I’m a 42-year-old married guy who just started an Instagram last week, mostly to see pictures of rock climbers, golden retrievers, and bad dad jokes. I plan to do more lurking than posting, but I had to put something on my page, right? My first two posts happen to be exercise pictures. Within a day of starting my Instagram, I ran across a study published January 25 in the J ournal of Business Research suggesting that we post workout-related content to social media when our “mating motivation” is high, but our opinion of our own “mate value” is low. The study writes that, “people in a mating mood use this costly signal to advertise their healthiness, especially when they sense their mate value to be low.”
Interestingly, this strategy doesn’t work. We post workouts to social media when we want to find a mate and are feeling bad about our own value, but the study shows that what we post doesn't actually increase others’ perceptions of our mate value.
Let’s take a deeper look.
First, a preliminary study showed that “displaying exercise efforts functions as a signal of healthiness.” Great! People who post exercise pics are, in fact, seen as healthier. Then the study brought 106 undergraduates into the lab to explore why and when people post these healthy pictures.
The study started by asking participants about their “mate value.” How attractive did they feel to potential romantic partners? Then the study split them into two groups. One group wrote about a time they were aroused, and the other group wrote about a time they were happy. Sure enough, writing about arousal put students in what the study called a “mating mood.” People in a mating mood were motivated to “find someone attractive you are interested in,” while students in the happiness group were more motivated by “enjoying yourself and having fun.” Then participants imagined they owned a fictional workout tracker and rated their likelihood of sharing various posts. Some posts showed leisure (“Summer = chilling on an inflatable pool”) and some posts showed exercise (“Summer = swimming laps in the pool”). The study also measured how much participants wanted attractive, potential romantic partners to see these posts.
Tina Fey (mom to daughter Alice): “I think every working mom probably feels the same thing: You go through big chunks of time where you’re just thinking, ‘This is impossible - oh, this is impossible.’ And then you just keep going and keep going, and you sort of do the impossible.”
Here’s what they found: “People in a mating mood (vs. control mood) like it more when their posts about high energy activities are noticed by a potential mate… It is not merely about posting any activity. People really prefer their workout posts to be noticed by the intended audience when they are in a mating mood.”
Again, we post workout pictures when we want a mate, but feel like our mate value is low—but it doesn't work. When the study measured how people perceive workout pictures, they found that we don’t rate people who post workout pictures any more attractive. Odd, right? There are a couple of possible explanations including, “research supporting the idea that self-promotion can have negative effects; the trade-off between displaying positive traits and being perceived as a braggart is very delicate.” Do you still want to use workout pictures to increase your mate value? The study hypothesizes you could be successful by “using a humble tone or [posting] accurate personal achievements.”
Open your Instagram. Scroll through your feed. Who is posting workout pictures? Could it be because they want a love connection but feel bad about their chances? Could this person be you?
In a nutshell, the study gives it to you straight up, “These results confirm that people who consider their own mate value as low but who have an active mating motivation are more willing to share their exercise efforts.”