personal ads.  According to this article, there are numerous predictions one can make based upon the authors’ survey of a survey of ads placed by heterosexual people seeking opposite sex companions in newspaper ads.

A predictable and long litany of sex differences shows up, regardless of time or culture.  Most women want longer-lasting sexual relationships than men.  Men seek much more short-term mating.  Men seek multiple sex partners.  Men seek younger females and females seek older men.  Men seek physical traits associated with youth and fertility, while women seek out men who display queues of wealth and status, such as nice houses, cars and luxuries.  Women also seek men who are willing to share that wealth with others, such as these women themselves and their future children. Women want tall men; no women seek short men.  Women rarely specify weight restrictions in their ads.  Men often seek out slim partners. 

Very few of these conclusions are new, though it is striking to see them all in one place.  Actually, I’m currently seeing these conclusions in at least two places, because almost all of these conclusions are even more thoroughly documented in another brand-new book, this one by David Buss, entitled Evolutionary Psychology: the New Science of the Mind (Third Edition) (2008).

Based upon their survey of the personal ads, De Backer, Braeckman and Farinpour drafted an ideal ad for a man:

I am a wealthy, reliable, mature man, with an intelligent mind in a pretty good body.

They also drafted an ideal ad for a female:

I am a young, attractive, slim woman, who is reliable and financially secure.

What do these personal ads have to do with freedom?  Human beings have an almost unstoppable desire to believe that they are “free.”  It is such an intense desire that, if asked, the people running these ads would confidently claim that they “chose” each of the characteristics that appeared in their ads.  Yet it is highly unlikely that such an enormous number of males and females, respectively, would independently write such a similar ads “freely.” It makes much more sense to assume that human cognition is subject to stable natural laws.   And one need not limit oneself to the laws of physics.  Evolution predicts that these choices in the way people write personal ads result from such things as the need for paternity certainty and the predictable differences relating to the parental investment theory of George Trivers.

Despite this onslaught of predictability in the way males and females draft their personal ads, very few writers of these ads would even want to consider that they wrote those ads in accordance with predictable scientific laws. I say this because I’ve discussed this issue of freedom with quite a few people over the years, and it’s a rare bird that dares to question the focus of physics version of the term “freedom.”  In fact, it is not unusual to find people disgusted by the idea that cognition is subject to natural laws.  Several people have gone so far as to question my sanity and I raise this topic.  They think that I’m trying to argue that people are “robots.”

In my mind, evolutionary theory gives much greater explanatory bang for the buck than the oxymoronic term “freedom.” Most people are willing to timidly blame their decisions on emotions.  They are unwilling to go that additional important step, the step described by Robert Wright (in The Moral Animal) when he wrote that emotions are “evolution’s executioners.”

Nietzsche was one of those thinkers who dared to carefully consider the term “freedom.”  He pessimistically wrote about it in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: “It is by invisible hands that we are bent and tortured worst.”  

As I mention above, though, I don’t consider a naturalistic version of cognition to be a sad thing or a happy thing.  It is simply the way it is. 

If you are intrigued by the Incredible Sameness of Human Beings, also consider reading this article.  Be careful, or you might have a bad dream that we are largely interchangeable, a direct challenge to the treasured platitude that each individual is unique. 


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Category: Culture, Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Science, Sex

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. What I don't really like about evolutionary psychology is that it seems to be mostly used to justfy bad behavior, like men leaving their wives for someone younger, because well, it is the call of nature and they can't help it: young = fertile and in good health = better mate = resistence futile. Men are described as irresponsible, seeking ephemeral pleasure, they're hunters, constantly on the go, and it's ok, because it's part of nature. Maybe it is ingrained in their genes and maybe their attraction follows natural laws, but it's not as if they did not have the freedom to say no.

    And yes, I know that evolutionary psychology covers more than relationships, but most of them time when it comes it, it's about the differences between men and women. I have also noticed that it's mostly men who post about this subject, it seems to utterly fascinate them.

  2. Erich Vieth says:


    In Evolutionary Psychology: the New Science of the Mind, David Buss writes about one of the major misunderstandings regarding evolutionary psychology: "we can't change it." More specifically, the misunderstanding is that evolutionary psychology holds that

    human behavior is impervious to change. Consider this simple example of calluses again. Humans can and do create physical environments that are relatively free of friction. These friction free environments mean that we have designed a change-a change that prevents the activation of the underlying callus-producing mechanisms. Knowledge of these mechanisms and the environmental input that triggers their activation gives us the power to alter our behavior to decrease callus production . . .

    men. . . can be educated with the information that they have lower thresholds for inferring sexual intent when a woman smiles at them. This knowledge can then be used by men, in principle, to reduce the number of times they act on their faulty inferences of sexual interest and decrease the number of unwanted sexual advances they make toward women.

    Knowledge about our involves psychological adaptations along with the social inputs that they were designed to be responsive to, far from dooming us to an unchangeable faith, can have the liberating effect of changing behavior in areas in which change is desired. This does not mean that changing behavior is simple or easy. More knowledge about our evolved psychology gives us more power to change.

    Another misunderstanding about evolutionary psychology is that current mechanisms are optimally designed. In tandem, these two fallacies do lead to a pessimistic approach to evolutionary psychology. As Buss points out, however, these two fallacies are, indeed, fallacies.

  3. Thanks, Erich, for the additional information. I was on this relationship forum a long time ago and it was so maddening to read some guys' posts. Some were really smart, eloquent with words and well informed about science, politics, religion, etc., you probably might have liked them, but once they started talking about men and women I felt like giving them a good smack on the head. Evolutionary psychology just seemed like the excuse to be superficial and immature. After reading this excerpt I might take a deeper look at this subject though.

    "Another misunderstanding about evolutionary psychology is that current mechanisms are optimally designed. "

    That is something really nice to hear. 🙂

Leave a Reply