“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This classic saying means that we all have a different opinion about what is beautiful. When it comes to romantic relationships, is this really the case? A common field of study for psychologists is attraction and mate preference: what do people look for in a husband, wife, or lover? Buss’s classic study shows us that our preferences might have a biological basis, but it also shows that culture can have an influence as well.
There are numerous factors that influence our mate selection. You may already be familiar with some of these factors from previous studies, such as MHC genes, facial characteristics, proximity and familiarity, among others (read more here).
Some of these factors operate on an unconscious level, that is to say, we are not aware that they are influencing our decisions. For instance, girls don’t think to themselves, “ooh, I like his sexy, deep voice. He must have high levels of testosterone which means he can obtain high social status and have more access to resources or me and my children.” On the other hand, there are some qualities that do operate on a more conscious level. For example, if a man has no money, his potential date may think that he wouldn’t be able to provide for her in the future and could be less attracted to him.
But are there differences between the qualities that men and women look for in a potential partner? If there are differences, are they universal across cultures? Perhaps some cultures place higher value on certain qualities than others. These are the questions that David M. Buss set out to investigate in his cross-cultural research study of around 10,000 participants across 37 cultures.
Based on previous research that investigates evolutionary explanations of mate selection, Buss made some hypotheses. Here is a summary of some of those predictions:
- Resources: Men “invest” less than females in the physical act of having a baby. Therefore, in order for the offspring to have a higher chance of survival, the male must provide more resources and make other “investments”. To this end, the researchers predicted that females would place higher value on characteristics that related to earning capacity (e.g. ambition, industriousness) than males would.
- Youth and Fertility: Research shows that females are most fertile in their early 20s, and fertility decreases after this age. Physical signs of youth are observable by healthy hair and skin, and good muscle tone of a woman. The fertility of a man does not necessarily decrease throughout his life. Therefore, the researchers predicted that males would be more likely to value physical attractiveness than females because they are a stronger predictor of fertility for females than they are for males.
- Certainty of paternity v. maternity: There is never any doubt that the baby a mother is carrying in her stomach contains half of her genetic material (unless of course she is a surrogate mother, which is a recent development). However, men have no way (except for modern DNA tests) of knowing that the offspring is theirs. Some researchers propose that jealousy has evolved to serve an evolutionary purpose: it increases “paternal probability”. Chastity may also serve the same purpose: to ensure that future offspring are definitely that of the male partner. The researchers predicted that males would value chastity more than females.
The research aim was to test the above predictions by investigating the different preferences of each gender (and culture) on heterosexual mate preferences. There were 10,047 participants from 33 countries (37 different cultures) with a mean age of participants ranged from 16-28. The samples, however, are not representative of each culture as generally speaking less educated and lower levels of socioeconomic status were not well-represented in the samples. The total 37 samples do, however, represent an incredibly diverse range of geographic, political, ethnic, cultural political and racial backgrounds as was the largest sample of mate selection at the time of study.
Participants were asked to rate 18 specific traits as 0 – 3 (0 = undesirable to 3 = indispensable). Examples of traits include good looks, chastity, ambition, industriousness, sociability. Biographical information was collected on the participants and information on preferences regarding marriage (e.g. age to get married, age of preferred partner, etc.) .They were also given 13 characteristics and they were asked to rank them in order from 1 – 13, examples of these characteristics are “good earning capacity” and “physically attractive”.
The materials were translated using three translators who first translated into the language required for the relevant culture, then back translated into English and then the third translator fixed the differences between the first two translations.
The results gathered supported Buss’ hypotheses. Females from 36/37 cultures valued “good financial prospects” higher than males. Males, however, preferred mates that were younger, while females preferred males who were older. This result was cross-checked with other data and it shows that on average, men are older than women when couples are married. There was also moderate support for the gender chastity hypothesis: males from 62% of the cultures valued this more than females.
Interestingly, men from collectivist cultures tended to place higher values on chastity, and domestic skills than individualistic cultures. Women from collectivist cultures tended to place higher importance on ambition, social status and financial prospects that women from individualistic cultures.
- Evolution and Behaviour: Because men across cultures had similar preferences, and so did the women, it suggests that these preferences have a biological basis and are not a product of culture (because all of their cultures are different). These results were similar to Buss’s hypotheses. Perhaps we find particular qualities and features attractive because they give our offspring the highest chance of survival in the future.
- Culture and Behaviour: Because there were some differences in preference across cultures, these could be explained by looking at the particular cultural values associated with individualistic and collectivist cultures. For example, men from individualistic cultures might place less emphasis on domestic skills because they have been raised to be more independent and look after themselves. Collectivist cultures also tend to be more traditional with more defined gender roles (e.g. men work and provide for the family while the women take care of domestic duties). With stricter gender roles comes more preference for the qualities that would make someone successful in that role. You might be able to see why Buss’s work is not without controversy.
Critical Thinking Questions:
- Why are there differences in mate preferences between individualistic and collectivist cultures?
- How can this study be used to demonstrate the role of culture on the formation (and maintenance?) of relationships?
- How can the results of this study be used to explain how and why we have evolved to find particular traits in the opposite sex attractive?
- What are the ethical concerns related to this study?
- What are the strengths and limitations of this research?
- How do these results demonstrate interactions of biological and sociocultural factors?
References: Buss, M. David. (1989) Sex Differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 12: 1 – 49 (accessed April 2014 http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu.)
Travis Dixon is an IB Psychology teacher, author, workshop leader, examiner and IA moderator.