The science of human nature lagged behind other hard sciences for most of the 20th century. There were several reasons for this. There was considerable resistance from the religious, who were still reeling from the widespread acceptance of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. To them, quantifying human animals as if they were just rats or monkeys was unthinkably degrading. Even many scientists were skeptical of the ability of the hard sciences to describe human behavior, which was thought to be far too complex and individual to be generalized. The religious doctrine of Free Will led many thinkers to suppose that behaviorism applied to humans was a lost cause.
While the religious and anti-behaviorists pontificated from their respective philosophical corners, Freud and his followers systematically built up layers of unfalsifiable pseudo-psychology that lingered in the vocabulary of social scientists and biologists for decades. When Edward Wilson released the landmark text on Sociobiology in the 70s, he was sharply criticized from many sides, and over the next few decades, flaws in his predictions have led some scientists to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject sociobiology as a whole.
In the last decade or so, Evolutionary Psychology has been the newest whipping boy for the nay-sayers. Greeted with stiff resistance from the beginning, pioneers in Evolutionary Psychology have attempted to explain large swaths of human behavior in terms of evolutionary forces and the predictions of game theory. Like most pioneers, they have had mixed results, and have drawn some ill-advised conclusions from incomplete data. However, it is my belief that elements of both sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are quite useful, and that we are on the verge of revolutionary understanding of the human animal.
The first step in forming a scientific theory is data gathering. This is where I want to begin to examine human mating, dating, marriage, and reproduction. Before we can discuss what got us here, we must know where here is. To that end, I’m going to take the least controversial findings about human mating and describe simply what we do. I must warn readers that I am not attempting to make any value judgments, nor will I sugar coat any of the findings or try to make them more attractive or dignified. (That, after all, has been the biggest problem with the science of man — our false impression that we are somehow more dignified than other animals.) So, with the introduction and disclaimers out of the way, let’s get to it.
What Do Women Want?
David M. Buss has been at the forefront of Evolutionary Psychology for many years, and has conducted or assisted with an incredible number of scientific surveys and studies designed to discover “true human nature.” In order to eliminate cultural bias, he has been careful to base his findings on the widest range of human society available for study. Most of his results are from international studies in more than 37 distinct countries and cultures on all continents, ranging from the most primitive tribes to the most modern western nations. What follows are the traits that women across all cultures find attractive in males, along with brief explanations for why such preferences might have developed.
It’s true. Women want men with money. Before money, women wanted men with land, or animals, or followers. In all the studied cultures, whatever counted as currency made men more attractive to women. This is far from unique in humans. The male gray shrike, a bird native to the Negev Desert, collects and stores edibles and other useful items. He can amass large collections, sometimes over a hundred items, which he carefully organizes and puts on display within his territory. Females tend strongly towards males with the biggest and most attractive collections. We know this because after scientists noticed this trend, they tested it by removing items from the collections of the most desirable birds. Their desirability went immediately and noticably down.
There’s no secret to why possessions are desirable. Males with more stuff can give more stuff to offspring, which will give them the best chance for survival. In humans, females report and display a preference for financially well off mates. In fact, they value financial success roughly twice as highly as men. (That is, men value financial success in women half as much as women value it in men.)
Again, there’s nothing revolutionary here. Social status is one of the primary sexual attractors for females across much, if not most, of the animal kingdom. Women want to be with the top dog. Status carries with it the privilege of mating success. In polygamous cultures, high status is an accurate predictor of the number of wives. In primitive cultures where wealth is not as stratified, social status is still just as powerful. In other words, women want a hero, not a zero.
In The Evolution of Desire, Buss relates the following anecdote:
Women’s desire for status shows up in everyday occurrences. A colleague overheard a conversation among four women at a restaurant. They were all complaining that there were no eligible men around. Yet these women were surrounded by male waiters, none of whom was wearing a wedding ring. Waiters, who do not have a high-status occupation, were apparently not even considered by these women. What they meant was not that there were no eligible men, but that there were no eligible men of acceptable social status.
There is a reason the phrase “most eligible bachelor” is still uttered around the world. Any man who is not married is a bachelor, but women consistently use qualifiers to distinguish between them. A single Bill Gates would be a very eligible bachelor, while a forty year old gas station attendant is unlikely to be viewed as anything other than a bachelor.
Women want a slightly older man. The average across the world is about 3 years. That is, men are on average about 3 years older than their wives, and women say they want a man about 3 years older. Some societies have quite exaggerated age differences, and a few have very small gaps, but there are virtually no societies in which women consistently prefer younger men.
The most likely explanation for this preference is that it takes time to acquire wealth and social status. While women are ready for parenthood physically at a very young age, men are not prepared for the investment of resources until they have matured and worked their way up the social hierarchy, acheived higher status, and accumulated wealth.
It can also be argued that it is potentially advantageous to men to delay parenthood until they have acheived enough social status and wealth to attract a higher quality mate. We certainly see signs of this in many cultures.
Finally, age puts some questions to rest for women. Potential is nice, but lots of men don’t reach their potential. By selecting an older man, a woman is essentially choosing reality over potential reality. Most men have an established career by their mid 30s, and if they don’t they are unlikely to rise very high on the social ladder or accumulate much wealth. The most promising 20 year old can succumb to a variety of ills and end up washed out and poor. Selecting older males eliminates a significant amount of risk for females.
Now is a good time to mention that none of these preferences exist in a vacuum. It should be clear by now that all three of the preferences listed so far are quite interconnected. With age comes wealth and status, and seldom do we find wealth without status or vice versa.
Ambition and Industriousness
These traits are a little more difficult to pin down, but they are obviously important to women. Like all the other traits mentioned so far, ambition and industriousness are far from unique to humans. In most social species, the pecking order is subject to change, particularly when a lower ranking male is ambitious and industrious.
In humans, behaviors including spending extra time at work, effective time management, and efficient prioritization of tasks all indicate high levels of industriousness and ambition. Conversely, lazy or unmotivated behaviors include procrastination, passing the buck, settling for second best, and relying on luck instead of hard work.
Again, we see the interconnectedness of traits. In virtually all cultures studied, industriousness and ambition led to financial success and higher social status. (Of course, age doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with it. Young lazy men tend to become old lazy men, after all.)
Dependability and Stability
Though these traits are linked to ambition and industriousness, they are different qualities. Some men display ambition in fits and starts. They are ambitious but unstable, and thus, undependable. Likewise, some men are lazy, but behave very consistently. They are stable but not industrious or ambitious.
Not surprisingly, women all over the world rank dependability and stability very highly. In fact, it has proven to be a very accurate indicator of a couple’s success or failure in marriage in nearly every culture. It’s not hard to see why. Men who are consistent and dependable will acheive higher social status. Both men and women will try to become allies with men who are very likely to come through. There are high costs, both for allies and mates, when a man is inconsistent. It is costly in resources as well as emotional costs. When surveying couples from all cultures, undependability in a relationship was a very successful predictor of relationship strife and tension — and thus, a predictor of the relationship’s success or failure.
It is often said that “opposites attract.” To some degree this is true, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the truth is that opposites don’t make good mates. Allowing for cultural variables, such as teenage rebellion, it is clear that females prefer and seek out compatibility.
Perhaps this aspect of human mating is the closest to being unique. Only humans have arguments over politics and religion. Indeed, one of the best predictors of a marriage’s success is agreement on politics and religion. Hollywood is fond of portraying couples from opposite sides of the fence finding true love, but in reality, it’s rare.
There are many costs associated with someone who is incompatible. Humans hold their beliefs strongly, and take deep personal offense when they are challenged. An adversarial relationship between mates is costly both in the short and long term, and leads to insecurity about the stability of the relationship. Perhaps more importantly, it leads to conflicting practices in childrearing, which cause confusion and stress in the children.
Psychologist Rick Zubin studied 202 dating couples. During the study, 103 couples broke up, and almost without exception, the unsuccessful couples were more disparate in their values and attitudes on religion, sex, and romanticism than the successful couples. These results have been replicated numerous times.
Skeptical readers may notice a potential flaw in this observation. Perhaps females don’t actually seek out compatibility. After all, the results of this study were approximately 50/50. Perhaps compatibility comes from proximity. Most humans are raised in largely homogeneous surroundings — the whole family is Catholic or Muslim, for example. People tend to join groups of like minded people. (In fact, it’s very difficult to find genuinely heterogeneous stable social groups in any society at all!) This being the case, we should expect that a female would be surrounded by essentially like minded people, and would therefore be more statistically likely to mate with someone relatively compatible.
Further research indicates that this is true to an extent. Women do tend to marry close to home. However, when women are surveyed about their preferences, they rate compatibility very highly, and more importantly, when proximity is factored into the statistical analysis, women who mate outside their social groups still show essentially the same preference for compatibility.
There is another very important element to compatibility that might surprise you. For the most part, women don’t try to find the most ambitious, wealthiest, highest social status male on the market. Instead, they try to find one compatible with their own level of each. Of course, we know there are golddiggers in the world who try to find very wealthy men, but they are the exception to the rule.
The logic behind this preference seems clear: Women who mate too far above their station risk losing their mate when someone better comes along. Better to find a mate who thinks she is the best he can do. Then, he is far less likely to abandon her. The modern “golddigger” is probably best explained as a woman who uses the next trait we will examine and figures out that she can exploit several unique aspects of human society to her advantage…
There is much debate in the scientific community regarding intelligence. Something far back in our evolutionary history caused our brains to grow explosively. We are far more intelligent than any other creature on earth. But is intelligence the egg or the chicken? Did females decide that intelligent males were sexy, or did particularly intelligent males get selected because they found smarter ways to command wealth, loyalty, social status, and respect?
The short answer is that we’re not sure. Regardless of its origin, however, intelligence does correlate very strongly with financial and social success. In addition, it is unquestionably helpful in successful parenting, negotiating mating disputes, and planning for the future. More importantly, women rate intelligence as an important factor in mating, and they practice what they preach.
I mentioned previously that women tend to look for men who are close to them in most traits. This is particularly true of intelligence. Perhaps it is because a man who is significantly smarter than his mate is more capable and more likely to deceive or exploit her. We aren’t sure of the evolutionary motivation, but the fact remains. Women like men who are nearly equal to them in intelligence, or perhaps a little smarter.
Perhaps this is the clearest example of humans behaving like every other animal. Recent discoveries in evolutionary biology have virtually confirmed the suspicion that many physical characteristics in animals are blatant displays of health. The most famous example is the peacock. Peacocks with brilliant plumage are healthier than those whose feathers are dull, and the primary cause of this is the presence or absence of parasites and disease. The same pattern is repeated all over the animal kingdom. Gaudy sexual displays are often signs of exceptional health.
In humans, the signs are more subtle, but nonetheless, they figure prominently in women’s choice of mates. The peacock’s tail is saying, “Look at me! I’m so healthy that I can carry this gaudy thing and still thrive!” Similarly, very tall, strong men with shiny hair, nails, and symmetrical features are advertising their health.
Size and Strength
Similarly, like many other animals, human females display marked preference for big, strong males. It’s no mystery why we value sport so highly. Its valuable to men because they get to show off how big and strong they are, and valuable to women because it offers a very clear stratification. Kobe Bryant, Magic Johnson, Terrell Owens, David Beckham, Dwayne Wade, and Tom Brady are all attractive men in their own right, but they are also exceptionally athletic and strong. Even men who don’t possess classically attractive features gain lots of points for being exceptionally strong and athletic
This, along with health, is probably one of our oldest and most deeply rooted mating instincts. Long before we became intelligent, females wanted strong males. The biggest, strongest males could protect females from rivals, kill the biggest prey, and overcome everyday physical obstacles with more ease than his competitors. Health and strength are closely related, as it is quite difficult — if not impossible — for a sickly male to acheive the same level of physical prowess as a healthy male.
Love and Commitment
Love is very difficult to define. In fact, I hesitated to even include it as a trait. To do so would have been a mistake, though. We can argue that “love” is a feeling we get when we experience attraction to a person who possesses the traits we find most attractive, but that doesn’t excuse us from listing it. The thing is, women fall in love with men who love them. I’ll discuss what men want in another article, but for now, it’s enough to say that women are attracted to men who find them attractive!
In fact, many women rate “love” as paramount when describing their perfect man. The logic behind this is obvious. A woman can be married to the greatest man in the world, and if he doesn’t give a tinker’s damn about her, she is likely to suffer serious consequences. He will likely not be inclined to share his resources, his affection, or his time with her. He will be very prone to leaving her when he finds someone he is attracted to. He will not look out for her interests as diligently as he would if he loved her.
Coupled with love is commitment. Women look for signs that a man is not only attracted to her, but that the attraction is more than a fleeting feeling. For this reason, women look for signs of commitment. Engagement rings, cars, houses, flowers, dinners and movies — these are all signs that a man is willing to commit resources to a woman. Women intuitively know the value of gifts, as well. It’s not just arbitrary cultural standards that make engagement diamonds so expensive. The whole point is that giving the gift should hurt the man financially. If he is willing to demonstrate his commitment by giving up a significant portion of his resources on a practically useless and symbolic gift, he is likely to be in it for the long haul.
I should note that like all aspects of humanity, these traits are not universally desired. That is, humanity is far too diverse to say that all women desire all of these things. Indeed, some women could care less about intelligence so long as they’re with a rich man or a sports star, and some women happily marry the runt of the litter because he’s smart, committed, and funny. (Humor is a sign of intellect. Don’t gripe at me for not including it on the list.)
Indeed, I think the best way to illustrate how these preferences work is to imagine that each male has a score for each of them. (There are other factors that make men attractive. The ones listed here are the ones common to all cultures, and thus, the most likely to be innate.) Perhaps Dwyane Wade rates 96 out of 100 in athleticism, 56 in commitment, and 74 in intelligence. Now, let’s suppose that each woman has a score for how much she values each category. Sally Someone values athleticism 40, commitment 90, and intelligence 75. Because she also values compatibility at 80, she will not be likely to find Dwyane Wade attractive enough to mate with him.
A warning: Don’t suppose that just because women are variable in their desire for these traits that it makes the whole thing arbitrary. The very reason these traits are singled out is that most women all over the world value them very highly. In other words, any woman you meet is generally likely to rate most of these significantly over 50 on a scale of 100.
The exception doesn’t disprove the rule. For men out there who possess few of these characteristics, there are probably a few women who will still find them devilishly attractive as mates. But the cold, hard facts are in front of us. Such men will have a much, much harder time finding a mate — particularly a highly desirable mate, since highly desirable women can have their pick of a large number of highly desirable men.
The next article in this series will take a frank and unabashed look at what men want in women.