David P Schmitt Ph.D.

Sexual Personalities

The “No Voice in Mate Choice Myth"

How do foragers choose their mates?

Posted Feb 28, 2016

Evolutionary psychologists have suggested humans possess evolved mate preferences. When long-term mating, men are hypothesized to desire fertility-related cues such as youth and physical attractiveness, whereas women are thought to desire cues to a partner’s ability and willingness to devote resources to her and their offspring. Evidence supporting the existence of evolved mate preferences is substantial (see Schmitt, 2014), including experimental evidence, contrast effects, real-world mate choices, fertility-related outcomes, and more (see here).   

Still, even if humans possess evolved mating desires, how do we go about acting on them when it comes to making an actual mate choice? In the real-world, mate choices are never really “free” in the sense that trade-offs and competing reproductive interests exist within every person (e.g., should one emphasize health or wealth, excitement or stability, given fitness-related circumstances?), across potential mates (each potential partner has plusses and minuses; marrying one means not marrying another, usually), and across genetically-related people (e.g., families can have a strong influence on mate choice, parents often have similar reproductive interests of their offspring, though not completely identical; Apostolou, 2010a; Perilloux  et al., 2011; Trivers, 1974; Walker et al., 2011).

In cases where parents play a large role (e.g., entirely arranged marriages with no veto power on the part of the betrothed), mate preferences can still function in adaptive ways (e.g., mate choice adaptations may exist in parents; parental mate choice does not make preferential mate selection “unevolved”). In humans, although kin play a big role (or try to) in much of our romantic lives (Faulkner & Schaller, 2007), existing evidence suggests there is a good degree personal mate choice, even in pre-industrialized cultures.

Evidence of Personal Mate Choice in Long-Term Mating

In long-term mating, Broude and Greene (1983) found among the Standard Cross-Cultural Sample (SCCS)—186 cultures specifically selected to fairly represent pre-industrialized human societies—that personal choice plays an active role in 70% of cultures for men and 56% of cultures for women. Indeed, in only 13% of cultures for men and 21% of cultures for women do people not at least have “veto power” over their spousal selection (see also Pasternak et al., 1997).

Among only the hunter-gatherer cultures of the SCCS, marriages are the result of the personal choices of men (or personal choice subject to his parents approval) in about 63% of cultures, for women personal choice is operative in 44% of cultures (Apostolou, 2010b). A double standard certainly exists, but personal mate choice for men and women is prevalent across human cultures. When it comes to second marriages (not uncommon in most pre-industrial cultures; divorce or widowhood are more the norm, actually; Broude & Greene, 1983), there is often even more personal mate choice involved. It is extremely difficult to reconcile this evidence with the argument there has been little to no personal mate choice in our ancestral past. Parental mate choice is an important and understudied topic, but to argue personal mate choice is negligible is factually off the mark.

Evidence of Personal Mate Choice in Short-Term Mating (Pre-marital)

Personal expressions of adaptive mate choice also occur in short-term mating contexts (i.e., extra-marital sex, pre-marital sex, etc.). Looking at data from the SCCS, pre-marital sex is quite common. Having pre-marital sex is considered “universal” among men in 59% of SCCS cultures, for women pre-marital sex is “universal” in 47% of cultures (Broude & Greene, 1976). Pre-marital sex is “uncommon” in men in only 13% of SCCS cultures, for women it is “uncommon” in 21% of cultures. Overall, it seems likely there was a lot of opportunity for pre-marital mate choice in our ancestral past (to the degree that the SCCS represents our ancestral past, which is limited).

Evidence of Personal Mate Choice in Short-Term Mating (Extra-marital)

There was also a lot of extra-marital sex in our ancestral past, apparently. In the SCCS, although most cultures have some sort of sexual double standard (affairs more allowed for men than women), in 20% of SCCS cultures women are entirely allowed to have affairs, and in another 34% affairs are not officially allowed but are “apparently not uncommon” for women. Even higher rates are found for men. No surprise there (see here).

Although I don’t agree with the premise that humans are ONLY designed for short-term mating, the book Sex at Dawn does a good job documenting the many ways humans appear to have evolved short-term mating desires and express personal short-term mate preferences (Ryan & Jethá, 2010).


Human mating takes many forms. As Chapais (2013) noted, "Compared to that of other primates, the human mating system is extremely flexible. It combines short-term and long-term mating bonds, and both types may be overt (known to all group members) or covert (unknown to a majority of group members and disapproved of)...A mixed system of polygyny and monogamy prevails in more than 80% of human societies...As to short-term sexual bonds, they are frequent and characterize both sexes."

So, the argument that humans could not have evolved personal mate choice adaptations because they never really had any chance to chose their own mates in our ancestral past (particularly due to arranged marriages) just doesn’t hold water. There appears to have been (and still is) a lot of personal mate choice among hunter-gatherer men and women. It is true that evolutionary psychologists should also study the influence of parental desires on mate choice, and they do (Apostolou, 2010a, 2011; Buunk et al., 2008; Perilloux et al., 2011). But it’s simply untrue (I dislike the tendency for people to call things myths, but perhaps in this case it is accurate to label it the “no voice in mate choice myth") that ancestral parents arranged all marriages and there is no (or very little) personal mate choice within hunter-gatherer cultures. 

As to whether self-reported sex differences in mate preferences involving personal choice are valid (see Schmitt, 2014), this post outlines several converging lines of evidence that confirm sex differences in expressed mate preferences, including experimental evidence, contrast effects, real-world mate choices, fertility-related outcomes, and more. I know what you’re thinking…yes, but…


Apostolou, M. (2010a). Parental choice: What parents want in a son-in-law and a daughter-in-law across 67 pre-industrial societies. British Journal of Psychology, 101, 695-704.

Apostolou, M. (2010b). Sexual selection under parental choice in agropastoral societies. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31, 39-47.

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

Broude, G. J., & Greene, S. J. (1976). Cross-cultural codes on twenty sexual attitudes and practices. Ethnology, 409-429.

Broude, G. J., & Greene, S. J. (1983). Cross-cultural codes on husband-wife relationships. Ethnology, 263-280.

Buunk, A. P., Park, J. H., &  Dubbs, S. L. (2008). Parent-offspring conflict in mate preferences. Review of General Psychology, 12, 47-62.

Chapais, B. (2013). Monogamy, strongly bonded groups, and the evolution of human social structure. Evolutionary Anthropology: Issues, News, and Reviews, 22(2), 52-65.

Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2007). Nepotistic nosiness: Inclusive fitness and vigilance of kin members’ romantic relationships. Evolution & Human Behavior, 28, 430-438.

Pasternak, B., & Ember, M. (1997). Sex, gender, and kinship: A cross-cultural perspective. Pearson College Division.

Perilloux, C., Fleischman, D. S., and Buss, D. M. (2011). Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 50, 253-258.

Ryan, C., & Jethá, C. (2010). Sex at dawn: The prehistoric origins of modern sexuality. Harper Collins.

Schmitt, D.P. (2014). Evaluating evidence of mate preference adaptations: How do we really know what Homo sapiens sapiens really want? In Weekes-Shackelford, V.A., & Shackelford, T.K. (Eds.), Evolutionary perspectives on human sexual psychology and behavior (pp. 3-39). New York: Springer.

Trivers, R. (1974). Parent offspring conflict. American Zoologist, 24, 249–264.

Walker, R. S., Hill, K. R., Flinn, M. V., & Ellsworth, R. M. (2011). Evolutionary history of hunter-gatherer marriage practices. PloS one, 6(4), e19066.