Relationship Foraging: Does Time Spent Searching Predict Relationship Length?

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Abstract

Animals foraging for resources often need to alternate between searching for and benefiting from patches of those resources. Here we explore whether such patterns of behavior can usefully be applied to the human search for romantic relationships. Optimal foraging theory (OFT) suggests that foragers should alter their time spent in patches based on how long they typically spend searching between patches. We test whether human relationship search can be described as a foraging task that fits this OFT prediction. By analyzing a large, demographically representative data set on marriage and cohabitation timing using survival analysis, we find that the likelihood of a relationship ending per unit time goes down with increased duration of search before that relationship, in accord with the foraging prediction. We consider the possible applications and limits of a foraging perspective on mate search and suggest further directions for study.

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