Can Monkeys Teach Us About Dating?

confidence dating monkeys personality uniqueness Sep 25, 2021
samango monkey male and female

*A version of this article first appeared in the Independent on 30 August 2021


As I perch amongst a clump of Isoglossa stems I train my binoculars on a female samango monkey I’ve named Pica. I’ve followed her through the forest, a long way from the rest of her troop, and now she’s cautiously approaching a rather sleek, fit-looking samango male who I’ve never seen before. As she gets up close to him, Pica proffers her backside while vigorously shaking her head, which in samango-ese means “take me now”. And so he does.


I’m in the thick dune forest of KwaZulu Natal in South Africa studying the mating strategies of these monkeys, and Pica’s behaviour is significant because it’s not something she’s “supposed” to be doing.


Samangos live in troops that include a bunch of adult females and just one adult male who looks like he’s in charge and fights off any other ardent and hopeful males who happen to come by. When I started my research in the mid-90s, the female monkeys were thought to be pretty much passive prizes of male competition. But I discovered that in fact, when samango females want a change of main-man, they head off into the forest to solicit new talent and they have the power to initiate a male troop takeover.


Sadly my monkey days are long gone, but in the intervening years I’ve been finding ways to apply behavioural research findings to help human females understand and improve their own situations.


What Pica and the other female monkeys demonstrate is the power of proactivity in choosing their mates, and I think we women could learn a thing or two.


Like our monkey sisters, human females have agency and choice – at least in relatively liberal parts of the world. We have the power to choose a mate on the basis of qualities we know will work for us.


But so often we don’t use it.


Let me explain. My current focus is helping women in midlife to find the man they need for a great relationship – and I’ve discovered a lot of women expect “the one” to somehow miraculously appear on the doorstep. They say things like “if it’s meant to be, it will be”.


Sorry, but I’m pretty sure that’s bullsh*t. I mean… by what mystical process is this going to happen?


Many women see it as the man’s “job” to seek them out, to make an approach. Really? It’s the 21st century. And if we only select from those who get in our face, we’re limiting our options to the type of guy who, well… gets in our face, and that’s probably not good.


And then, even if we do get together with someone, we usually leave it up to our gut instinct to guide us, or the “chemistry”, and that can lead to some pretty bad choices. I should know, I’ve not had the greatest success with relationships in big parts of my life


As an evolutionary biologist, I can see where at least part of the problem with this lies. Our gut instinct – our desires – evolved back in the stone-age when women needed different things from relationships. Back then the attributes to value were brute strength and status as this signified a guy who could get stuff and protect you and the kids. Nowadays we’d do well to consciously override our evolved instincts and figure out ways to make better relationship decisions that suit us in the modern world, and for the stage of life we’re at.


Well, that’s the conclusion I came to after years as a single mum trying to negotiate online dating and never managing to find a guy who wanted the same things as I did.


I knew I had to change the way I was looking for men. I’d been researching and writing about our evolved behaviour for years and then finally it clicked - I already had the answers I needed.


So I started applying what I know about the science to my relationship decision-making. And hurray – I found the true love of my life – and I married him. If I’d stuck with my old man-selection habits I know I’d never have given him a chance and I wouldn’t have discovered what a totally stellar bloke he is!


So what did I do?


Well, a heap of stuff. But I’ll give you the main take-homes you might want to apply…


Understand the type of man you need:

Like a lot of women, I’d been going for guys with a bit of an edge, fairly competitive and dominant – these qualities can seem sexy at the start, but they don’t signify a personality that’s good for long term contentment. For that you need someone who’s considerate, empathetic, someone who’ll try to make you happy every day and inspires you to reciprocate. Yep, I got that.


Be a bit patient:

You know you need a nice guy but you’re not feeling the spark? Give it time. Research shows that when we really like someone we gradually come to find them physically more attractive, we come to desire them. And then find his area of confidence. When I met my man I knew I liked him, but it wasn’t until I heard him play and sing in a ukulele session at the pub and totally own the place that I really got the hots.


Don’t be bland:

We women often try to mould ourselves into some notional, appealing-to-all attractiveness, perhaps concerned that our fierce independence, or obsession with astrophysics - or whatever it is - will put guys off. It will put a lot of guys off for sure. Who cares? Some guys will love your unique thing. Own your quirks.


But most of all, use your power:

Make opportunities to meet men. Don’t expect the universe to deliver him magically – it’ll probably serve up the wrong bloke. You need to actively select your man for the right qualities. So when you meet someone, instead of asking yourself “does he like me?”, “how can I be attractive to this guy?”, it should be “is this man showing up for me”, “is he capable of being the kind of partner I need for the relationship I want?”


Samango monkey girls get the mate they want using their agency and active choice.

Be like a samango monkey girl.

Mairi Macleod PhD