Evolutionary Psychology, Lecture 6: Female Mate Preferences.


Due to inequalities in parental investment, females face several adaptive problems in finding the right mate. Ancestral females who had the right psychological mechanisms to find mates of higher value more sexually attractive than those of a lower value would have been more reproductively successful. This leads us to conclude that males with high potential mate value would be more sexually attractive to women, and women would have evolved preference mechanisms (information processing rules) that would be able to assess such traits and find them sexually and romantically attractive. In our ancestors, what traits would have been correlated with high male mating value?

1. The ability and willingness to provide resources.
Unlike other mammals, human males can and do provide a range of resources for the female before, during and after she has produced an offspring. This can include food, shelter, protection from other males, and are particularly important during pregnancy. Females would have evolved preferences for males who had good financial prospects, were older than themselves, had higher social status, and who displayed hard working and industrious characters, as these are clear signs of resource acquisition. Evidence from different human societies consistently reveals that women value economic resources substantially more than men do. Trivers (1985) found that American men who marry in a given year generally earn 50% more money than men of the same age who do not marry. In a cross-cultural survey, Buss (1989) showed that women valued financial prospects around twice as highly as men did.

Kenrick et al., (1990) devised a useful method for assessing how different attributes may be valued in a marriage partner by asking participants to indicate the minimum percentiles of characteristics they would find acceptable. College women reported that their minimum acceptable percentile for a husband's earning capacity was around 70% that of other men. The corresponding for males rating earning capacity in potential partners was 40%. They also found that women had higher standards regarding financial prospects at all stages of a relationship, whereas male preferences varied according to the situation.

Like our primate relatives, women appear to desire men who are high in terms of social status, the achievement of such status is universally linked with the control of and better access to important resources (food, territory, strong alliances). In mate preference surveys women consistently express a preference for mates who have a high-status profession (Buss & Schmitt, 1993). As many women choose males that are still young and relatively lacking in social status and resources, a good cue to potential resource acquisition is education and willingness to seek resources. Women thus place high value on good education, the possession of a promising career, and characteristics indicating hard work in potential mates: career orientation, industriousness and ambition. Women are significantly more likely to discontinue relationships with males who become unemployed, lack career motivation or show laziness (Betzig, 1989).

Townsend & Levy (1990a) investigated the relative importance of status and attractiveness at six levels of romantic involvement (ranging from having a cup of coffee to willingness to marry). Photographs of people of high, medium, and low attractiveness were paired with three levels of occupational status and income. Students viewed the portrayals and indicated their willingness to engage in relationships of varying levels of sexual intimacy. They found that the socioeconomic status of the male had a large influence on the female responses at all levels of intimacy; this increased as the degree of involvement increased. Physical attraction had some influence but the highest status was able to offset unattractiveness.

Females should not be so concerned about male physical attractiveness because:

  • Female reproductive success is not as limited by the problem of finding fertile mates – there will always be a regular supply of willing males competing for their attention.

  • Males remain fertile for most of their life span and so male fertility is less steeply age-graded.

  • Male fertility cannot be accurately assessed from physical appearance.

In a similar study, Townsend & Levy (1990b) looked at the effects of status (as embodied by clothing), and attractiveness on female willingness to engage in romantic relationships. Male targets were pre-rated for physical attraction and divided into two categories - handsome, and homely. The targets wore one of three costumes:

  • Blazer, shirt, designer tie, and conspicuous Rolex watch. They were described as being doctors (high status).

  • Plain white shirt. They were described as being teachers (medium status).

  • Uniform of a Burger King employee. They were described as being trainee waiters (low status).

Students viewed the photographs with their descriptions and stated their willingness to engage in relationships with the men at six levels of romantic involvement. They found that women were significantly more willing to engage in relationships with the high status / homely males then with either the medium - or low status / handsome males at al six levels. (Males always preferred the attractive females regardless of dress or description).

It is interesting that women who are of high status they also prefer males of a high status - preferably of even higher status than themselves. In a survey of medical students, Townsend (1989) reported that the females became more selective in their criteria in entering a sexual relationship, while the males were convinced that their increasing status would enable them to engage in more sexual activity.

Age is an important factor here as older males are significantly more likely to have achieved a sound economic and financial state than younger, inexperienced males. Increasing age also confers social dominance and higher social status. In his cross-cultural survey Buss (1989) found that the age difference was typically around 4 years older. In studies of real-life choices shown in marriage statistics, Kenrick & Keefe (1992) found that females consistently married males who were around 5 years older than themselves.

2. The ability and willingness to provide protection.
Dominant Behaviour: As human females are smaller and not as strong as males, they and their offspring are prone to being the victims of predators, and violence. Surveys consistently show that females prefer males who are socially dominant and have the respect of their peers. Forming a relationship with a socially dominant male would confer greater direct access to resources and also raise the social status of the female that would indirectly confer resource acquisition. Women pay close attention to how men interact with, and are treated by other men. For example, Sadella et al., (1987) made video’s depicting males and females engaging in dominant or submissive behaviour with another male or a female. Both males and females in the dominant roles were rated as being ‘stronger’, ‘harder’, ‘more rugged’, ‘tougher’ and ‘more masculine’. Dominant behaviour also increased the sexual attractiveness and dating desirability of the males, while the female targets were unaffected.

Height: Height is associated with power and status and studies have shown that height confers economic and social advantages as taller men are more likely to be hired, receive higher salaries, and gain promotion than smaller men. Socially, people tend to overestimate the height of individuals who are of high status, whom they like, or whom they agree with; the opposite is true for people of low status, disliked, or disagreed with. Taller men are perceived as being more dominant and we would predict that females should choose taller over shorter males.

Graziano et al., (1978) had women judge pictures of men who they believed to be short, medium or tall on attractiveness and dating desirability. Irrespective of their own height, the women rated tall men more positively than short men though the males of medium height were the most preferred. Pawlowski et al., (2000) analysed data from over 4000 Polish men and found that childless men were significantly shorter than those who had at least one child, bachelors were significantly shorter than married men.

Hair: In humans the presence or absence of head and facial hair provide strong social/sexual signals. Facial hair is generated at puberty in the presence of testosterone and rate of beard growth is positively related to androgen levels. It has been suggested that facial hair may have evolved as a dominance signal as it increases the apparent size of the jaw, itself a male secondary sexual characteristic. Males with facial hair are rated as being more masculine, strong, potent, dominant and courageous, but also as lacking in self-control, dirty, aggressive and reckless (Reed & Blunk, 1990). Studies assessing the effects of facial hair and attractiveness reveal conflicting findings, women often state that they do not find male facial hair attractive but one study which manipulated the extent of facial hair in Identi-kit pictures found that attractiveness ratings increased as the quantity of facial hair increased (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986). There may be large cultural differences in this respect as in some cultures a moustache is a masculine status symbol, while in others it is viewed in negative terms.

Muscarella & Cunningham (1996) suggested that male pattern baldness evolved as a signal of aging and social maturity whereby aggression and risk-taking decrease and nurturing behaviours increase. This may signal a male with enhanced social status but reduced physical threat. In their study males and females viewed 6 male models with different levels of facial hair (beard and moustache or clean-) and cranial hair (full head of hair, receding and bald). Participants rated each combination on 32 adjectives related to social perceptions. Males with facial hair and those with bald or receding hair were rated as being older than those who were clean-shaven, or had a full head of hair. Beards and a full head of hair were also seen as being more aggressive and less socially mature, baldness was associated with less attractiveness and more social maturity.

Body Shape: Men have a greater development of the upper body, and a number of studies using silhouettes of differently shaped male torso’s have found that women perceive a moderately developed torso as most attractive. For example, Horvarth (1979) found that shoulder width was a strong positive predictor of the attractiveness of male figures. It is assumed that these preferences evolved via ideal hunting physiques - i.e. strong shoulders (good throwing ability) but not too much muscle mass (which would affect endurance). A protruding stomach is seen is an exceptionally unattractive trait in men. More recently Maisey et al., (1999) asked 30 females to rate the attractiveness of colour pictures of male bodies in front view. Each male figure was pre-rated for their waist-chest ratio (WCR), waist-hip ratio (WHR) and body mass index (BMI). They found that WCR was the principal determinant of attractiveness - males with an inverted triangle torso (narrow waist with broad chest and shoulders) were rated as being more attractive.

Symmetry: A possible signal is the degree of fluctuating asymmetry (FA) displayed by the male as this indicates developmental stability in the presence of environmental and genetic challenges, and therefore provides a possible indicator of health (and therefore perhaps fertility). Low FA (i.e. more symmetrical) males report more sexual partners, an earlier age of first sexual intercourse and have more offspring than high FA men (Thornhill & Gangstead, 1994). Women whose partners have low FA report more orgasms than those whose partners have high FA (Thornhill et al., 1995). Grammer & Thornhill (1994) asked participants to rate faces in terms of their attractiveness, dominance, sexiness and health.

The more symmetrical the face the higher the rating on all attributes. Male faces with larger features demonstrating male secondary sexual characteristics (large square jaw) were preferred by females. Shackelford & Larsen (1998) assessed physical health and facial attractiveness and found that men with greater facial asymmetry tended to be more depressed, more neurotic, had greater proneness to psychopathy, felt more inferior, were less sociable and less optimistic. They also reported more physical health complaints, and were rated as being less attractive, less emotionally stable and less intelligent.

A potentially important variable is that female sexual preferences change across the menstrual cycle. Penton-Voak et al., (1999) reported that during the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle (pre-ovulation) females preferred more masculine-looking faces but during a non-fertile phase (menstruation) they preferred more feminised faces. Koehler et al., (2002) predicted that females may have a stronger preference for symmetry during the most fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. Non-pill-using females rated the attractiveness of male faces varying in symmetry for a short-term and long-term sex partner during menses and just before ovulation. Females had an overall preference for symmetry but this was irrespective of menstrual cycle phase.

Genetic compatibility: Among the sensory cues that we use to evaluate others, body odour can be critical for mate selection, especially for females. Body odour serves as a cue for immunological health, for example Gangstead & Thornhill (1998) examined whether female olfactory preferences for men’s scent would favour the scent of more symmetrical men during the most fertile period (ovulation). Results did indicate that for non-pill users and those not at ovulation there was no relationship, but women at ovulation consistently preferred the scent of symmetrical men.

Herz & Inzlicht (2002) asked males and females to rank various physical characteristics in a potential partner. While males where primarily concerned with physical attractiveness, females considered a man's smell to be more important than 'looks', 'money' or 'ambition'.

3. The ability and willingness to engage in parenting activities.
These include teaching, nurturing, providing social support and opportunities, e.g. providing children with acquired knowledge and skills, intervening in social situations etc. It is no use finding a mate who has plentiful resources but who would be unwilling to invest them. Selection should also have favoured mechanisms in the female designed to detect and prefer males who were willing to convert status and resources into paternal assistance. La Cerra (1994) presented pictures of males in several different conditions and found that the picture of the male engaging in positive interactions with a small child yielded the most positive reactions, a picture showing a male ignoring a child in distress led to the most negative ratings.

Women highly value characteristics such as ‘dependability’, ‘maturity’ and ‘emotional stability’ as they indicate that the male will be willing to provide resources and continue his investment. Expressions of love may be a signal of regular commitment and the majority of women require love for a long-term relationship. Acts of commitment include: giving up romantic relationships with others; talking of marriage; and expressing the desire to have children.

Summary of Female Long-Term Preferences.

To attract a female as a long-term mating partner, a male should:

  • Demonstrate emotional stability and maturity, a kind nature, consideration, and dependability.

  • Be Generous (give to charity, buy presents etc)

  • Show evidence of ambition, hard work, and intelligence.

  • Demonstrate a willingness to commit time, affection and resources to a mate.

  • Be nice to babies and children.

  • Be of high social status and show good financial prospects, give off a strong social presence, and be respected by peers.

  • Show good health, facial and bodily symmetry, be taller than the woman in question, have wide shoulders and no beer belly.

  • Smell 'right'.

  • Have a full head of hair and have some facial hair (perhaps).


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