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Out of Your League? A Scientific Assessment of Mate Value

People's notions about how good a catch they are don't correspond to reality.

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Here's a straightforward question. Who do you think has the higher self-perceived "mate value"—a woman in her 20s, or a woman in her 40s?

Common sense would tell us that the 20-somethings would rate themselves higher on this dimension. New research published in Evolutionary Psychology, however, finds that the two groups score almost identically.

Why is this so? Before attempting to explain this counterintuitive finding, let's first take a look at how researchers define mate value. As you might expect, mate value refers to one's self-perceived desirability as a romantic/mating partner. It is defined by one's combined answers to the following four questions (rated on a 5-point scale):

1. Overall, how would you rate your level of desirability as a partner?

2. Overall, how would members of the opposite sex rate your level of desirability as a partner?

3. Overall, how do you believe you compare to other people in desirability as a partner?

4. Overall, how good of a catch are you?

Evolutionary theory suggests that certain demographic variables (e.g., age, income, etc.) would predict people's responses to these questions. For instance, a younger woman should score higher than an older woman due to their superior reproductive fitness. And people with higher socioeconomic status should score higher than low-SES individuals, due to their economic advantage.

Surprisingly, researchers found very few reliable demographic differences in mate value. They write, "Contrary to theoretical expectations and previous findings with smaller samples, the differences were either very small (sexual orientation, age, education) or small (sex, socioeconomic status, relationship status) in terms of their effect size."

What, then, explained people's ratings on the mate value scale (MVS)? For one, there is a strong link between self-esteem and mate value; higher scores on self-perceived self-esteem translated to higher mate value scores. Also, relationship status and relationship history appear to play a role in shaping one's response to the MVS. They write, "Of all demographic variables, relationship status combined with relationship satisfaction was one of the strongest predictors of MVS scores, while the strongest effect was that being single with no (or only a few) previous sexual partners predicted a conspicuously reduced score."

So, what's the takeaway? Well, it's probably not the case that evolutionary theory is wrong. Instead, it seems we are quite bad at judging ourselves in the context of evolutionary theory. Desirable individuals underestimate their mate value, while less desirable individuals overestimate it. But maybe that's a trait that has been selected for.

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Csajbók, Z., Havlíček, J., Demetrovics, Z., & Berkics, M. (2019). Self-Perceived Mate Value Is Poorly Predicted by Demographic Variables. Evolutionary Psychology, 17(1), 1474704919829037.

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