Why you should care
Love in a small town hurts so good.
John Mellencamp’s 1985 hit “Small Town” may be the ultimate ode to the small town, but it is conspicuously silent on the subject of finding love there. While the song’s narrator does bring home an “L.A. doll” he married — what a biologist might label a successful instance of outward migration — in real life, the singer, like many small-town residents, settled more quickly, eloping with his pregnant girlfriend at age 17.
Settling for the safe relationship option seems like a sensible strategy when you come from a small town. But it turns out there’s likely a little small town in most of us, at least when it comes to being somewhat risk-averse in love. According to a new study, organisms such as humans that evolved in smaller communities tend to play it safe when the stakes are high, meaning that, from an evolutionary perspective:
It pays to settle for Mr. Good Enough, and not wait around for Mr. Right.
“Settling early for the sure bet gives you an evolutionary advantage, if living in a small group,” says Christoph Adami, a microbiologist and physicist at Michigan State University, who along with fellow researchers Arend Hintze, Randal Olson and Ralph Hertwig used computational models of digital organisms to test the variables that influence risk-taking behavior through thousands of generations of evolution.
The team’s research is the first to demonstrate how risk-averse behavioral strategies can evolve through time, the key determinant being populations composed of 150 individuals or fewer — a similar “effective population” size to the one humans lived in throughout our evolutionary history. “Agents in smaller populations,” Hertwig tells OZY, “prefer risk-sensitive strategies that earn a lower payoff but with higher reliability.”
In the high-stakes world of mating, that means not waiting for Mr. Right, and it also suggests that many of us carry, as Hertwig puts it, “a predisposition to be risk-averse.” Or as Mellencamp might croon about our human ancestors:
They were born in a small town;
Their parents lived in the same small town;
They played it safe in that small town,
And that’s prob’ly why we settle easily.
Despite the juicy relationship advice the rest of us enjoy drawing from such findings, mating strategies were not the focus of the study. Rob Kulathinal, a biology professor at Temple University, is also skeptical that such findings can be usefully applied to human evolution. “These types of studies are largely deterministic,” he says, “and ignore the uncertainties of human demography and the efficacy of selection on small population size,” including the role that random genetic drift and fluctuating human population sizes can play in evolution.
And, as the researchers point out, not every one of us is so risk-averse. “Even though evolution favors safe strategies,” says Adami, “that does not mean that every member of the population plays it safe.”
Take the risk-seeking Mellencamp, for instance, who would move on from his first wife to a “blonde home-wrecker from Los Angeles” (as his friends referred to the eponymous “L.A. doll” he brought back to Indiana), followed by a supermodel third wife, and then Meg Ryan. Not exactly what you might call settling, or typical of a small-town boy. But for the rest of us who are not rock stars, we can perhaps take solace in the fact that life does indeed go on, long after the thrill of mate selection is gone.