Not so fast. Despite today’s ongoing challenges in achieving gender equality, a new review of research on mate preferences conducted by researchers at Northwestern University and the University of Innsbruck suggests that modern men indeed increasingly value brains over beauty. “Our review across several disciplines suggest that mating preferences of men as well as women have responded with unsuspected speed to progress toward gender equality,” said Marcel Zentner, professor of psychology at University of Innsbruck. The common view is that our mate choices are evolutionarily “hardwired” in our brains and therefore minimally responsive to changing conditions. But some evolutionary scientists now argue that humans are programmed to respond with great flexibility in to changing environments. “This flexibility allows people to do what sociocultural theorists have maintained for a long time: Select partners who minimize the costs and maximize the benefits that they will experience in their future lives,” said Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern.
What makes the study unique is the authors’ demonstration that these processes operate across domains. Cross-cultural research found that the more gender-egalitarian a country, the less likely that men and women trade male earning power for female youth and beauty -- the pattern that many evolutionary psychologists believe to be innate. The greater preference of women for a high-earning partner is twice as large in gender unequal nations such as Korea and Turkey than in more gender-equal nations such as Finland and the United States. Notably, in Finland, men are more interested in an educated, intelligent partner than women are. Then, the authors looked at individuals. Sex differences in what people want in a mate diminish not only when societies become more gender-egalitarian but also when individuals embrace more gender-equal attitudes. Men and women with traditional mindsets prefer partners that suit the old-style exchange of male breadwinning for female fertility and domestic skills. But those preferences have weakened considerably among people who favor gender equality. Finally, what men and women want parallels changes in gender roles in recent history. The traditional world of female homemakers and male breadwinners is long gone in many nations. In the United States, 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are in the labor force. In 38 percent of marriages with an employed wife, she earns more than he does. Not that long ago, women’s education and income were only minor assets for attracting a husband. Gender equality appears to act as a lever: Wherever you push it up, differences between men’s and women’s partner preferences diminish. That doesn’t mean that these differences will disappear entirely or that biology plays no role in mate preferences. However, social and psychological factors shape mate preferences more strongly than has been assumed. In the old days, it made sense for women to seek men who could provide for them and for men to seek women who could cook and bake while producing children. “In today’s world, where both partners can (and often must) work to achieve a decent lifestyle, most men want an educated, intelligent wife who can earn a good wage,” Eagly said. “In turn, men can worry somewhat less about producing wealth but may benefit from brushing up on their looks and domestic skills.”
The review, “A sociocultural framework for understanding partner preferences of women and men: integration of concepts and evidence,” was published in January in the European Review of Social Psychology.