There is an extensive literature in many disciplines on the topic of mate preferences and selection (Candolin, 2003; Prokosch, Coss, Scheib & Blozis, 2009; Shackelford, Schmitt & Buss, 2005; Schwarz & Hassenbrauck, 2012).
Much of the recent literature has been driven by debates on the power of the Body Mass Index (BMI) over Waist-to-Hip (WHR) ratios to attempt to determine the universality of male mate preferences (Dixson, Sagata, Linklater & Dixson, 2010). The debate has been won by the BMI school who argue from the data that it is the best and first-past-the-post choice factor when men look at women.
But there are a long list of other factors that play a part. They have one thing in common which is they are indicators of health and youth. Men like long shiny hair; they like a smooth skin. And they are very interested in symmetry.
Question: Why are men attracted to…
Youth: Young women are preferred by men as they have greater reproductive value than older women. This relates to the expected number of children that she is yet to have in her reproductive career. Evolutionary psychologists propose that this is the reason for males being attractive to young women, despite concern in civilised society with the age of consent. Yet, our ancestors did not come up against such laws, and thus the human brain finds it difficult to comprehend these rules which have not previously existed … and males are therefore attracted to young females.
Long Hair: Men seek to find healthy women to nurse their offspring and make good mothers. A good indicator of health is a woman’s hair. Healthy individuals have shiny hair, where the hair of the unhealthy loses its luster. During illness the body takes nutrients from non-vital parts of the body (the hair) and re-directs them to areas necessary for survival.
So, hair is a good indicator of good health. The rate of hair growth is very slow (approximately 6 inches per year), and therefore one can judge an individual’s past health from the quality of hair of differing lengths. If you experience illness, the section of hair growing in this time will be of lesser appearance than when you are well. In past years there was nothing a woman could do to disguise ill hair quality when she is unwell. Presently, older women tend to keep their hair shorter as they become less healthy, and do not want to keep tell-tale signs of illness on show.
Small Waists: 36-24-36 are considered the ideal measurements of a woman. Men universally prefer a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7. Why? It has been suggested that this is because healthy women have lower waist to hip ratios than healthy women. Diseases such as diabetes, hypertension and strokes change body-fat distribution, increasing waist-to-hip ratios. Women with lower waist-to-hip ratios also are more fertile, as they have larger amounts of reproductive hormones. Interestingly, the ratio fluctuates during the menstrual cycle, being at its lowest during ovulation, when a woman is most fertile. Men are unconsciously looking out for healthier and more fertile women.
Large Breasts: Larger and thus heavier breasts sag more evidently with age than do smaller ones, making it easier for a man to judge a woman’s age. In the ancestral environment there was no calendar and concept of birthdays and so women did not keep track of their age. Larger breasts were therefore a better basis to judge age, and therefore reproductive value, upon.
However, there is a competing hypothesis. A recent study of Polish women found that those with large breasts and a small waist were the most fertile, based on the level of their reproductive hormones. It may be that men therefore prefer women with large breasts for the same reason they have a preference for women with small waists.
Blonde Hair: Blonde hair is another indicator of a woman’s age and thus reproductive value. Blonde hair changes dramatically with age, darkening after a blonde has her first child, with her oestrogen levels reducing, and more so with the birth of her next children. Young girls who have blonde hair often grow up to become women with brown hair.
So, if males are attracted to blonde hair, they are unconsciously trying to reproduce with younger women, with higher reproductive value, and greater health. Blonde hair evolved in Scandinavia and Northern Europe, where the climate was cooler and our ancestors were clothed. Males therefore needed an indicator of age other than the distribution of a woman’s body fat. Men then evolved the predisposition to prefer blonde women. This can explain the “blondes are dumb” stereotype, as the average age of light blondes in the ancestral environment would have been a teenager, where for brunettes in the same environment would have been much older, perhaps 35. A blonde female in such times would therefore have been much less experienced and wise. It is the case that younger people are less knowledgeable, as opposed to those with blonde hair being less knowledgeable.
Blue Eyes: The only available explanation for the universal liking for blue eyes was offered in 2002. The human pupil dilates when it is exposed to a stimulus that it likes – e.g. the pupils of women dilate when they see babies. This can be used as an honest indication of an individual’s liking for something. So we cannot hide our attraction to someone, as we cannot control this automatic dilation.
Blue is the lightest colour of human iris, and therefore the dark brown pupil is easiest to observe in blue eyes. Therefore, it is easiest to judge whether another is attracted to you if they have blue eyes. This helps explain the liking for blue eyes in both sexes, as it is equally important for a woman to judge whether a male is attracted to her. This theory can also justify why people with brown eyes can be considered “mysterious.” The pupil is difficult to judge against the dark colour of brown irises, and so we cannot judge whether they are attracted to us.
Studies have looked at specific features of mate preferences (Fletcher, Simpson, Thomas & Giles, 1999; Furnham et al, 2011) as well as trade-offs and compromises in mate choice (Shackleford et al., 2005); and the effect of self-appraisal on mate choice (Kenrick, Groth, Trost & Sadalla, 1995).
Kurzban and Weeden (2005) found the agreed-upon mate values for both sexes were related almost entirely due to observable physical attributes like age, attractiveness, BMI and height and not those less observable characteristics like education, religion, socio-sexuality or ideas about children.
Some research has specified the role of personality factors (Wood & Brumbaugh, 2009) in mate selection. Gebauer et al. (2013) found two individual difference dimensions namely agency and warmth were highly valued cross-culturally. In Big Five terminology this appears to be two traits of Extraversion or Sociability. Furnham (2009) found females rated intelligence, Stability, Conscientiousness, height, education, social skills and political/religious compatibility significantly higher than males, who rated good looks higher than females. Regressions showed sex, personality and ideology were consistently related to partner preference.
Furnham and Tsoi (2012) found as predicted, females rated indicators of earning power significantly higher than males, who rated good looks and heredity higher. Effects of similarity attraction were shown in education and financial background, self-assessed attractiveness, values, and personality. Regressions showed that sex, personality and self-ratings (aggression and patience) were consistently related to partner preferences. More recently Neto, Pinto and Furnham (2012) replicated these findings in Brazil and Portugal.
Furnham and McClelland (2015b) presented 258 male respondents with 16 hypothetical females which they were asked to rate for suitability as long term partners. The hypothetical females differed with respect to: academic ability (high/average); athleticism (high/low) and two personality variables; extraversion (introvert/extravert) and neuroticism (stable/neurotic). Overall males preferred intelligent, athletic, extravert, stable females as potential long term partners. Effect sizes showed that being extravert was seen as being the most important characteristic and being athletic as the least important.
There was a strong preference for Sanguine Stable Extraverts who are classed as easygoing, responsive, and lively, and an avoidance of Melancholic Unstable Introverts classified as anxious, rigid and reserved. This certainly makes sense in terms of evolutionary theory. Nettle (2006) considered the positive benefits and negative costs of the Big Five personality types. Thus Extraverts are attractive because they have big social networks and are good at initiating, but not always maintaining relationships. They tend to be happy, though somewhat impulsive. There are few positive benefits of being Neurotic save social sensitivity and hyper-vigilance. There are however many costs associated with anxiety, depression, poor mental and physical health and stress sensitivity.
So: what do men look for in women? They look essentially for signs of youth, health and fecundity. They might also look for signs of healthy characteristics that the female might pass onto his children, like emotional intelligence and stability
All very well… but there is always the problem of individual differences. Not all men favour curvy, blue-eyed blonds. The question for the evolutionary psychologists is why some men clearly favour women who are not the perfect BMI (21-23) or WHR (.7) or indeed have none of the characteristics set out above. Indeed what does best determine mate choice? And the answer lies in many other things beside physical characteristics like values and beliefs.
Candolin, U. (2003). The use of multiple cues in mate choice. Biological Reviews, 78, 575-595.
Dixson, B., Sagata, K., Linklater, W., & Dixson, A. (2010). Male preference for female waist-to-hip ratio and body mass index in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 141, 620-625.
Fletcher, G., Simpson, J., Thomas, G., & Giles, L. (1999). Ideals in intimate relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 72-89.
Furnham, A. (2009). Sex differences in mate selection preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 47, 622-627.
Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2015). What women want in a man: The role of age, social class, ethnicity, and height. Psychology, 6,278–290.
Furnham, A. and McClelland, A. (2015) What Men Want in a Woman: Personality Is More Important than Academic Record or Athleticism. Psychology, 6, 942-947.
Furnham, A., & Tsoi, T. (2012) Personality, gender and background predictors of mate selection. North American Journal of Psychology, 14, 435-454.
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Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005) Hurrydate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26, 227-244.
Neto, F., Pinto, M., & Furnham, A. (2012). Sex and culture similarities and differences in long-term partner preferences. Journal of Relationships Research, 3, 57-66.
Nettle, D. (2006). The evolution of personality variation in humans and other animals. American Psychologist, 61, 622-631.
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Swami, V., & Furnham, A. (2008). The Psychology of Physical Attractiveness. Hove: Psychology Press.
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Wood, D., & Brumbaugh, C. (2009). Using revealed mare preferences to evaluate market Force and differential preference explanations for mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1226-1244.