The Evolutionary Psychology of Human Mate Choice
Social psychologists have been asking men and women for a long time what they find attractive in the opposite sex. Anthropologists, sociologists, talk-show hosts, and everyday folks have been doing the same thing. The scientific, systematic data that have emerged are quite consistent, even when men and women from vastly different cultures have been included in the same research. One very common finding is a sex difference in the relative importance of certain attributes. Women consistently report that a man’s income, education, and social status are quite important. Men say that these features in a woman are less important. The opposite is true of various measures of physical attractiveness. Another common finding is that men and women agree that certain personality traits, including a good sense of humor, friendliness, intelligence, and kindness are important. So, men and women agree on some things but differ in how strongly they rate certain features. Since the personality traits that we all agree on are not at all unique to the marital or dating relationship, but are instead things that we would like to see in others with whom we spend a lot of time, I will focus instead on the traits that men and women find attractive in one another and attempt to explain them from an evolutionary perspective.
Men’s Evaluations of Women
Men worldwide place greater emphasis on physical attractiveness in women than women do in men. Are there any universal features that men find most attractive? Yes, indeed, and these features are ones that are associated with the woman’s fertility. Take the face as a starting point. Youthful but mature features are found most attractive. Such things as smooth skin, large eyes, and full lips are found attractive by men around the world.
Body proportions also contribute to men’s appraisals of feminine beauty. Most of the research here has focused on the width of the woman’s waist compared to that of her hips. When men were shown an array of drawings that appear in the following figure and asked to pick the one that they found most attractive, men overwhelmingly chose from the leftmost column, in which the waist is about 70% as wide as the hips. As the waist-hip ratio came closer to 1:1, as it is on the far right column, attractiveness ratings dropped.
Thinness was less consistently chosen as being attractive. The top row depicts very thin women, with progressively heavier women in the lower rows. Men tended not to choose from the top row, preferring instead women in the second row. The single most-chosen drawing, then, was the one on the second row, left column.
Why would an hourglass figure be most popular among men? In an evolutionary sense, this sort of figure is what a young but reproductively mature woman looks like (at least when they are not pregnant!). Our male ancestors who found this sort of feature attractive and devoted their courtship toward women like this were probably more reproductively successful than men who happened to find less fertile female forms more attractive.
Women’s Evaluations of Men
As mentioned earlier, women pay great attention to a man’s income, material goods, and his status, at least more than men do of the same traits in women. Men worldwide in a vast array of cultures ranging from hunter-gatherers to urban professionals do less direct offspring care but more offspring-provisioning than women. That is, men are expected to acquire the things that are needed to support their wives and children. The details of how this is accomplished vary enormously from one culture to the next. In some cultures women find good hunters most attractive and even scoff at the overtures of men who have a reputation as being poor hunters. In other cultures, including our own, men with nice cars and houses, with good jobs or at least the prospects of obtaining these things are far more likely to be found attractive than men without these material resources and with poor prospects of ever obtaining them.
Having extensive resources is not as attractive if there is not much indication of generosity on the part of the man. Thus, women are very fond of men who give them gifts and who spend time with them and pay attention to them. (Since we have a movie theme in this lesson, compare the two men in Titanic who were vying for the leading lady’s affections. The fiancée was rich but self-absorbed and inattentive. The “good guy,” played by Leo DiCaprio, was poor but attentive and romantic. It would not have been interesting had both the good qualities been in the same guy.)
Of course, women are not oblivious to physical attractiveness in men. Facial features are important, although the facial characteristics that women find attractive in men are those indicative of a slightly older individual than what men find most attractive in women. Men’s body proportions are also taken into consideration. What women find most attractive in a male physique are wide shoulders relative to the waist and hips, with the waist and hips about the same width. It is not entirely clear why these body proportions are viewed as most attractive, but it has been hypothesized that such “athletic” body shapes are predictive of a man who is physically able to acquire resources and to provide protection for the woman and their children. It is important to note that the body proportions and facial features that women find most attractive in men are not as age-restricted as what men find most attractive in women. This may be a consequence of the more limited reproductive “window of opportunity” of women than of men.
To summarize briefly, men and women are alike in many ways in terms of their preferences for certain features. Both find young but mature individuals attractive, although men are considered young for a longer time than women and some of the features that go into assessing age are somewhat different. Both sexes find pleasant, interesting, and considerate personalities more appealing. Both are attracted to individuals with material resources and status or at least the prospects of attaining them. Men place greater emphasis on a woman’s physical features. Women place greater emphasis on the resource and status features. We are not dramatically different in what we find attractive, but we do differ in terms of their relative importance.