March 26, 2008 — -- A new study out of the University of Texas argues that beautiful women want it all when it comes to picking a mate.
In fact, the more beautiful a woman is, the higher her standards.
But, perhaps surprisingly, the study did not find that to be the case when it comes to men. It takes more than being a hunk for a man to want everything. He must also have status and the potential to be a good provider before he is likely to demand the best.
On the surface it sounds like just another study showing that men are different from women, as if we didn't already know that. But this is a serious effort to delve into an area that has been largely ignored by scientists: How a woman's own attractiveness influences her preferences when she picks a mate.
The broad hypothesis "that high mate-value women want it all has never been comprehensively tested," the study claims.
What it boils down to is that a woman who has it all, wants it all, said psychologist David Buss, lead author of the study in the current issue of Evolutionary Psychology. Buss and psychologist Todd Shackelford of Florida Atlantic University studied 107 couples who had been married less than a year to learn what both the men and the women wanted most in a mate.
Psychologists call it "mate value," and it's different for men and for women, which may explain why the study produced different results for the two genders.
"Physical attractiveness is a more important component of women's mate value than of men's," Buss said in an e-mail. "Status, economic prospects, and other attributes linked with resource acquisition are more important components of men's than of women's mate value. So this leads to the prediction that men high in status and resources will elevate their standards, just as physically attractive women elevate their standards."
There is an evolutionary basis for these differences, the researchers contend. Humans, like all other animals, are most concerned about reproduction and passing their genes on to their children. Physical beauty gives a woman more leverage — or mate value — when it comes to picking a man. And men have more appeal if they are likely to be good providers.
It wasn't so complicated in the old days, before modern social standards evolved.
"The most reproductively successful men historically and cross-culturally were those who married young, secured multiple wives, and opportunistically engaged in sex with other men's wives when the risks were low," the study notes.
And women were more successful at reproduction if they picked various mates for different functions, such as marrying a guy with money but making out with a guy with great genes.
All that is frowned upon these days. So if you've got to get the best mate for the money because it may be the only one you will have, mate value becomes an important commodity.
For their study, the researchers subjected all 214 participants to a series of interviews designed to measure what they most wanted in a mate, such as good genes, potentially a good provider, a good parent, and a good partner. But because they were primarily interested in how personal beauty influenced their preferences, they had to determine which of all those folks were beauties, and which were beasts, or somewhere in between.
Eight teams of interviewers, one male and one female, were faced with that seemingly daunting task. But it's not as hard as it seems, Buss said. There's much agreement on what makes a woman attractive, such as youth and health, although some prefer blondes over brunettes. So, by applying standards that are widely accepted in the world of psychology, each interviewer rated each participant.
The opinions of each of the interviewers were combined, or averaged, yielding a "reliable and less idiosyncratic assay," Buss added.
So he's satisfied that the women judged to be beautiful were indeed beauties, and those judged less beautiful were less attractive. And the researchers found a clear correlation between personal beauty and what they wanted in a mate. (We're ignoring the men here because there was no clear correlation.) Here are some of the findings:
The results showed that the most attractive women consistently had the highest standards, except for one peculiar exception.
When it came to evaluating intelligence as a "good gene indicator," being intelligent was at the very bottom of the list for both the beauties and the plain Janes.
Buss explained that although "intelligence is one of the most highly valued traits in a mate, attractive women do not desire it any more (or any less) than less attractive women." His study, however, described the finding as a "puzzle."
Attractive women should value intelligence more, if their personal attractiveness elevates their overall standards, but they do not.
Of course, the researchers concede that beauty is not the only force working here. Personality, talent, kindness, and maybe even quirkiness, may tip the scales. And for the romantics among us, maybe sometimes we're just lucky enough to fall in love with the right person, regardless or perhaps unaware of "mate value."
Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.