Love at work

Carole Jahme

Carole Jahme shines the cold light of evolutionary psychology on readers’ problems. This week: Is she interested in me?

Tue 30 Mar 2010 17.38 BST

From a 20-year-old male

Hi, hope you can help. I am 20 years old and have never really had a proper girlfriend, and find it hard to read a person to see if they may be interested in me. I have fancied a girl I work with for around two years now, and over the past six months we have become more like friends, but I still fancy her. She sometimes is flirty with me, but everyone thinks she fancies this other lad, but she says she doesn’t and so does he – that they’re just good friends.

I am really confused and lately I can’t stop thinking about her. I even dreamed about her the other night, which makes me sound really soppy. We are quite different on some levels, but I really do like her. I have recently been promoted and am her supervisor so think this might make it worse, so I was hoping you may be able to help me. Should I tell her how I feel even if it means I feel rejection, or just go on and look for someone else?

Chimpanzee wearing spectacles: Ask Carole
Chimpanzee wearing spectacles: Ask Carole Photograph: Public Domain

Carole replies:

Like humans, chimps have a long-term memory and who your friends are and whom you have sex with can all depend on a shared history of co-operation. Both positive and negative social interaction between chimpanzees is dependent on past experience and positive social interactions can facilitate pair bonding and mating.

Food sharing between male and female captive and wild chimpanzees has revealed interesting data. The more grooming that takes place between male and female chimps is a predictor that food will also be shared between them and if food is shared sex is also on the agenda. Observations of wild female chimps in the Ivory Coast have further revealed that males and females exchange meat for sex. Males who share meat from a kill with the females will be the males favoured by those same females with mating opportunities. (A small piece of meat, perhaps from a colobus monkey, is calorifically high and equal to munching through a days worth of leaves.)

Sex may not take place until some months or years later but once a male has shown a favour to a female she will remember it and is likely to mate with him, particularly if he has repeatedly groomed her and repeatedly shared meat. Evidently female chimps are aware which males like them and which males are kind to them. They retain this information and make future choices based upon these acquired social judgments.

Males can sexually coerce females. In these cases females have no choice over whom they mate with. But in more co-operative chimp communities females experience what is known as “female choice”, meaning females choose the males they breed with and clearly have a preference for kind males.

Women also exhibit female choice and, like chimps, tend to favour males who have shown them benevolence and shared resources. Research on female choice in women has revealed that they feel most secure if they have two or more male admirers at one time.

You mentioned there is another “lad” in the equation. Being wanted by two males at once ups the “girl’s” social status and forces you and the other male to compete. When she says there is no attraction between her and the other lad she may not be telling you the truth and she may be content to remain in this favoured position. (You say you have liked her for two years, thus the last two years have been positive for her in this regard.)

Research has shown that in general females are superior mind readers to men. It therefore seems probable that even though you, “find it hard to read a person”, (and thus you haven’t made any moves), this woman knows what you think and knows that you like her.

You are in a slightly difficult position because all of this jostling and flirting is happening at work and the maxim of “not mixing work and pleasure” exists for a reason. This woman may prove a distraction for you; having recently been promoted you don’t want to show her overt favouritism and risk others in the office making complaints.

You could just carry on as you are, remain friendly towards her but not at the expense of others in the office and allow her female choice to choose you if you are the one she wants.

This isn’t a situation that you can force, and nor should you. You don’t want to be pitted against the other lad and you don’t want office gossip to skyrocket. Just bear in mind this woman is like a chimp – she has a long-term memory and if you are good to her she may in the future, perhaps when you no longer work together, show you the favouritism you desire.

In the meantime enjoy the company of females away from the office!

1. De Waal, FBM (1997) The Chimpanzee’s service economy: Food for grooming, Evolution and Human Behavior, 18(6): 375-386.
2. Gomes, C and Boesch, C (2009) Wild Chimpanzees Exchange Meat for Sex on a Long-Term Basis.
3. Buss, DM (2003) The Evolution of Desire. Basic Books.

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