Surprising Facts About Attraction

Men and Women Want the Same Things in a Romantic Partner

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.

Personality Traits Really Do Affect Perceptions of Appearance

Many people have experienced the strange phenomenon of the beautiful person who grows increasingly ugly as he speaks, or the homely person who develops a glow of attractiveness over the course of a conversation. Despite depressing research findings attesting to the importance of physical appearance for smoothing one’s path in day-to-day life, there is also a growing body of research indicating that personality has a profound effect on the perception of beauty. The personality effect doesn’t always show up in beauty effect findings because researchers tend to examine personality and physical appearance in separate studies. Lewandowski Jr. et al. (2007) set out to remedy this by conducting a study that looked at the ways in which the two factors interact.

The researchers had subjects look at photos of people of the opposite sex, engage in a distracting task for a while, and then come back to rate the photos again. For the second rating, subjects were provided with either negative or positive personality information about the individuals in the photos. Subjects then rated the photos for general attractiveness, as well as desirability for both romance and friendship. Interestingly, neutral (presumably average-looking) and unattractive individuals in photos received the greatest attractiveness-ratings boost with positive descriptors, though beautiful people also saw an increase in their perceived aesthetic appeal. By contrast, attractive and neutral faces saw the biggest drop in attractiveness when negative descriptors were attached to their photos, though unattractive people declined as well. Overall, the findings of this study suggest that:

    • Personality is important to both genders, but more important to female raters than male raters.
    • A good personality gives a greater appearance boost for homelier people than for beautiful people.
    • Having a bad personality is more harmful to beautiful people because it carries a bigger appearance-perception penalty for them.

The so-called Halo Effect causes many people to automatically assume that those who are good-looking have other positive qualities, such as kindness, intelligence, and generosity, but apparently this can work in the other direction as well. A person who is kind, intelligent, and generous is assumed to be more attractive, and the brain may accommodate this assumption to some degree, making a person with many good qualities appear better looking.

Prior studies have shown that people’s judgments of facial features are profoundly affected by what they believe about the individuals’ personalities. For example, 12th grade students who were asked to describe the same face gave entirely different responses based on whether the individual in the photo was identified as kind or mean. The “kind” individual was perceived as having more attractive features than the “mean” individual, despite the use of identical photos (Hassin & Trope, 2000).

In another study, the same photo of a witness described as having helped a rape victim or simply watched received different descriptions in each condition. The witness was described as smiling and watching in the first condition, or driving the attacker away and seeking help in the second condition. Unhelpful witnesses were perceived as having less attractive features than their courageous and benevolent counterparts (Veenvliet & Paunonen, 2005).

Swami et al. (2010) found that the perceived attractiveness of female bodies is also influenced by personality. The researchers had men look at images of women with varying body sizes. When they provided positive information about the women’s personalities, the men found a broader range of female body types attractive. However, providing negative personality information had the opposite effect, causing the men to find fewer female body shapes attractive than a group of men who looked at photos with no descriptive information.

Those with an interest in evolutionary psychology often pay far too much attention to beauty, health, athleticism, and other physical factors, and not enough to personality. Yet, as Lewandowski Jr. et al. (2007) point out, those with bad personalities tend to make poor-quality parents. Furthermore, their children may inherit their unpleasant personality traits, and thus be less likely to attract good quality mates themselves. In other words, even a surfeit of health and beauty can fall short of what is needed for reproductive fitness.

Opposites Don’t (Usually) Attract

A classic staple of movie and sitcom plots holds that even when opposites initially dislike one another, they will inevitably succumb to an overwhelming romantic attraction. However, research has shown that in real life, people with plenty in common are drawn together, and opposites are more likely to repel one another, both socially and romantically.

Buston and Emlen (2003) asked nearly 1,000 young men and women what they were looking for in a partner based on a number of attributes indicative of physical appearance, wealth, status, family commitment, and sexual fidelity. The researchers found that people consistently sought others who were most like them on a variety of key measures.

A Michigan State University study of 1,296 married couples found that partners had chosen one another based on shared personality traits. The researchers had set out to determine whether or not married individuals grow more alike over time. They found that instead of adopting one another’s traits and preferences, people were choosing partners similar to themselves to begin with (Michigan State University, 25 August 2010).

Yet another study disproving the opposites-attract myth was that of Hassebrauck (1986), who found that people perceived a man in a photo as more attractive when they were told that he had similar attitudes to their own.

So why does the opposites-attract myth persist despite dozens of studies attesting to the appeal of similarity? Lilienfeld et al. (2010) suggest a number of possibilities, including the fact that it makes good movie fodder, the desire to be made whole by a person with complementary traits, and the belief that a few minor differences can keep a relationship interesting.

Men Prefer Smart Women

Classic stereotypes hold that men prefer women less intelligent than they are, but research shows that modern men value intelligence in a long-term partner as much as women do (Whelan, 2010). In fact, a recent survey found that 90% of all high-achieving men want a female partner who is just as intelligent as they are (or more so), and two-thirds of respondents stated a belief that intelligent women make better mothers (Whelan, 2006).

So why does the assumption that men prefer less intelligent women persist? The findings of older studies do suggest that in the past, a high IQ may have been slightly detrimental to women in the marriage market. This is no longer the case, but older studies and research focused on very young men (most of whom are probably not thinking about long-term partners) continue to garner a lot of press.

Whelan’s (2010) research into mate-trait priorities for men and women has shown that the importance men place on female intelligence and education rose dramatically between 1939 and 2008, in conjunction with the rise of the information economy (women’s prioritization of intelligence and education in a partner also rose during the same timeframe). In this modern era, there are stronger links between intelligence, education, earning power, and social status, so Whelan’s findings are unsurprising.

It should be noted that what men value in a life partner may be very different from what they value in a one-night stand or for a short fling. It’s possible (and quite likely) that many men don’t care much about intelligence in women with whom they won’t be spending their lives, sharing their resources, and possibly raising children. Many studies simply ask what men find attractive – not what men prefer in a long-term partner.

Overall, studies suggest that while smart women may have no advantage when it comes to one-night-stands, they’re more likely to attract men for long-term relationships. This is supported by a Census Bureau survey of 50,000 American households, which found that 88% of 35-39-year-old women with advanced university degrees were married, compared to 81% of women in the same age group who had not completed secondary education degrees. Furthermore, women with more education are less likely to get divorced than their less-educated counterparts (Whelan, 16 November 2007). By contrast, as late as the 1980s, just over 20% of U.S. women with graduate degrees were unmarried at 34, compared to just under 10% of women who did not have advanced degrees (Whelan, 2006).

The overall shift to a preference for smart women is unsurprising, given that intelligence and status are now linked for both genders. In the past, a woman’s status typically reflected that of her family or husband. Now that women can raise their status through their own initiative by pursuing higher education and lucrative career prospects, female intelligence has become increasingly valued by men.

Whelan (2006) notes that high-achieving women often marry later in life, but they have better romantic prospects overall. Unmarried women between the ages of 30 and 40 who have university degrees are now more likely to get married than women with less education.

Whelan’s findings are supported by studies indicating that both genders value social status (Tran et al., 2008) and earning power (Jason, 10 February 2009) in a potential mate, as well as by primate research showing that high-status females enjoy greater reproductive success (Dunbar & Dunbar, 1977; Pusey et al., 1997; Setchell & Wickings, 2006; van Noordwijk & van Schaik, 1999).

People Wearing Red Appear More Attractive

The colour red evokes a number of descriptors: exciting, stimulating, aggressive, passionate, dynamic, dominant, and perhaps a little dangerous. Recent research has added “attractive” to this list, and the red effect appears to work its magic on both genders.

Elliot et al. (2010), via a series of seven experiments, found that men wearing red clothing or standing in front of red backgrounds were more attractive to women. Starting with a photo of a man, the researchers digitally manipulated either the shirt or the background to change the colour. This clever experimental design ensured that all subjects viewed the same man (and the same shirt) so that they reacted only to the colour. In some of the experiments, the researchers asked women to rate not only the attractiveness of the man in the photo, but also his perceived status and the level to which they desired sexual activity with him. On all three measures, the red shirt beat the shirts of other colours.

Elliot et al. (2010) list various other studies that have linked the colour red to power, dominance, strength, importance, authority, status, and wealth across cultures (hence the expression, “rolling out the red carpet” to signify the special treatment accorded to people of great status). Therefore, it’s unsurprising that women would find red attractive on a man. The authors also note that studies have linked red to love and passion in many different cultures, and to lust and fertility in ancient rituals and myths.

Women aren’t the only ones drawn to red. Niesta et al. (2010) found that men also respond to red on women. The researchers conducted two experiments. In the first, men chose to ask more intimate questions of a woman in a red shirt than one wearing green (a sign of attraction). During the second experiment, men chose to sit closer to a female who wore red rather than blue (they didn’t actually interact with the woman, but chose a chair in the room closer to or further from the place where they believed the woman would sit).

Given that red is associated with high status, does this mean that men are also drawn to women of status? Other studies suggest that despite the stereotype that only women find status attractive, men respond to it as well (Jayson, 10 February 2009; Tran et al. 2008; Whelan, 2010). And, of course, red is a sexual symbol, hence the descriptor “red -light district” for areas in which sexual services are available, and the sexy reputation of red dresses and lipstick.

Status and sexiness may not be the only factors responsible for the red effect. Past research has shown that intense reds can trigger an adrenaline release, which may increase energy, muscular tension, excitement, and possibly hostility in some cases (Vodvarka, 1999). Thus, people wearing red or standing in front of red backgrounds may be perceived as more exciting. Interestingly, a UK study of car colours and personality traits found that people who were outspoken and energetic were more likely to choose red cars (Colburn Group Insurance, April 2009).

It’s worth noting that the red effect did not work platonically. Elliot et al. (2010) found that heterosexual men’s impressions of other men were not affected by red. The red effect also did not impact personality judgments even when it made the targets more appealing; women who found men in red more attractive did not perceive them as more extroverted, likable, or agreeable.

When reading about experiments such as these, it’s important to keep in mind that participants were reacting to photos rather than interacting with people. Movement, body language, voice, and other “live” factors play a significant role in attraction, and these cues are lacking in studies that use only photos. When subjects have the opportunity to speak with a live person, there will be more variables at play influencing attractiveness.

Given that most of the research subjects were young Western heterosexuals, it would be interesting to see some research with homosexual, older, and international subjects to determine whether or not the red effect is universal (there were some Asian, African-American, and Hispanic subjects in the red studies, but the majority were Caucasian).

Will wearing red bring people of the opposite sex flocking to your side? Probably not, but a nice red shirt may get you noticed and give you a bit of an edge.

For more psychology articles, see the main Psychology page.


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