One Way Women Choose a Husband

Most women really do want to marry a man just like dad--or at least one who looks like him. That's the word from an international team of researchers, who have shown that women use their fathers as a template for choosing a mate--even if those women were adopted.

The process is called "sexual imprinting," lead study author Tamas Bereczkei of the University of Pécs in Hungary told New Scientist. Many husbands and wives do seem to look like each other, especially after years of living together. This may not be our imagination. Bereczkei says that couples who look alike are more likely to share common genes. Having a small degree of similarity is actually beneficial.

"There seems to be an advantage for animals to select a mate somewhat similar to themselves genetically," research team member Glenn Weisfeld, a human ethologist at Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich., told New Scientist. "One good possibility is that there are some fortuitous genetic combinations which are retained in the offspring if both parents are similar. In humans there is evidence to show a lower rate of miscarriage." Of course, there is a careful balance that must be struck between the benefits of marrying someone who is genetically similar the obviously harmful effects of inbreeding.

The study: Imprinting is a fast and instinctive way of learning. Newborn ducklings, for example, bond to the first thing they see. Using photographs of 26 adoptive families (so inherited preferences could be ruled out), the researchers asked 250 student volunteers to rate similarities within three sets of images of the 26 adoptive families. New Scientist reports that the first showed photos of the wife and four possible husbands, one of whom was the real spouse. The second showed a photo of the adoptive father as he would have looked when his daughter was between two and eight years of age, and the possible husbands. The third set showed the adoptive mother and the four possible husbands.

The results: The students were able to match the real husbands and wives far more accurately than they would have done just by chance. But what was most striking was the facial resemblance between the husbands and adoptive fathers. (There was no significant resemblance between the husband and the adoptive mother.)

An unexpected finding: Dads who were judged by their adopted daughters to have showed the most emotional warmth were much more likely to have sons-in-law who looked like them. "Our results support the notion of a long-lasting effect of attachment during childhood on later mating preferences," the team concluded, suggesting that people form a "mental model" of their opposite-sex parent's appearance, which they then seek out in later life, notes New Scientist.

The study findings were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London.