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Dating Mating Sex and Reproduction, human nature, science

What we believe vs. what we do

Three new studies, published by a research team at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, give us another reminder that what we believe about ourselves is often dead wrong.  These studies were designed to determine two things — what we believe our mating preferences to be as emerging adults (18-25) and what they actually are.  Though the study is hardly conclusive, it points strongly towards a sizeable gap between our beliefs and reality.

Across the board, both men and women believe that mate preferences change significantly between the ages of 18 and 25.  They believe that as they age, they will become significantly more interested both in long term relationships and in traits that are conducive to successful long term relationships.  The perception is that 18 year olds are mainly interested in casual sex with hotties, and 25 year olds are less concerned with looks, less interested in casual sex, and more interested in long term relationships with someone who may not be as physically attractive, but is more “marry-able.”

It appears that this is simply not true.  While there were some changes over time, they were not changes that point towards a change in mating strategy.  Instead, they seem (to me, at least) to indicate a change in environment.  Social acceptance, for instance, was slightly more important to 18 year olds than 25 year olds.  This would seem to have more to do with the typically high desire to “fit in” experienced by teenagers than a change in long term mating strategy.  Put simply, most people figure out by age 25 that being part of the “in crowd” is not all it’s cracked up to be, and there are plenty of interesting people on the outside.

Though there was a slight decrease in the importance of physical appearance, it doesn’t appear to be tied to a higher desire for long term relationships.  Though it is not specifically addressed in the study, I suspect that this trend, too, is environmental.  Consider that finding a single hottie in college is like shooting a fish in a barrel, but out in the rest of the world, the potential pool is diluted significantly.  Also, consider that as we pass through our twenties, there are less and less single people available as more and more of our friends take the plunge.  Reality, as they say, is a bitch, and 25 year olds have had longer to realize it.

As a rather lengthy side note, I’ll point out several mating patterns that are already well established, but are reinforced by these studies:

  • Across all ages (18-25), men are a bit more interested in casual sex than women
  • Across all ages, men report slightly more sexual partners in the last year than females
  • Across all ages, men foresee themselves having more sexual partners in the next five years than women.

These trends should not be surprising if we know the basic male mating strategy.  (If you’re not familiar with human male and female mating strategies, please read this blog entry.)  Evolutionary biology predicts that human males ought to desire more partners.

Here are a few more:

  • Men are more interested in looks than women
  • Women are more interested in money than men
  • Faithfulness is considered the most important trait by both men and women

Again, there’s nothing really surprising here.  All of this is predicted by evolutionary theory.  In case you’re interested, here’s the list of desirable traits in a mate, arranged in order of their importance to men and women:


  1. Faithfulness
  2. Physical Attractiveness
  3. Intelligence
  4. Sense of Humor
  5. Emotional Stability
  6. Similar Values
  7. Ambition
  8. Desire for Children
  9. Potential for financial success
  10. Social Popularity


  1. Faithfulness
  2. Sense of Humor
  3. Intelligence
  4. Similar Values
  5. Emotional Stability
  6. Ambition
  7. Physical Attractiveness
  8. Desire for Children
  9. Potential for Financial Success
  10. Social Popularity

One note:  Don’t be confused because Potential for Financial Success was 9th on both lists.  Each of these lists was based on “Mate Dollar Investment,” where participants were asked to divide fifty “dollars” between ten attributes, with one to ten dollars being possible on each attribute.  Women, though they ranked Potential for Financial Success 9th, invested nearly seventy five cents more than men.

To give you an idea of scale, both men and women invested over 7 dollars in faithfulness on average.  This was a dollar (or more) higher than every other attribute.  Men put $6.35 into physical attractiveness, while women only put $4.24.

So what’s the moral of the story?  Try to always remember that what seems very obvious to you about human nature might turn out to be quite wrong.  I suspect that with further research into more age groups, we will discover that our mating strategy changes a lot less over time than we have been led to believe.



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