Dr. Apostolou, The need to love and to be loved is an indispensable part of human living, as many would agree. This being the case, what is the percentage of those, both men and women, who prefer to be single?
According to your study, what is the percentage of men and women who are single but not by choice?
I totally agree, people need to love and be loved, they have a need for intimacy, companionship, emotional and material support, a need to have a family and so on. The formation of an intimate relationship is required for fulfilling these needs; still, a considerable proportion of men and women face difficulties in establishing such relationships. My most recent paper investigated the factors that hold men back in forming intimate relationships. However, in this work, I did not estimate how many men were single by choice. I have done so in a different study that will be published in the Evolutionary Psychological Science journal in the next few weeks. On the basis of two large Greek samples, I found that about one in two men and women who were single were involuntary – they wanted to be in a relationship but they faced difficulties in attracting a partner. About 12% indicated that they preferred to be single, and the remaining ones indicated that they were between relationships or other reasons.
What are the reasons for those who stay single and not of their own choosing?
There are many reasons including poor dating skills, low self-confidence, a poor appearance, shyness, lack of effort, and bad experiences from previous relationships. People may face more than one issue at a time, for instance they may be shy and also be held back by bad experiences in previous relationships, which makes things even more difficult. On the basis of the current and previous studies, I would say that the biggest problem is poor dating skills: people are not effective at dating or otherwise attracting the interest of potential partners, which greatly impairs their capacity to find a mate.
From the evolutionary aspect, what in your opinion is a better option, establish and stay in a relationship, get married, or stay single?
My opinion is that the vast majority of people would be better off being in a relationship and having children. This does not mean that being single is always bad – I would say it is good for most people for limited periods of their lives. For instance, when young it may pay for people to date around and refine their skills and gain experience before committing to a relationship.
At what age in your opinion do males and females reach sexual maturity?
It depends on the cultural context, but in Western societies I would say around 12 years old.
Does parental control have an effect on curtailing the development of any given individual?
I would not put it like that. I would say instead that during human evolution parents have played an important role in the mating choices of their children, which has affected the evolution of the mechanisms involved in mate selection that we carry with us today.
Is there a stereotype among both males and females that indicates a preference to be perennially single. If so could you describe these personality traits?
I am not aware of such a stereotype.
Loneliness has become a great cause of distress among all age groups; and according to studies, it has become especially prevalent among young adults. What are your thoughts on this?
The rise in loneliness has multiple causes, one being difficulties in the mating domain. More specifically, loneliness is an emotion which is generated by a brain mechanism that has evolved to enable individuals to find intimate partners. It works as follows: When you are without an intimate partner, this mechanism is activated to generate the unpleasant feeling of loneliness, which motivates you to find a partner in order to relieve loneliness. However, if you face constraints such as poor social skills which prevent you from forming intimate relationships, the loneliness persists. There are many people who face such constraints, and as a consequence, are involuntarily single and lonely.
One of your studies relates to the opportunity cost of freedom in choosing a mate. Could you tell us, in brief, what this opportunity cost is?
Opportunity cost is a term that I borrowed from economics, and it refers to the benefits lost when one alternative is selected over another. More specifically, in a pre-industrial context, when parents controlled the mating choices of their children, they could profit from establishing beneficial alliances through marriage with other families, they could protect their children from choosing mates unwisely, and so on. If parents choose to do nothing and leave their children to exercise choices on their own, they suffer an opportunity cost which equals to losing or foregoing the benefit they would get had they chosen to control mating (e.g., gains from an alliance with another family through marriage). The awareness in pre-industrial societies of the considerable opportunity costs of bad choices explains why parents in such contexts exercised considerable control over their children’s mating choices.
Our readers are mainly young adults from different parts of the world who look up to achievers such as yourself for inspiration. A word of advice for them?
Thank you for your kind words! I would encourage people to form meaningful intimate relationships, to enjoy love, intimacy and sex, and at some stage in their lives to have children. Also, if you find yourself struggling in intimate relationships, you are not the exception – a great many people face similar difficulties. Acknowledging that does of course not solve your problem, so I would suggest that you take steps in order to identify the reasons that hold you back, and try to work on them. For instance, if weak dating or social skills are your problem, try to refine your skills by trial and error (I admit, more easily said than done) or by adopting strategies that people who are good in this domain use. If your looks are a problem, diminishing perhaps your self-confidence, consider that there is a huge industry that can help you in this area! Finally, I believe that the key to succeeding in intimate relationships is effort – as in most things in life, if you do not put in the necessary effort, your chances of success will be limited.
Dr. Menelaos Apostolou is Associate Professor of Evolutionary Psychology at the University of Nicosia in the Republic of Cyprus. He studies human behavior, focusing on mate choice, parent-offspring conflict over mating, sexuality, sports, well-being, and sexual selection theory. He has published over 80 scientific articles and three books on these topics. His books include Sexual Selection under Parental Choice: The Evolution of Human Mating Behavior, Feeling Good: An Evolutionary Perspective on Life Choices and Sexual Selection in Homo sapiens: Parental Control over Mating and the Opportunity Cost of Free Mate Choice.
Photo: From archive of Professor Apostolu