Kurzban’s involvement with HurryDate was a matter of both serendipity and scientific opportunism.

In the fall of 2002, when he was still new to Philadelphia, Kurzban spotted an advertisement for the service on SEPTA. This, he realized immediately, was a chance to get “real-world data” that would look at people’s mating preferences in “a behavioral way.” Most studies on mating have relied on stated desires. With HurryDate, people’s choices would have actual consequences: at the very least, the exchange of e-mail addresses with prospective dates.

So Kurzban contacted Adele Testani, president of the Manhattan-based company. “I said, ‘I’m a scientist. I want to do research on what people do in these environments. Can I have your data?’ ” Happily for science, Testani agreed.

HurryDate typically surveys customers about their background, including income, race, and religion. Kurzban and a colleague, Jason Weeden G’00 Gr’03, also asked volunteers about their own attractiveness, values, and desire for children. “In retrospect, it turns out this was a very good idea, a gold mine,” Kurzban says.

As predicted by evolutionary psychology, the two men found that there appeared to be a “mating market,” in which certain prospective partners had a high value, and those who had less to offer seemed to know it. “So the undesirable men are saying ‘yes’ to the highly desirable females but the highly desirable females aren’t saying ‘yes’ to them,” explains Kurzban. And “the people who are getting fewer ‘yeses’ are themselves saying ‘yes’ more.”

But the women’s emphasis on male attractiveness surprised the researchers. So Kurzban, who, with Weeden, is working on a second paper on “Stated Versus Revealed Mate Preferences,” is only too happy to spend an evening at McFadden’s, beer in hand, trying to figure out why these young men and women behave as they do. To make it all the pleasanter, he is accompanied by his “SO,” or significant other, a graduate student in evolutionary psychology at another university.

She is young and pretty, precisely the attributes that the evolutionary paradigm says he should prefer. But her looks are “not her best feature,” Kurzban is quick to say. He makes a point of praising her intellect and character, suggesting that he may, in fact, have some long-term mating goals of his own. Meanwhile, chatting with the HurryDaters about their expectations is proving useful. “This makes me believe my own data,” he says.

Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, writes for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other publications.

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©2006 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 06/28/06

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FEATURE: The Reverse Engineer
By Julia M. Klein