Defense Boyfriends

April 12, 2008

“What is the deal with all attractive women already having boyfriends?” laments my friend Jack, and anecdotal evidence on the subject suggests that his observation is correct. It seems that high-quality women almost always have boyfriends. An obvious explanation is that there is tremendous competition for attractive women, and thus these women are likely to find a suitable boyfriend. However, there is a further puzzle. I would expect that high-quality women would generally be matched with high-quality men, yet in a noticeably high proportion of cases, high-quality women in fact have low-quality boyfriends. I propose a theory of what I call the “defense boyfriend” in an attempt to explain this phenomenon.

My hypothesis is that the most valuable service a boyfriend provides for a woman is as a defense against being hit on by other guys. It used to be said of tourism in Morocco (I hear the situation is changed now) that you had to hire a guide, not so much for the quality of guide services they could provide, but as a defense against other would-be guides, to show that you already had a guide and were not interested in hiring one. Without a guide, tourists would spend their entire trip being accosted by people offering guide services. In other words, you had to hire a guide just to get some peace. Analogously, a woman might want to have a boyfriend not for his intrinsic merit, but rather as a signal to other men that she is unavailable.

If being hit on is unpleasant, the cost to a woman of appearing to be available is high. A very attractive woman might find herself constantly fending off prospective suitors, which is unpleasant and time-consuming. By having a boyfriend, a woman can credibly signal her unavailability and deter many would-be suitors, though I should add that I’m not confident this assumption holds up under conditions of extreme sleaziness (e.g. in France).

The high-quality woman/low-quality man match, in particular, is useful for this purpose. Such a match confounds men and deters them from competing. To see this, imagine the thought processes of men trying to decide whether or not to hit on a woman in two different cases: one in which she has an obviously high-quality boyfriend, and another in which she has a seemingly low-quality boyfriend.

In the high-quality case, a man is still likely to compete if he believes himself to be higher quality than her current boyfriend. If a woman’s boyfriend is attractive and charming, a man who overestimates himself in these categories might still try to compete, figuring “this woman is obviously making her choice based on attractiveness and charm, and I am way more attractive and charming than her current boyfriend, so I should go for it.”

So in the low-quality case, won’t a man be even more likely to perceive himself as higher quality and thus a good competitor? Not necessarily, if he is aware of idiosyncratic tastes. In the situation where a boyfriend has no easily observable positive qualities, it’s unreasonable to assume that a woman is making her choice based on (non-existent) charm and attractiveness. In such a case, would-be competitors cannot guess the woman’s decision criteria, and thus don’t even know what qualities they should be compete on. When a woman is observed to have an unattractive and boorish boyfriend, few men will think that they can win by being more boorish and less attractive than her current boyfriend. Most (though not all) men realize that these are bad things and will not try to compete in this way. Instead, a man will be puzzled and refrain from competition, figuring that he does not recognize the true factor under consideration, and thus competition is fruitless.

From the perspective of reducing competition, a high-quality boyfriend has no obvious advantage over a low-quality one, and may even be less effective if the choice of a high-quality boyfriend reveals a woman’s choice criteria. Ultimately, I think the answer to the original question, “Who do all attractive women have boyfriends?” is that women do not enjoy being hit on as much as men assume they do, and thus take on boyfriends, even low-quality ones, as a signal to men that they do not want to be hit on.


3 Responses to “Defense Boyfriends”

  1. Kimberly Says:

    It’s possible she actually likes him too… rather than just the protection he offers.

    But believe me… good guys without girlfriends are far and few between.

  2. focopo Says:

    the hi quality girls want the lower quality guys because the lower quality guys have to be nicer to them or they know they will hit the curb. Girls like the guys that don’t give them attention for about a week and then they get upset they aren’t being treated like the princess they wish they could be.

    No offense Kimberly but theres no other way to explain the attractive nice girl who is with a. the jealous immature controlling boyfriend or b. the high quality girl that is with the short fat rich bald guy that is 15 years older than her. (daddy issues)

    haha i hope this wasn’t too offensive, this only applies to the “high quality” girls as william would put it, the vast majority are perfectly normal and all previous things i said do not apply

  3. focopo,

    I think you make a good point, that bargaining power might be an important consideration as well. I would imagine that in cases of a significant quality difference between members of a couple, the more desirable member has more power to negotiate the terms of the relationship, since he/she has more attractive alternatives.

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