The Shift In Mate Preferences

Posted on February 12, 2013 by

Via Susan Walsh’s Hooking Up Smart blog, I came across this NYT article by Stephanie Coontz which posits that, inter alia, men are coming to increasingly prefer educated women and are less inclined to value more traditional qualities such as character, pleasantness, virginity and chastity, and traditional homemaking skills.  In short, more “alpha” women.  In support of this position, Ms. Coontz samples research performed by Dr. Christine Whelen, which suggests a significant shift in mate-selection preferences for both men and women.  I say “samples” because Ms. Coontz’ article only discussed the shift in young adult male mating preferences over the last 75 years, omitting the readily available data for women.  While I find this omission curious and regrettable (I have no insight into why Ms. Whelen’s results were selectivity harvested for Ms. Coontz’ article), the full male-female mating preferences picture makes for some interesting brain food.

First, the shift in young adult male preferences:

Image souce: NYT.  Click here to enlarge.

Next, the shift in adult female preferences:

Image source: Personal analysis of Whelen (2009)
Image souce: Personal analysis of Whelen (2009)

As with any piece of scholarly research, one must always note the limitations of the data. First, the survey respondents are all undergrads at the Universities of Iowa, Washington, Virginia, and Penn State.  Without doing the demographic spade-work, I’ll go out on a limb here and assume that the populations of those colleges are likely more white, middle class to UMC, female, and feminized (by virtue of their success in a feminized education system) than is your average 18-22 year old American.

Second, one must also acknowledge that the dating preferences of young adult men in college (who are not yet at their peak of SMP value) probably don’t perfectly reflect the preferences of the population of men as a whole. Ditto for for the college-age women, although their preferences are likely more reliably applicable to women as a whole than that of teh young menz, as they (the young women) are much closer to the peak of their SMP value. Furthermore, it is they, as sexual gatekeepers, who set (or who will soon set) the climate and conditions for male-female relationships in their age cohort. Put another way, 22-25 yo females–women a scant one to three years older than the ones sampled in Ms. Whelen’s research–are the women in most demand for relationships-cum-marriage; moreover, those same 22-25 year old women are looking up to late 20s men for their mates. Thus I suspect the preferences of undergrad men, while interesting and illustrative and somewhat predictive of their preferences five years on, is not as immediately relevant to the conversation as that of undergrad women, whose preferences are more acute.

Third, the hothouse social clime of the modern secular university is more an extension of high school than it is reflective of the real world at large.  I suspect that the preferences of both young men and women shift markedly with the passage of time (i.e., both sexes completing their physical/mental maturation processes, men’s SMP value steadily increasing, women’s SMP value peaking), upon graduation, and upon transition to the real world of adult relationships and behaviors.

With all that said, what patterns may we deduce from the data?  First, that young adult men report that they select for eros, character, emotional stability, education, and personality in the young adult women (those aged 17 – 22) they meet.   Sociability, health, attractiveness, desire for children, and neatness round out the top 10. Noteworthy in this laundry list is the preference for eros (#4 -> #1), education (#11 -> #4), and significantly decreased weight given to a desire for home/children (#6 -> #11) in the list of traits men find desirable in women.  The young adult male’s data also suggests an acceptance of  brassyness, or, dare I say it, bitchiness, than was present in previous generations. I also wonder if there isn’t a chicken-egg dynamic at play here…in that young adult men may be adapting what they report they find attractive in women to their environment…thus placing less weight on traits they’re likely to find, such as a pleasant personality, ability to cook a meal, keep a home, or–ahem–chastity, and more weight to what they are more likely to see.

Second, it appears that young women have become even more hypergamous than they were 75 years ago. Education and intelligence, sociability, and good financial prospects all climbed several spots on the list, as did (unsurprisingly) eros.  Interestingly, and somewhat contradictorily given what we know about the tension, even mutex relationship, between family and career, the desire for home and children also climbed several notches, even as “ambition/industriousness” fell. The data also suggests that women are more willing to accept jerky/dark triad behaviors (chicken/egg, again?) in exchange for traits they do value more, such as higher social dominance and the tingle.

Third, the data suggests that the traditional, Christian-based wisdom of our forebears is sorely needed. The declining weight that men and women both give to religious compatibility and chastity, both significant predictors of marital success and overall lifetime happiness, and the primacy both sexes place on mere chemical attraction and genital tingle, hints that the present trends toward family dissolution (or failures of families to form in the first place), and low birth rates are not likely to change for the better any time soon.  Furthermore, in this data, there is also disappointment for complementarians. Young men appear to value a woman’s ability to earn income, perhaps to help pay off her or even his student loan debt, or alternatively, in recognition that women’s entry in the job market had made the row for single-earner households that much harder to hoe, far more than her willingness to settle and have children. This even as women’s reported preferences suggest an even stronger inclination toward family/children than was the case for their great-grandparents.

Fourth, an examination of the source data

Mate preferences across 7 decades. Note shift between 1967 and 1977.
Click here to enlarge. Source: Whelen (2009)

…lends even more reinforcement to the conclusion that the social upheaval of the 60s and early 70s significantly altered the culture, in many ways not for the better.

The claimed preferences of college-aged young men and women have certainly shifted, and unfortunately appear to be more about looks and materialism and fleeting brain chemistry, and less about finding a compatible mate who can be reasonably expected to stick around, about producing and rearing the next generation, and much less about living a good life. But in the midst of all this change, one consoling constant remains, and that is Spengler’s Law of Universal Gender Parity:  “In every corner of the world and in every epoch of history, the men and women of every culture deserve each other”.