Romance novels offer a wonderful medium for studying women’s preferred male archetypes, a topic that has been investigated extensively by fellow Psychology Today bloggers Catherine Salmon and Maryanne Fisher. Of note, I explore the Darwinian roots of products of popular culture including romance novels in my books The Evolutionary Bases of Consumption, and The Consuming Instinct: What Juicy Burgers, Ferraris, Pornography, and Gift Giving Reveal About Human Nature. Not surprisingly, short, unemployed, pear-shaped men with high-pitched nasal voices are not the epitome of manhood as far as most women are concerned. On the other hand, the tall neurosurgeon who happens to also be a Count, who exhibits an impeccably symmetric six-pack, and who wrestles alligators during his spare time for fun, now that’s sexy! This male archetype might be extreme (supernormal stimuli) but it speaks to key attributes that women desire in an ideal man including intelligence, nurturance, social status, athleticism, physical dominance, and risk-taking. Colloquially, one often hears of the “brain versus brawn” dichotomy but ideally a man should possess all of the relevant qualities along both dimensions.

When it comes to physical-related traits (e.g., height or facial symmetry), evolutionary psychologists have found that women place differential import on these depending on the situation at hand (e.g., seeking a short-term versus long-term mate; fertile versus non-fertile phase of the menstrual cycle). A 2012 study published in Personality and Individual Differences and authored by Gayle Brewer and Sharon Howarth suggests that the latter temporal effect might not always apply. The researchers explored women’s ratings of an average-looking man who was otherwise described in one of four ways: (1) he plays no sports; (2) he plays sports albeit on a casual basis; (3) he plays competitively in non-aggressive sports; or (4) he plays competitively in aggressive sports. No information was provided about what might constitute aggressive (e.g., boxing) versus non-aggressive sports (e.g., badminton). Female participants (n = 84; average age = 25.52) evaluated one of four versions of a color facial photo of the male target corresponding to the latter four descriptions of sports participation. The man was assessed in terms of his attractiveness, as well as his desirability for a wide range of relationships (date, relationship, sexual relationship, long-term relationship, marriage, and parenthood). Each measure was captured on a ten-point Likert scale with higher scores corresponding to greater attractiveness and desirability for a relationship.

Without getting into all of the statistical details, the general pattern was the following: Across all relationship types (i.e., for short-term and long-term mating), men who did not participate in sports or who did so casually were judged as the least desirable while those who played competitively in aggressive sports were judged as the most attractive. For those who might have access to the published article, Figure 1 (p. 641) provides a nice pictorial representation of the full set of results.

Bottom line: All other things equal, men who are athletic, competitive, and physically dominant (as captured by their ability to participate in aggressive sports) are desired by women for relationships across the full spectrum of commitments (a date to parenthood).

If you found this article of interest, you may wish to check out some of my related posts on the attractiveness of men sporting a facial scar (see here), the relationship between top NFL quarterbacks and their good looks (see here), and women’s “fireman” fantasy (see here).

A parting note: On rare previous occasions, I have received comments from folks who were “offended” because I had used a teaser image of an alluring and sexy woman (in an otherwise relevant manner). In the spirit of “equal offense,” I trust that the same folks should now write me to express their disapproval of my having used an image that exploits and objectifies these handsome Italian soccer players. I await the scorn. ☺

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