Tyler Olson/Shutterstock
Source: Tyler Olson/Shutterstock

‘Athletic, ambitious man with own house seeks attractive female’  ‘Young attractive female, looking for ambitious career-minded man who likes children’.  OK, so the descriptions are very brief and blunt, but when you look carefully, is this really the pattern we see in how males and females advertise themselves on dating sites?  Now we have come to the month of Valentine’s Day again, we ask ‘are these features in what males and females are seeking from a romantic partner accurate?’

Evolutionary psychology tells us that males seek physical attractiveness in a female partner and advertise their status (money, power, and ambition), whereas females seek status in a male partner (resources and power) and advertise their physical attractiveness.  Furthermore, studies in which adverts in personal columns have been constructed in ways similar to the descriptions above have found that response rates to male advertisers to be dependent on descriptions of financial success and response rates to female advertisers to be dependent on descriptions of physical attractiveness.  Typically, profiles contain fairly brief verbal descriptions of the person advertising themselves, plus a few lines regarding the type of person they may be seeking.  These findings are consistent with studies which have examined mating preferences revealing physical attractiveness to be an important consideration for males, whereas financial resources are considered important to females (Buss, 1989).

However research examining gender differences in mating preferences typically employ a methodology which asks people to deliberately state what they were looking for in a potential romantic partner (deliberate choice).  However, we don’t make all decisions in this deliberate way, and some of our decisions about things are made by rather more spontaneous emotional responses, and this happens in partner choice also.  In other words, there is a difference between deliberate and spontaneous choices. 

Online Dating

One of the obvious differences between assessing and evaluating someone we meet face-to-face with a view to commencing a romantic relationship and assessing and evaluating their online dating profile is that in the case of the dating profile, we make decisions based on having very little information about the person in the profile (just a photo and a very brief description).  We probably make decisions in an environment such as an online dating site in a more deliberate manner which may not necessarily be consistent with our more spontaneous preferences.  The question then is whether the requirements males and females typically state they specify in a romantic partner as outlined above are affected by the way in which we make our decisions?

What do Females Choose?

In their study Rajees Sritharan and colleagues employed 100 female undergraduates in a study on attitudes and impression formation.  The participants in this study were shown pictures of hypothetical online dating profiles of a male described as being 22 years old.  The males were either attractive or unattractive and described as being either high or low in ambition in terms of whether they wanted to attend Law School or whether they had given up on the grounds that it was too competitive (Sritharan, Heilpern, Wilbur & Gawronski, 2010).  Quite simply, the researchers examined the differences between their participants’ deliberate evaluations (more considered) and spontaneous evaluations of the male dating profile with which they were presented. 

What they found was not necessarily consistent with the evolutionary psychology explanation of what females are looking for in a male partner.  When female participants made spontaneous decisions regarding the male in the dating profile they had been shown, it was only the physical attractiveness of the male which affected their judgements.  It was only when the female participants made deliberate (more considered) evaluations of the male in the dating profile, that male stated ambition became important to the female evaluations.  However, male attractiveness still remained important even when they made these more considered, deliberate decisions.  Overall then this seems to suggest that maybe ambitious males are not always as desirable as previously suggested by evolutionary psychology.

What do Males Choose?

As mentioned above, it is consistently suggested that males seek physical attractiveness in a potential female partner.  In an online dating environment, one measure of what males might be looking for in a potential partner is the number of messages they send.  Data reported by OK Cupid suggest that on their dating website at least, there appears to be a very weak connection between physical attractiveness ratings of females and the number of messages they receive.  What this suggests is that males are not just seeking females who are physically attractive, or at least they are not always seeking females who might be considered classically attractive, but are seeking less physically attractive females also .  In some cases females whose measured attractiveness was rated as below average received as many messages as those whose measured attractiveness was rated as above average. 

So why is this the case?  The suggestion is that this effect is down to male dating strategies.  There are fewer attractive females than there are males pursuing such females, (too much competition) and therefore while males might seek to maximize their chances by pursuing females rated as attractive, they also actively pursue less attractive females in an attempt to at least secure a date.

The Good News

The evidence above suggests it is not always the case that males pursue physical attractiveness in a female partner or that females seek status in a male partner (resources and power).  On the contrary, depending on the way in which they make their decisions females seek physical attractiveness in males, over and above ambition and resources, whereas males are not always seeking classically physically attractive females.  The advice as always in constructing your dating profile is not to succumb to advertising yourself in a way in which you think others might like, but to be honest.  The way in which you are evaluated, may not be how you think.   

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References

Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1–49.

Rudder, C. (2011, January 10). The Mathematics of Beauty. OK Cupid. Retrieved from https://blog.okcupid.com/index.php/the-mathematics-of-beauty/

Sritharan, R., Heilpern, K., Wilbur, C. J., & Gawronski, B. (2010) I think I like you: Spontaneous and deliberate evaluations of potential romantic partners in an online dating context, European Journal of Social Psychology, 40, 1062-1077.

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