The Frontal Cortex

Men Just Want Amelie

One of my persistent problems with evolutionary psychology is its consistent lack of interest in the way culture affects human nature. Instead of trying to understand the way pop jingles, political systems and pulp fiction novels influence our behavior, evo psychers prefer to explain away our culture by referencing some innate congitive module or hard-wired habit. In other words, they see culture as just a secretion of our psychology, and only find it interesting when it signifies something about our evolutionary past.

Too harsh a judgment? Take this example from Steven Pinker’s How the Mind Works (excerpted from a chapter entitled “The Meaning of Life”), in which he disregards Hamlet as little more than a mediocre self-help book: “Fictional narratives supply us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday and the outcomes of strategies we could deploy in them. What are the options if I were to suspect that my uncle killed my father, took his position, and married my mother?” Of course, Pinker’s shallow analysis of Shakespeare misses the play’s real purpose. Shakespeare was infamous for the contrivances and unoriginality of his plots. The story was merely a vehicle for his language. Besides, if Hamlet has an evolutionary moral, it is in direct contradiction to the tenets of evolutionary psychology. Evo-psych claims that men are designed for wanderlust and extra-marital affairs, while women are designed to stay at home and warm their precious eggs. Shakespeare explodes this oversimplification. It is the lust of Hamlet’s mother – “Frailty, thy name is woman” – and not his father – who is the epitome of faithfulness – that brings Hamlet’s whole world crashing down.

And now there’s news that men want women who remind them of movie characters. So even our sexual preferences – an evolved instinct if ever there was one – are strongly warped by culture, and not the habits of our Pleistocene ancestors. Granted, the New York Observer isn’t Nature, but this anecdote fits my own experiences better than the current mating models of evo psych:

According to Ms. Serota, the failure of men like Mr. Deemer to find a girlfriend online has little to do with the quality of women available and everything to do with … Garden State.

“Guys all say they’re looking for the same woman. They’re looking for this whimsical, beautiful girl who’s really a geek inside,” said Ms. Serota. “They’re all looking for Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, or at least that’s what they write. They’re looking for the quirky girl who’s going to save them from themselves. They’re looking for these girls that are, like, manic-depressive without the depressive.” (In Ms. Serota’s estimation, this syndrome is endemic to “basically anyone in an urban area who doesn’t dress like they work at Blockbuster Video.”)

“They’re looking for Amélie,” she continued. “And if you read girls’ profiles, they’re trying to sell themselves as Amélie.”


  1. #1 zoopy
    August 17, 2006

    Gee, someone who is looking for a “manic-depressives without the depressive” is looking for who? A life of the party type, no? Who would be looking for an upper? I wonder if it’s someone being down themselves, ie, a depressive. And who are the guys looking for love online? Depressed geeks (I would know!).

    That women are smart enough to read the online ads and tailor their profiles accordingly doesn’t surprise.

    I bet hyper and salesmany-type guys are looking for nice stable, grounded girls who can do the family’s taxes on time (because the guys are too ADD to). But they seek them in bars and other social settings.

    And vice versa. Some women want a knight in shining armour. At least they say so in their personal ads.

    Come to think of it, if I recall correctly Amelie wanted someone to save her too. Co-dependence has a bad rep in the pyschologist community (cause they’d rather have the patients dependent on them).

    Your manic to my depressive. Ying and yang. And all that jazz.

  2. #2 agnostic
    August 17, 2006

    A more parsimonious explanation is that there are preferences for certain types of mates, and that these preferences are largely heritable plus due to chance factors in development, but not due to culture. Men wanted hourglass-shaped women long before there was TV, for instance.

    So, it could be that the creators of movies research their target audience (through several iterations of “focus group” research), learn what they like, and then tweak the story to fulfill the audience’s desires. If it were the other way around, culture creators could get us to desire any old type of woman. Similarly, food companies could convince us that any old thing was delicious, rather than cater to our universal desires, as well as to the more idiosyncratic desires of some sub-set of us. But again, even in the latter case, the product-maker is researching & catering to the already formed preferences of the individual. “Already formed” mostly by genes and chance factors in development.

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