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Would You Give Up Good Looks for a Great Personality?

The traits that motivate our dating and mating decisions may surprise us.

Source: SaMBa/Shutterstock

Try this for yourself: Ask a female friend which characteristics are most important to her in a romantic partner. How do you think she will reply? How would you reply? When researchers ask women which traits are most important in a romantic partner, they rarely mention physical attractiveness. In response to an open-ended question in our own recent research project, women responded that honesty, respectfulness, and trustworthiness were the three most important traits in a male partner (Fugère et al., 2017a). Other research reveals similar findings: In Perilloux et al.’s (2011) research, women ranked the attribute “attractive” fourth in importance, behind kindness, intelligence, and having an exciting personality, while in Lippa’s (2007) research, women rated sense of humor as the most important trait in a mate followed by intelligence, honesty, and kindness—good looks was eighth. Men, however, more readily recognize that physical attractiveness in a female mate is important to them (see Lippa, 2007; Perilloux et al., 2011; Fugère et al., 2017a).

One day, as part of a class demonstration, I challenged my students to think about whether physical attractiveness was really unimportant to their dating decisions. I showed them photographs of people who'd been rated relatively unattractive, and asked which students would be interested in dating these individuals. None of my students were interested in dating the unattractive individuals, even when I assured them that those individuals were extremely kind, honest, and respectful.

So, are looks really less important to us than other characteristics?

My research assistants and I decided to investigate this question experimentally (Fugère et al., 2017b). We asked women and their mothers to look at three photographs of men differing in physical attractiveness. Each photograph was accompanied by a trait profile for each man. One trait profile was the “respectful” profile, which consisted of the traits respectful, honest, and trustworthy; one was the “friendly” profile, which included the traits friendly, dependable, and mature; and the other was the “pleasing” profile, which contained the traits pleasing disposition, ambitious, and intelligent. We then asked women and their mothers to rate each man for his physical attractiveness, personality favorability, and overall dating desirability.

The results surprised us: First, although both women and their mothers tend to say that traits such as respect and honesty are more important than good looks (see Apostolou, 2011, Apostolou, 2015; Fugère et al., 2017a; Perilloux et al., 2011), both women and their mothers preferred the attractive and moderately attractive targets to the unattractive target, regardless of which man was associated with which personality characteristics. Further, the attractive and moderately attractive men were perceived as having more desirable personalities, regardless of the traits associated with each target picture. This result may have stemmed from a “halo effect,” in which attractive individuals are expected to be happier and to have more rewarding life experiences than unattractive individuals (Dion et al., 1972; Griffin and Langlois, 2006). We found that personality traits were more important than physical attractiveness only when the men were at least moderately attractive. Men with the most desirable personality profile (the “respectful” profile) were rated more favorably than their counterparts only when they were moderately attractive or more attractive. Unattractive men were never rated as more desirable partners by daughters (as a mate for themselves) or by mothers (as a mate for their daughters), even when they possessed the most desirable trait profiles.

The results of our research raised the intriguing possibility that women may not consciously realize which traits are most important to them in a romantic partner. We concluded that a minimum level of physical attractiveness is a necessity, for both women and their mothers. When women and their parents state that other traits are more important than physical attractiveness, they may assume that potential mates meet a minimally acceptable standard of physical attractiveness. We seem to be more likely to give up a great personality to obtain a good-looking partner, rather than to give up good looks for a great personality.

Would you agree that a minimum level of physical attractiveness is a necessity? Or would you choose a mate for yourself who possessed the traits you most desired, no matter their looks? Your answer may depend upon how long you’ve known that potential mate: In our research, women didn’t know the men in the photographs at all; the only information they could ascertain involved their physical attractiveness (from the photographs), as well as the three listed personality traits accompanying their photographs. Other research suggests that as we get to know, like, and respect each other more, our attraction to others intensifies (Kniffin and Wilson, 2004). The longer we know one another, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship (Hunt et al., 2015).

  • Check out our book The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships, available on Amazon.
  • Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.
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Apostolou, M. (2015). Parent–offspring conflict over mating: Domains of agreement and disagreement. Evolutionary Psychology, 13(3), 1-12. doi:10.1177/1474704915604561

Apostolou, M. (2011). Parent-offspring conflict over mating: Testing the tradeoffs hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9,470–495.

Buss, D., Shackelford, T., Kirkpatrick, L., & Larsen, R. (2001). A half century of mate preferences: The cultural evolution of values. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(2), 491–503. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00491.x

Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. doi:10.1037/h0033731

Fugère, M. A., Doucette, K., Chabot, C., & Cousins, A. J. (2017a). Similarities and differences in mate preferences among parents and their adult children. Personality and Individual Differences, 111, 80-85.

Fugère, M. A., Chabot, C., Doucette, K., & Cousins, A. J. (2017b). The importance of physical attractiveness to the mate choices of women and their mothers. Evolutionary Psychological Science, 1-10.

Griffin, A. M., & Langlois, J. H. (2006). Stereotype directionality and attractiveness stereotyping: Is beauty good or is ugly bad? Social Cognition, 24(2), 187–206. doi:10.1521/soco.2006.24.2.187

Hunt, L. L., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2015). Leveling the playing field: Longer acquaintance predicts reduced assortative mating on attractiveness. Psychological Science, 0956797615579273.

Kniffin, K. M., & Wilson, D. (2004). The effect of nonphysical traits on the perception of physical attractiveness: Three naturalistic studies. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(2), 88–101. doi:10.1016/S1090-5138(04)00006-6

Lippa, R. A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(2), 193–208. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9151-2

Perilloux, C., Fleischman, D. S., & Buss, D. M. (2011). Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 253-258. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.039

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