2020 Honorable Mention – Parvathy Nair

Primate social behaviors on The Bachelor

A young Jane Goodall in Gombe national park is the classic, glamorous image of field research. Today, much of modern observation is done on camera, and even when in the field, most analysis is later carried out by video. We trust the camera to provide an impartial view of animal subjects and their behaviors in science. Reality television cameras are perhaps the opposite of impartiality, but nevertheless, I cannot keep myself away from them on Monday nights when I watch The Bachelor with my roommates. Unfortunately, hours of primate field research have prevented me from being able to watch this show without thinking about the ecology and selection pressures on these contestants, their complex social behaviors, and how different it really is from our normal lives.

The methodology to study social and mating behavior is quite thorough on this show. Contestants are taken from their regular lives and dropped into a vacuum without phones, books, or even music—as close to a human laboratory setting as you can get. Contestants must strategically maximize their time with the Bachelor to stand out without intruding on the time of other contestants and risking adversity. Time is a scarce resource as group dates include usually 10-15 females. Except for the fictional puma from the last episode, predation is not really an issue on the show, the same as with all of our ape relatives. The real danger is each other.

Contestants must develop strategies to compete in the most publicized sexual selection event in America—one with a very atypical mating system. While the majority of industrialized societies are practicing social monogamy, most of the season is spent in polygyny—where one male has access to multiple females. While natural polygyny still occurs globally in many small-scale societies, none have the end goal of a completely traditional American monogamous marriage. And no societies have one male who has exclusive access to all of the women. To observe that, we have to go 5 million years back in our evolution, to when gorillas diverged. Gorillas, unlike other apes, have harems in which one male has exclusive access to the females (ironically, the remaining male gorillas who do not get to mate are called bachelors). What are the repercussions of such a foreign mating system?       

As chimpanzees in the wild face adversity, they form female-led coalitions, a girl alliance, as a strategy to cope. On The Bachelor, some injustices overpower individual competition, and female-led coalitions ensue. One contestant broke the social norm when she returned to the show after she was eliminated on the prior episode. All other bachelor contestants came together and protested until the Bachelor had no choice but to send her back for good. Such cooperation is seen in the wild as well, where male chimps come together to increase hunting success and females band together to protest unjust male violence.

Female chimps live in a promiscuous mating society, meaning that it’s every chimp for themselves. Certain behaviors make it clear that chimps are very aware of this. Female chimps flexibly adjust their copulation calls so that other females do not hear when they mate, and sometimes intervene in the middle of two chimps mating to steal their mate. Both of these strategies have been observed on this season. One contestant snuck over to the Bachelor’s house in the last episode in an attempt to explain some potential drama before the rose ceremony. He rewarded her with a rose prior to the ceremony, giving her immunity for the next round. The most common competitive strategy is intervention while the Bachelor is with another contestant, usually via a sugary sweet “can I steal you for a second?” In a situation where there can only be one ultimate mate for the Bachelor, the sexual selection pressures seem incredibly high.

The trait that the Bachelor seems to value the most in the contestants is loyalty and commitment. This is mostly because of his negative experience being eliminated late in The Bachelorette last season. In a cross-cultural study between members of the US and the modern hunter-gatherer society, the Hadza in Tanzania, the foremost trait that was valued was a good personality. One thing that we can agree on as a species is the preference for good character in a mate.

I find that the allure of The Bachelor is the unnatural circumstances that contestants place themselves in to find love. Looking across seasons of the Bachelor, only two couples are still together. Perhaps humans, one of the most adaptable species on the planet, aren’t flexible enough when it comes to switching from polygyny to monogamy. Or maybe, like the rest of our ape relatives, the contestants have realized that when it comes to maximizing success in the real world, monogamy doesn’t always pay.

Primate social behaviors on The Bachelor

I chose to write lighthearted prose that combined popular media with scientific concepts that I am currently studying in depth for my senior thesis. I focused on themes such as competition and mating structures, particularly because the social landscape on these topics is changing in the modern world. Humans today are conforming less rigidly to traditional social norms, and while this feels new to us, these behaviors have precedent in the animal kingdom. The overall structure is that of a thought piece, with scientific language mostly mirroring the tone of a field scientist approaching the season as a study in social behavior. While I’m not really conducting rigorous data, I aim to connect a relatable show with informed, real phenomena seen in our primate relatives.

The heart of my real research is the evolutionary origin of complex cognition and behavior, and primates are the perfect systems to gain insight on these topics. The upsetting reality is that many of the primates that I study and care about deeply are critically endangered. I hope to raise awareness and shed light on their cognitive and behavioral complexity through this work. The inspiration was somewhat spontaneous, as I mentioned that I watch the show with my roommates—and noticed patterns that were discussed at journal club meetings with my lab and in my own literature reviews. The appeal of science is being able to observe the world differently once learning about it, and in a small way, this made something as normal as watching the Bachelor with my friends an especially thought-provoking experience.