What Really Attracts Partners to Each Other?
"Building" a desirable partner to reveal which traits are most attractive.
Posted Apr 03, 2019
We would all like a partner who is physically attractive. Unfortunately, very few of us are sufficiently stunning to charm a catwalk model. This means we have to compromise. We choose a partner who possesses some, but perhaps not all, of the characteristics we most desire.
But how do we trade one characteristic off against another, and do different people value different things under different circumstances?
Carin Perilloux of Southwestern University in Texas, and Jaime Cloud of Western Oregon University ran a study to find out. They had 250 men and women imagine that they were single and that they could design an ideal opposite-sex partner.
Each volunteer was shown a list of physical traits. Half of the traits were facial: eyes, nose, hair, complexion, and smile. The other half were bodily traits: height, muscle tone or muscularity, breast or chest size, waist size, and hip size. The volunteers were told that they could adjust each of these traits to create a partner who was more or less attractive. Setting the partner’s hair, for example, to a value of 10 would result in a partner with the best hairstyle imaginable; a value of 0, the worst (which is obviously the pudding bowl Robert Pattinson sported for a while in 2015).
Now, you’re probably wondering why you wouldn’t crank every trait up to 10 and design yourself an Idris Elba or Scarlett Johansson. Well, because Perilloux and Cloud imposed a budget. Each volunteer only had a limited amount of points, so they had to decide which traits were most important to them. This is one way of simulating the compromises each of us has to make (except Idris and Scarlett, of course).
Some volunteers were given a large budget of 70 points, while others were given a small budget of 30 points. Participants were also randomly placed in one of two groups and given the task of designing a partner for a long- or short-term relationship.
The psychologists found that men who designed a partner for a long-term relationship allocated a larger proportion of their budget to facial traits than bodily traits, regardless of the size of their budget. That is, both competitive and uncompetitive men prefer a long-term partner who is facially rather than bodily attractive.
However, when men designed a partner for a short-term fling, they shifted their allocation to bodily traits — but only if they were uncompetitive. Men with a larger, more competitive budget still allocated more of their points to facial traits over bodily traits.
Women, meanwhile, allocated more points to facial traits regardless of budget and regardless of whether they were designing a partner for a long- or short-term relationship.
Why might this be? Perhaps it’s because preferences for physical characteristics are not arbitrary, but are based on what those traits communicate about their bearer.
When judging a female partner for a long-term relationship, men may be most interested in her long-term reproductive potential (this interest is not necessarily conscious). A woman’s long-term reproductive potential may be better communicated by her facial traits (complexion, cues to age such as wrinkles) than by her bodily traits. Hence why men desire a more facially attractive woman for a long-term relationship.
But current fertility may be better communicated by bodily traits (body shape can show if a woman is mature enough to conceive, or is currently pregnant). This may be why men focus more on bodily cues when seeking a partner for a fling.
Psychologists have known this for several years. What’s novel about Perilloux and Cloud’s study is that they have shown for the first time that the man’s competitiveness on the mating market (in this case, the size of his budget) affects his preferences.
Only men who are less competitive shift their preferences to bodily traits when judging for a short-term partner. This could be because bodily attractiveness only has to reach a certain minimum threshold for men to be satisfied: men who have points remaining prefer to spend these on additional facial rather than bodily attractiveness.
What about women? Throughout our species’ evolutionary history, women have had less call to attend to cues to a man’s fertility. There is also little reason to suspect that a man’s future or current fertility is better advertised by his facial or bodily traits. Therefore, it shouldn’t be surprising that women’s preferences don’t vary with relationship type or budget.
Perilloux and Cloud concede that their budget allocation task is hardly identical to the way we choose partners in the real world, although their findings are consistent with earlier research.
Perilloux, C., & Cloud, J. M. (in press). Mate-by-numbers: budget, mating context, and sex predict preferences for facial and bodily traits. Evolutionary Psychological Science. doi:10.1007/s40806–019–00187-z