Sexual selection depends on differential patterns of mate preference and choice. Little attention has been paid, however, to the manner in which individuals acquire information about the quality of potential mates and how this information is used to form mating decisions. Different decision rules for determining mating preferences often lead to different fitness consequences for the actively searching and choosy sex.

We can compare the expected fitness consequences of two alternative decision-making strategies: a best-of-n strategy (whereby searching individuals choose the best mate from a sample of size n) and a strategy based on sequential sampling (whereby the searching individual establishes a critical mate quality and continues searching until encountering a mate at or above this quality). For the same distribution of potential mate qualities, the sequential-search strategy generates higher expected fitness gains than the best-of-n strategy. This is in contrast to earlier conclusions (e.g., Janetos 1980; Halliday 1983) that the best-of-n is a dominant strategy for mate choice. In the models presented here, the cost of mate search is included; earlier models neglected this important aspect of mate choice, and this difference accounts for the different conclusions.

The sequential-search model establishes a critical mate-acceptance level that equates the cost of sampling one additional potential mate and the expected fitness gain from one additional search. As the cost of search increases, the critical threshold decreases. The basic sequential-search model can be extended to include time discounting, finite time horizon, systematic search, learning, variable search costs, and mate responsiveness. In each extension, new critical thresholds for mate acceptability can be established. In some cases, such as an extension to include a finite time horizon, the critical threshold is anticipated to undergo a monotonic decline as search progresses: searchers become less choosy over time if they are unsuccessful at finding mates.

The role of the arithmetic mean and variance of fitness among potential mates can be explored within these simple models. As the mean and variance of mate quality within the population increases, the critical threshold for acceptability increases. The basic model and its extensions are subject to easy empirical testing. These models will prove valuable in establishing the link between aspects of individual behavior and population-level selection processes.