By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
Traditional stereotypes suggest that women are drawn primarily to status and earning power whereas men focus solely on physical appearance, but modern research findings don’t support this conclusion. Whelan (2010) found that in 2008, men and women gave social status similar rankings when rating desirable qualities in potential mates. There was not a huge difference in the ranking for financial prospects either, with women ranking them #10 in 2008 (up from #13 in 1939) and men #12 in 2008 (up from #17 in 1939). As for physical appearance, men’s ranking of good looks as a priority rose from #14 in 1939 to #8 in 2008, but looks as key criteria in women’s mate selection also rose from #17 to #12 in the same timeframe.
Other findings from Whelan’s study of the ways in which men and women prioritize 18 key traits in mate selection include the following:
- Both genders have put increasing value on mutual attraction and love over the years (#1 for both genders in 2008), which is unsurprising, given the greater emphasis on marital happiness and self-fulfillment in recent decades.
- Sociability has become more valuable to both genders (rated #6 by both men and women in 2008), which suggests that people are placing increased emphasis on socializing as a couple.
- Traits such as neatness, refinement, and chastity have plummeted for both genders (men and women ranked chastity #18 in 2008, whereas it ranked a solid #10 for both in 1939).
- Dependability has remained popular, scoring somewhere between #1 and #3 for both genders over the years.
- Health slipped in the rankings a little, down from #5 to #7 for men and #6 to #9 for women. This may reflect the fact that most modern jobs and day-to-day chores don’t require the intense physical labour that was necessary in the past.
- Men’s interest in a partner who desires home and children has dropped from #6 to #9, whereas women’s rose from #7 to #4 between 1939 and 2008 (though it hit an all-time low of #10 in 1977).
- Men’s valuation of cooking and housekeeping skills in a partner dropped from #8 to #13 between 1939 and 2008; among women, it rose slightly from #16 to #15.
- Men’s preference for a pleasing disposition in their partners fell from #3 to #5, and women’s from #4 to #7.
- The value placed on education and intelligence in a mate has risen for both genders, with men now ranking it even more highly than women (education/intelligence was ranked #4 by men and #5 by women in 2008).
Given that intelligence and education are more tightly tied to social status in the modern information economy than they were in the past, the rise of these characteristics is unsurprising, though the finding that men prioritize them even more highly than women suggests that men value status in women at least as much as women do in men.
Whelan wasn’t the only researcher to find similar mate-trait preferences among men and women. Tran et al. (2008) report that status, vitality, and warmth are partner traits sought by both men and women. However, when people have only a few moments to make snap decisions, looks tend to win out with both genders. In their speed-dating study, Luo and Zhang (2009) found that men and women were both more likely to make their selections based on physical appearance than any other factor.
Jayson (10 February 2009) reports the findings of additional research supporting gender similarity in mate-trait preferences, with both genders reacting primarily to looks but both also valuing good earning power. This runs counter to the stereotype that women care about money more than physical appearance and that men care only about looks.
Why is more value placed on physical appearance in some studies than others? Some researchers have asked subjects about potential mates – people with whom they would like to spend their lives. Other researchers have simply asked them to state what they find attractive, and what is attractive for a one-night stand or a one-week fling may be quite different from what is appealing in a long-term partner.
- Jayson, S. (10 February 2009). “What’s the Attraction? Look to Society, Biology, Not ‘Logic’.” USA Today, USAToday.com.
- Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). “What Leads to Romantic Attraction: Similarity, Reciprocity, Security, or Beauty? Evidence from a Speed-Dating Study.” Journal of Personality, 77(4), pp. 933-964.
- Tran, S.; Simpson, J.A.; & Fletcher, G.J.O. (2008). “The Role of Ideal Standards in Relationship Initiation Processes.” In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, & J. Harvey (Eds.) Handbook of Relationship Initiation. New York, NY: Psychological Press, pp. 487-498.
- Whelan, C.B., Dr. (2010). “Rank Ordering of Mate Preferences Across 7 Decades, by Participant Gender.” ChristineWhelan.com/research.