[Paleopsych] Los Angeles Times: Men, women and Darwin
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Men, women and Darwin
RULES OF ATTRACTION
Men, women and Darwin
Can evolutionary psychology take the mystery out of how we meet and mate?
By Julia M. Klein
Special to The Times
August 29, 2005
THREE years ago, Robert Kurzban spotted an advertisement for a service
called HurryDate, offering an evening of
three-minute meetings with 25 potential dates.
Kurzban was intrigued -- but not because he was looking for romance. As an
evolutionary psychologist at the University of
Pennsylvania, he thought speed dating could afford him a rare chance to
study how people behave in real dating situations.
With the agreement of the company, Kurzban and a colleague surveyed the
HurryDaters about a range of topics including
religious background and their desire for children. Their fundamental
questions: Did participants select the people most
like themselves? Or did most of them prize similar traits -- such as
appearance or high income -- and try to get the best
deal they could in the mating market?
What the researchers discovered was that men and women chose their dates on
the basis of "generally agreed upon mate
values," the mating market hypothesis. Another finding: Both sexes relied
mainly on physical attractiveness, largely
disregarding factors such as income and social status.
"HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their
judgments," the psychologists wrote in a paper
published in the May issue of the science journal Evolution and Human
Behavior, "but they mostly could be made in three
The HurryDate research is one example of the everyday applications of
evolutionary psychology, an interdisciplinary field
that is influential and controversial. Other recent studies of human mating
have explored issues such as the male
preference for dating subordinates, why women have extramarital affairs and
what trade-offs both sexes are willing to make
in choosing partners.
Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of evolved psychological
mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted
survival and reproduction. One branch of evolutionary psychology focuses on
the distinct mating preferences and strategies
of men and women. For example, because our male ancestors were easily able
to sire numerous children at little cost to
their fitness, the theory says, they were inclined to short-term mating with
multiple partners. In choosing mates, they
gravitated toward youth and physical attractiveness -- markers of fertility
By contrast, females, for whom conception meant pregnancy and the need to
care for a child, were more selective, searching
for long-term commitments from males with the resources and willingness to
invest in them and their offspring.
Support for this theory came from a landmark study by psychologist David M.
Buss and colleagues in the 1980s, involving 37
cultures and 10,047 individuals. Buss, now professor of psychology at the
University of Texas in Austin, found marked
similarities across cultures, including a female preference for men with
resources and status that persisted even when
women had considerable resources of their own. Overall, women valued
financial resources in a mate twice as much as men
"Up until that time, everyone believed that these things were very tethered
to individual cultures and that cultures were
infinitely variable," said Buss, whose more recent books have described the
utility of jealousy and the universality of
Buss' survey continues to influence research on human mating. But some
scientists and social scientists remain skeptical,
saying evolutionary psychologists tend to neglect the role of learning and
culture and to overemphasize genetics. Melvin
Ember, an anthropologist and president of the Human Relations Area Files, a
Yale-affiliated research organization, says
that "focusing on universals" fails to explain either individual or cultural
Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at
Northwestern University, has chided
evolutionary psychologists for ignoring recent neurological findings about
human and mammalian brains.
Despite the objections, the field of evolutionary psychology is growing.
In recent years, Darwinian feminists and others have developed a more
nuanced view of the complexities of female behavior.
Women, it seems, aren't quite as monogamous as their partners might wish.
They too sometimes pursue short-term mating
strategies, though not everyone agrees on why.
Randy Thornhill, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, said
he has discovered that women, in an
unconscious bid for better genes, will choose "extra-pair copulation" --
that is, have affairs -- with men who are more
attractive (though perhaps less likely to commit) than their long-term
mates. Other research indicates that women make
different choices at different points in their menstrual cycle, opting for
better-looking, more symmetrical and more
masculine-appearing men when they are at their most fertile.
In short-term relationships, physical attractiveness is a priority for
women, just as it is for men, according to a study
by psychologists Norman P. Li and Douglas T. Kenrick that is slated to
appear sometime next year in the journal of
Personality and Social Psychology.
Trying to draw a distinction between "luxuries" and "necessities," the
researchers gave men and women varied "mating
budgets" and, in a series of tests, asked them to construct their ideal
mate, using such qualities as looks, social
status, creativity, and kindness. For one-night stands and affair partners,
both women and men sought physical
attractiveness above all else.
For long-term mates, the expected sex differences emerged: Men kept
preferring attractiveness, and women opted for social
status, as well as warmth and trustworthiness. But after their minimum
requirements for these necessities were met, both
sexes chose well-rounded partners over those with the very best looks or the
In other words, "Men are not complete pigs, and women are not complete
gold-diggers," said Li, assistant professor of
psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.
This makes good evolutionary sense, considering that to father a child, Li
said, "you don't need the most beautiful woman
in the world." At the same time, women "don't need the richest man in the
world to guarantee reproductive success. You
just need somebody who's not a bum, basically."
In practice, Li said, people's budgets in the mating market are determined
by what they themselves have to offer. "So a
guy who is extremely high status or very wealthy can trade up for a more
physically attractive partner," he said. And
"women trying to make themselves more physically attractive so they can get
a higher quality mate are not completely
It is also true, Li said, that very smart and successful women will have a
harder time finding partners. "It seems that
men want somebody intelligent enough so that they can recognize the man's
brilliance," he said, "but not necessarily
enough to challenge them -- or so smart that they find someone else more
John Marshall Townsend, professor of anthropology at the Maxwell School at
Syracuse University, says that women's status
requirements often complicate their search for a mate. Townsend showed a
group of female medical students, law students
and professionals pictures of men dressed in different ways -- wearing, for
instance, a fast-food uniform or a designer
suit and Rolex watch. He also gave participants descriptions of each man's
The results were decisive. "Here's Mr. Hottie, but if he's in the wrong
costume, and given the wrong status description,
then she won't go out with him, much less go to bed with him or marry him,"
said Townsend. "You could put Cary Grant in a
Burger King outfit, and he looks dorky."
If women do occasionally date "down" in terms of social status, Townsend
said, "that would be out of desperation."
By contrast, he says, men are likely to date any physically attractive
woman. When it comes to marriage, "guys are not
completely insensitive to social class," but, he said, they're "not looking
for socioeconomic gain."
Another recent study, by Stephanie L. Brown of the University of Michigan's
Institute for Social Research and Brian P.
Lewis of Syracuse University in New York, suggested that men prefer
long-term relationships with subordinates rather than
co-workers or supervisors. By contrast, women showed no significant
preference for socially dominant men.
The reason for this result, Lewis hypothesized, is that men think they would
"have more control over the behavior" of
female subordinates, including being able to ensure female monogamy, and
thus the paternity of any children. "Female
infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males only when investment is
high," as it is in long-term relationships,
the authors write.
Some evolutionary psychologists think gender differences can be overstated.
In "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped
the Evolution of Human Nature," Geoffrey Miller suggests that the human mind
evolved, much like the elaborate peacock's
tail, primarily as a way of attracting partners of both sexes. His book
argues that traits such as musical and artistic
ability played no clear role in helping human beings survive, but instead
enhanced their reproductive success.
For Miller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New
Mexico, intellect and creativity are, well, sexy.
"Guys are not picky about short-term mating, which is why we don't read
about IQ scores in Penthouse magazine," he said.
But when it comes to long-term relationships, he said, "There's good
evidence that guys are as picky as women about the
mental traits of partners."
In the context of speed dating, where quick impressions count, HurryDate
president Adele Testani says she was not
surprised to learn that both sexes were most choosy about physical
attractiveness. Although participants invariably ask
each other about their careers, Testani said, "it really is all about that
face-to-face chemistry and connection and
attraction." She added: "You're certainly not going to find out if you're
going to marry the person" in a few minutes.
Kurzban said the "rich visual information" supplied by HurryDate encounters
may help men and women get over the first
hurdle of appearance, before other factors, such as social status, become
In the end, said Li, men and women tend to strive for the best partner their
own attributes can buy. "Falling in love," he
said, "is basically a process where both sides feel they're getting a good
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