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Who Has the Upper Hand? Power, Sex, and Seinfeld

A recent article on Slate.com, by sociologist Mark Regnerus at The University of Texas at Austin, discusses how males are becoming underrepresented on many college campuses and in the workplace, and are thus likely to call the shots in their (heterosexual) relationships when it comes to sex. The author’s basic argument, which draws from his book entitled Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate, and Think about Marrying, is that good men are becoming hard to find. High-quality men are are in short supply, and, as a result, in high demand. Therefore, they are able to exert more power over women in their relationships. Female partners need to go along with guys' wishes because there are plenty of female fish in the sea for the guys, whereas the women have relatively fewer good alternatives. Although the main area of conflict described in the article is sex, it stands to reason that the logic could be applied to other decisions in relationships, such as what movie to see, which friends to hangout with, or how much Xbox should be played.

This idea is known to close relationships researchers as the “principle of least interest”1—that when there is an inequality in the desire to maintain the relationship between the partners, the person least into the relationship has the power to call the shots. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you might remember the episode The Pez Dispenser (1992) when George laments about his relationships by stating “I have no power. Do you understand? I need hand. I have no hand.” Kramer and Jerry advise George to threaten to break up with his girlfriend, which effectively turns the table in the relationship and subsequently gives George the "hand” he so desperately wanted.

This scenario is a classic example of the principle of least interest. The partner willing to walk away from a relationship has more power than the one really desiring that the relationship continue. There is solid evidence for the principle of least interest and its relationship to "hand." In heterosexual relationships, those partners who are less emotionally invested in their relationships do in fact have more power; not coincidentally, it tends to be male partners that have 'emotional hand', so to speak.2,3

Going back to the Slate article: “Good” (using that term very loosely) men, being in high demand, are less into their relationships because they have plenty of alternatives. Based on the principle of least interest, men have more power to call the shots in their relationships. They are exerting this power to get what they want, and women are putting up with their bad behavior so not to lose their mates.

(Revisit that episode of Seinfeld here and here.)

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1Waller W. (1937). The rating and dating complex. American Sociological Review, 2, 727-734.

2Sprecher, S. & Felmlee, D. (1997). The balance of power in romantic heterosexual couples over time from “his” and “her” perspectives. Sex Roles, 37, 361-379.

3Sprecher, S., Schmeeckle, M. & Felmlee, D. (2006). The principle of least interest: Inequality in emotional involvement in romantic relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 27, 1255-1280.

Dr. Benjamin Le - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Le's research focuses on commitment, including the factors associated with commitment and its role in promoting maintenance. He has published on the topics of breakup, geographic separation, infidelity, social networks, cognition, and need fulfillment and emotions in relationships.

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Reader Comments (3)

Wouldn't the growing proportion of women to men in college and in the work place eventually lead to women gaining more power through access to more resources. To my understanding, women often achieve higher mate values through youth and beauty, while men more often achieve a high mate value through high status and access to resources. Historically, women have not had access to as many resources, leaving them to depend more on men and to utilize their youth/beauty to attract men. However if the balance is shifting, wouldn't that mean that men may become more dependent on women, giving women the power?

March 2, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterEmma Higgins

Great point! I agree that due to education and employment, women's status will be elevated (independent of discrimination, glass-ceilings, etc), lessening their economic dependence on men. A key question is what (high status, heterosexual) women will find attractive. A lot of research, especially from evolutionary psychology, indicates women like high status men. If these preferences are hardwired, top males will remain in demand as high status women continue to compete for them, thus those men would continue to have disproportionate power.

For those not buying the basic evolutionary argument for mate selection the outlook is less bleak. If preferences are not as predetermined as evolutionary theorist claim, they can change relatively quickly over time (i.e., social learning). With changes in social roles and resources, women’s preferences would shift accordingly as they become less concerned with males’ status.

Off the top of my head I can’t think of any studies of women’s preferences as a function of changes in their resources (although those studies probably exist). Such research would be a great test of the two competing theories. Evolutionary theory would predict stability in women’s preferences whereas social learning would predict more fluidity. I’d love to see the data to know which perspective wins!

March 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDr. Ben Le

I have actually done research into flirting behaviour in different cultures. Stockholm presents some interesting results as to what happens in a society where women have almost complete financial dependence from men. It seems not only do they start 'acting like the man': demand the men look better and, themselves, are more sexually promiscuous, but they also choose to remain single! Maybe it's not a matter of whether women's preferences will shift in regards to what kind of man they are looking for but, perhaps, it's more a question of if they will choose a partner at all.

July 12, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjean
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