Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Sexual Rat Race

Throughout life, there are many activities that humans engage in which causes momentary or temporary satisfaction or happiness, but then, after time, lead to the desire to get more or something different. A classic example is the corporate man who sacrifices more and more time and energy to move up the corporate ladder and get promotions only so he can get more prestige and more money which will most likely not actually enhance his life. People, especially in a society like the US, seem to really value hard work for the sake of hard work. If you are making money and devoting your time to something perceived as work, then this is a good trait. This desire to always be moving up and always be changing can affect other parts of our lives as well.

Evolution has trained out genes, and, as a result, us, as survival machines for our genes, to always be seeking the best and strongest partner in which to procreate with. This desire causes humans to engage in a rat race very similar to that of the traditional rat race. I call this the sexual rat race. If you have read my blog in the past, one might be convinced that I have escaped the traditional rat race. I believe I have freed myself from many material desires as well as the desire to impress people with what I have as opposed to who I am. I feel confident in living cheaply and believe I will be able to avoid sacrifice in future work situations. This has significantly reduced the stress in my life and has caused me to be happier. Nonetheless, I realize I am engaging in a sexual rat race.

The book, "The Paradox of Choice" by Barry Schwartz, discusses two types of people, maximizers and satisficers. Maximizers are clearly the rat racers of the world, and the book argues that these people "objectively" do better (higher earning jobs, better mates, etc.). Satisficers are the other type, who are more likely to settle and feel content with their choices. In a free society with so many options, these people might do "objectivity" worse than the maximizers, but often are subjectively better in terms of happiness and confidence in their decisions. In a big city, there are clearly tons of members of the opposite sex, and it is hard to ignore them, even if in a long-term relationship. While one may feel happy with their current partner, the typical maximizer or sexual rat-racer will wonder if there is something better. Even if one does get another partner, just like increases in pay or a new car, eventually it just becomes more normal again. It is indeed a rat race.

Is there a way to combat this? For some, it may be fairly easy and natural to move from one person to another, so it may not be too stressful, but for others, this could be a very stressful activity. I believe the sexual rat race is a little more complicated than the traditional rat race. It is not clear to me if it is better to be a satisficer or maximizer here. I believe by staying with one person, it may be an act of fear: fear of being alone, fear of not meeting anyone of similar quality, fear of less, etc. But it is also another endless race. No matter what, we are programmed not just to desire the best, but also to desire something different. This certainly affects men more than women. At this point, I am not sure if the best approach is to work on some cognitive training to combat the sexual rat race. Is it better to work on not being attached to the opposite sex at all or is it better to be ok with just one person and not be attached to the variety we are programmed to desire?

Books like "The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature" by Matt Ridley talk about how just about everything humans do stem from the desire to ultimately reproduce. So, in some sense, the sexual rat race encapsulates what we think of as the more traditional rat race of desiring more money and corporate promotion. People engage in all this sacrificial work subconsciously to obtain the best mate. Perhaps it is best to figure out to do this without being in the money rat race, as the sexual rat race is ultimately what we are programmed to do. It certainly feels rewarding and our brains and bodies have set up several reward mechanisms for this. Ultimately, how one approaches this dilemma will have large consequences on their life. I am curious as to what other members of the community think about this dilemma and how you have dealt with this so far in your life.


cspice said...

It's pretty frustrating how our genes set us up to have such conflicting desires. I have given this issue a bit of thought and tried to find an appropriate balance. I think it's good to train yourself to be a bit more satisficer so that you don't spend all your energy chasing mates. But you can also appease the maximizer inside you by not rushing into a monogamous relationship. If you spend some time dating before getting serious, you can expose yourself to a variety of potential mates and find out which one suits you the best. The same concept applies to marriage. A period of serial monogamy before getting married will help you discover what you want out of a long term partner while providing the diversity that your genes make you want.

mspice said...

I think serial monogamy is probably a good way to go, but it is very easy to fall into a comfortable relationship with a girl and see no obvious reason to break up. Probably many of these types of situations end in marriage. Perhaps it might be prudent to set a time-limit to a relationship based on your current age or something like this. Something like one year before you are 25, and then maybe two years after that, and so on. Any ideas?