It’s a well-established stereotype that most men prefer beauty over brains. Some of it may be biological, sure, but a new review of research suggests modern attitudes towards picking a mate have changed a lot since caveman times — today’s men increasingly value brains over beauty when choosing a long-term partner.
A team of scientists from the University of Innsbruck and Northwestern University took a look at the attitudes of men from different types of countries around the world, and found many that opposed traditional thinking.
“Our review across several disciplines suggest that mating preferences of men as well as women have responded with unsuspected speed to progress toward gender equality,” said Marcel Zentner, professor of psychology at University of Innsbruck in Austria, in a press release.
Many researchers believe we are “hardwired” to choose mates with certain characteristics and qualities, but some evolutionary specialists are now arguing that humans are programmed to respond flexibly to new environments and situations.
“This flexibility allows people to do what sociocultural theorists have maintained for a long time: Select partners who minimize the costs and maximize the benefits that they will experience in their future lives,” explained Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.
Eagly and Zentner looked at both cultures and individuals. Cross-cultural research suggested that in more gender-egalitarian countries, such as the United States and Finland, men and women were less likely to trade male earning power for female youth and beauty. This preference, which some evolutionary scientists believe is innate, was much more popular in countries with a more gender-unequal society, like Turkey.
When the team looked at individuals, they found what men and women want in a partner had changed in a way that parallels the way gender roles have changed in recent history. In the U.S., 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the workforce, and in 38 percent of marriages where the woman is in the labor force, she makes more than her husband. A man’s education and status have long been considered an important trait by women, but now men are beginning to view these attributes in a much more meaningful light.
In decades past, it may have made more sense for women to choose men who could provide for the family, and for men to pick a wife who could produce children and complete domestic tasks. Modern times and the push for gender equality have changed that, according to Eagly.
“In today’s world, where both partners can (and often must) work to achieve a decent lifestyle, most men want an educated, intelligent wife who can earn a good wage,” she said. “In turn, men can worry somewhat less about producing wealth but may benefit from brushing up their looks and domestic skills.”
This research challenges the many biologically fueled preferences humans seem to cling to when choosing mates — women liking tall men, men finding women with wide hips attractive — and suggests our environment and social surroundings may have a large impact on what we look for in a partner.
Source: Eagly A, Zetner M. A sociocultural framework for understanding partner preferences of women and men; integration of concepts and evidence. European review of Social Psychology. 2016.