February 24, 2011

Looks matter most to young girls, even in a long-term partner

In the comments to the post below about hair, Dahlia and Rob brought up the question of whether male attractiveness is about looks or wealth-and-status or something else.

In just about every popular writing within the broad framework of evolutionary psychology, as well as within the specialist journal articles, the writers always play down how much male looks matter to girls. The only exception is if the female raters are beyond their peak years of reproductive value, which are roughly the later teens and early 20s.

When older women rate, they value looks less and wealth-and-status more. That story fits with what's familiar to readers over the age of 25 or so, and readers don't want to hear something they didn't already believe, so that's the story that gets told the most. No one wants to be reminded of what the mating market was like in middle school, high school, and college.

When it is these younger females who rate, as is the case with just about all studies published in journals (usually undergrad students in Psych 101), virtually nothing matters except for a guy's looks. I thought about collecting examples from a bunch of studies, but because there are so many, I'm just going with the most recent one I read for a seminar. *

The authors wanted to see if females (whose average age was 18.4) preferred the faces of males who had higher testosterone levels, as well as the faces of men who really liked infants. The idea was that they would prefer these guys in different contexts -- the higher-T guys for short-term partners and the infant-loving guys for long-term partners. That hunch was borne out, making a novel contribution and advancing our understanding of bla bla bla bla bla. But when you look at their findings, all of that stuff was overwhelmed by the effect of how good-looking the guy's face was:

Under "short-term mate attractiveness," we see that whether a girl, after looking at a guy's face, rated him as liking children or kind made no significant difference in his value as a short-term mate to her. Although it didn't hurt either. If she perceived him as masculine, that bumped up his short-term mate value. But the strongest factor is whether she found him physically attractive -- the effect size is over 3 times as large, and the p-value 2 orders of magnitude smaller. Well, sure, no big surprise there -- if she's just going to be with him for a brief affair, why bother judging him on anything other than his looks and masculinity?

Here is where most people's painful memories of high school come flooding back. Look at the upper half of the table. Under "long-term mate attractiveness," we see that masculinity drops out as a predictor, and now being kind and liking children make a difference, each about as strong of an influence as the other. So far so good, but then look at the "physically attractive" predictor -- it's more than twice as strong as being kind or liking children, and the p-value is an order of magnitude lower. So even when she is selecting a long-term partner, a college babe is choosing more based on looks than that other stuff.

And it gets better -- compare the strength of the effect of looks in the long-term vs. short-term lists. It's only slightly stronger in the short-term case (0.388 vs. 0.327), and it may not even be a significant difference (they didn't test that idea). So it's not just that "looks matter" in a long-term mate -- that's not so hard to believe -- but that their power is only slightly dampened compared to their force in determining who makes a good Spring Break fling.

I stress that results like these are entirely typical. (Someone in the seminar suggested that the looks variable is so much stronger because it's just a lot easier to tell who's good-looking from faces, whereas kindness and liking children are harder to read from faces. A possibility, but not likely when we see that the "all about looks" interpretation is supported by every single adolescent's own real-life experiences.)

Two interesting questions suggest themselves, although they are never discussed in these articles or newspaper reports or blog commentaries or whatever:

1) Why do looks matter so much to girls when choosing a long-term mate? That would seem to be something good only for short-term mating, where good looks signal good genes that she wants to get for her unborn child and then move on to get some other guy, a fatherly guy with lots of resources, to raise it.

2) Why doesn't anyone talk about these results, or why do people only want to hear the story about male long-term attractiveness being mostly a matter of his wealth and status, not looks?

Going in reverse order, most academics and their audience -- people who read Thinking Books -- were total losers in high school and college. Being plain or ugly, the guys never got much attention and are still bitter and resentful about being overlooked or rejected by "the superficial cheerleader" type -- in reality, any girl he ever had an interest in. If he can just block that part of his life out, then he'll see only the part where wealth and status do matter, namely when looking for women much beyond their peak reproductive value. And since these guys make a decent buck and aren't at the bottom of the status totem pole, it boosts their own self-esteem to think that wealth-and-status is what drives women crazy.

Why do women writers and readers go along with this lie? They may get some slight self-esteem boost, as though they're somewhat embarrassed for having been so caught up in a guy's looks when they were younger. But they can't get that warm of a glow. I think they just want to keep their male age-mates believing what both perceive to be a harmless and even beneficial lie. And not just for selfish reasons, like "Don't let them know how we work!" Rather, if women remind men that, among the females who matter most, looks swamp just about everything else, that could open up old wounds and cause a rise in mistrust or cynicism between the sexes. If everyone pretends that it's all about being a go-getting breadwinner, then men and women get along better.

As for why looks matter so much even in a long-term mate, we know that attractive people are more symmetrical and so probably have "good genes," ones that are better at withstanding the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as we're developing. And this symmetry is heritable, meaning that one person being more symmetrical than another is partly a function of genetic differences between them. If a woman wants the best genes for her child, she'll try to get pregnant by the more symmetrical guy, regardless of whether he sticks around to provide for the kid or not. That's the short-term value of good looks, and it's the only one that people talk about.

But for just about all of human history -- probably everything before men worked in a service economy within industrial capitalism -- being able to do well as a dad involved lots of physical activity. To earn a living, he was a hunter, a herder, a farm-worker, or a wage laborer who worked a lot with his hands and body. He had to physically protect his social circle and perhaps go off to fight others. Plus, playing with children and showing them the ropes of growing up is intensely physical, as any parent knows who's been worn out from chasing their kid around the house or the yard.

So, even in their role as paternal providers, males almost always had to be in good shape and full of energy, hence good genes would benefit him even outside of the one night stand. That's why young girls are so taken by a guy's dreamy looks even in the long-term case -- they want a promising forecast of how able he'll be to hunt, herd, plant, play, and fix stuff up farther on down the line. If he looks busted up now, he won't be able to do any of that stuff later on.

It's only in very recent times in the developed world where being a good provider became possible even if you weren't in good shape and weren't terribly energetic. Just take the customers' orders, don't mouth off to the boss, and you'll get a steady paycheck that can go toward caring for your wife and kids.

It's odd that the solution to the paradox is a standard one in evolutionary psychology -- that we live out-of-touch with the environment that we evolved in, and that we need to pay closer attention to what life was like then and there. You'd think this would make the pattern clearer to see.

* Roney et al (2006). Reading men's faces: women's mate attractiveness judgments track men's testosterone and interest in infants. Proc R Soc B, 273: 2169-75.


  1. Is "game", i.e. psychosocial dominance, a criterion apart from wealth and status?

    The Roissy school of thought certainly doesn't seem to put looks above game as a means of attracting young girls, although they would probably agree with you about looks vis a vis one's job/ societally mediated status.

  2. Thanks for your time educating us; the data is hiding in plain sight.
    I was looking forward to this post and am glad you worked on it rather quickly.

    Telling your readership this appears to be a thankless job.

    Here is one of many articles that gets it wrong:

    "Third, it is not because women are designed to prefer to mate with handsome men. Women do prefer handsome men for extra-pair copulations (“affairs”)."

  3. I thought a girl's reproductive value was at its highest between about 14 and 18? Now, these are the girls who are really superficial about a man's looks...

  4. Martyn said...

    Is "game", i.e. psychosocial dominance, a criterion apart from wealth and status?

    The Roissy school of thought certainly doesn't seem to put looks above game as a means of attracting young girls, although they would probably agree with you about looks vis a vis one's job/ societally mediated status.
    I went and looked at the latest post and the comments from that site to gauge opinion on this issue. It was explicitly said multiple times in just that one thread that young women aren't as much into looks as men believe. At best, it was acknowledged, but with the caveat that "game" was stronger than looks to success.

  5. For fun, I just googled the first five words of this post (Looks matter most to young girls) to see what would show up on the first page.

    *Agnostic's post was at the top

    *Man-on-the-street or popular wisdom from sites like wiki.answers.com or yahoo.answers.com were the best. You may have to wade through some p.c. answers and white lies, but the truth is there. (One guy told his personal story about weight loss having a huge affect on his attractiveness to which someone responded only whores care about such things.)

    *One was about women's looks.

    *One was about looks affecting career and job prospects.

    *The worst were the PUA sites which said looks do NOT matter, status trumps. I don't peruse PUA sites, but now I'm wondering if they go so far as to suggest baldness isn't a handicap???
    As agnostic pointed out, it isn't superficial to be interested in looks: it can't be helped and for good reason.

    Being pregnant is good for women's health and, adding to what agnostic said, I have a theory that bearing the children of someone with a different and good immune system is also beneficial for so-called auto-immune disorders. Healthier children are a plus, too. :)

  6. Agnostic, why did the coefficient decrease to sub-zero for masculinity, when examining long term mating? Wouldn't masculinity confer an advantage in protecting and providing for offspring?

    I'm also interested in how coefficients would look like for older women.

  7. Back in the day, I don't think people hoarded wealth (ie meat and vegetables) for very long. Those items tended to go bad in just a few days, at most. Accumulated longterm wealth likely wasn't a selected trait because nobody had it. Rather than having lots of food, it was having the ability ot get lots food that was considered desirable. Perhaps that's why billionaires don't come across as super attractive.

    Physical attractiveness, athleticism, and masculinity are likely good proxies for being a good provider.

    I would also think that it'd be hard to look at a guy and ascertain his wealth, but it's easy to look at a guy and judge his ability as a hunter/warrior/gatherer.

  8. I think there's also a vector coming from feminist and sexual puritan (occasionally indistinguishable) thought as well, which downgrade the importance of male looks -

    For the feminists, if women chose men based on looks, they'd be "objectifiers" just like men, in which case wither female moral authority in sexual matters, where in the fem conception women are pure and choose based on the person's true self, not the body (which is so dear to the fem heart)?

    For the sexual puritans, women can't have a sexuality oriented around touch and physicality in the way men do, so they must be choosing men on a Machiavellian and reproductively orientated criterion.

    Both of these also have broad support amongst women as they make the average woman feel superior to men (although of they dial up and down the golddigger aspects depending on whether they want to feel like clever, cool hearted bitches who exploit men with their weak and animal passions or warm, empathic people who really look into a man's heart rather than his looks).

  9. It would be interesting to do a "revealed preferences" study of young women's actual taste in men: survey a sample of sexually active young women, and get pictures of all the men they've had sexual contact with; then have an independent group of women (of the same age) rate the looks of those men against those of randomly selected men, and/or men that the women in the first survey had rejected.

  10. I don't know what high school you attended, but the best looking guy faces did not get the most girls. IRL the general tendency of females is to star fuck.

    And while being a male "star" does sometimes overlaps with having the most beautiful mug shot, male facial beauty is not what gets young girls going crazy.

    Taylor Lautner isn't even one of the best looking males in his High School, let alone all of America, but he sure does get the ladies.

    This study overall has several problems. For one, surveying women over what they like is way inferior to actually observing their choices.

    And secondly, the real life gender asymmetry of the world's oldest profession and of May-December couplings indicates that the results are invalid.

    Human sexuality is dimorphic not androgynous.

  11. Did you know that the RV of an 8yr old girl is higher than that of her 25yr old mum?

    Let's not try and draw any conclusions about the biological basis of paedophilia, shall we now...


  12. So the PUA's say it's all about game, and you say it's all about looks. I'm suspicious of these absolutist positions, with no nuance.

    I don't know about studies, but I do know about my personal experience. I know that I have had lots of times when girls clearly liked my "look" (smiles and extended eye contact in bars/clubs) yet quickly lost interest in me when I came over, or not so quickly but over time as my personality was revealed. My personality is not stable - sometimes I am hugely confident and othertimes withdrawn and timid, or just somehow "off". When I am "on", I get fantastic responses from girls, when I am "off" even girls who smiled at me won't go home with me - and not because I am doing anything majorly creepy or wrong, just because I am not socially "on" or confident. This response from women even extends to pre-contact perception - when I am in the right mood and walk into a club, smiles and eye contact are everywhere, when in the wrong mood, nowhere.

    Furthermore, in the clubs I go to it is more common to see average, weird, or even ugly dudes who score, not the handsome guys. Sometimes you see good looking guys with hot girls, but it is far from common.

    All that being said, looks DO matter - when I dress well and am in shape, I definitely get more attention. But looks are far from decisive, far from the only factor, and far from the most important factor.

    If I had to make a rough estimate, I'd place looks at maybe 35% of a girls interest. Even a young girl at her prime - perhaps especially a young girl at her prime.

    No studies will really convince me otherwise, as I simply have too much personal experience clubbing and bar hopping and just oberving life. Most of these studies are quite flawed besides.

  13. It's only in very recent times in the developed world where being a good provider became possible even if you weren't in good shape and weren't terribly energetic.

    What about mercantile minorities? A lot of them look bad, right? Are their women less likely to choose men based on looks?

    Does industrial capitalization
    cause a population to grow uglier then?

  14. I think most women prefer male mates who is physically attractive, not wealthy and high status men. For those girls who are physically attractive, what they want and what they can get are identical. For those who are unattractive, however, desire conflicts with reality. In making their choices, they must balance the two.)
    Scientists premised homotypic (individuals prefer partners of similar attractiveness level to their own) preference for a long time [Walster et al. 1966] until empirical research proved that people (women and men) prefer individuals of high attractiveness rather than that similar to their own [Walster et al. 1966, Huston 1973].

    Elaine Hatfield (Walster) and her colleagues proposed the original version of the Matching Hypothesis. Based on Kurt Lewin’s Level of Aspiration theory, they proposed that in making dating and mating choices, people will choose someone of their own level of social desirability and people prefer to match with partners of their own level of attractiveness Theoretically, they will be influenced by both the desirability of the potential match (What they want) and their perception of the probability of obtaining that date (What they think they can get). They referred to such mating choices as realistic choices, because they are influenced by the chances of having one’s affection reciprocated. But self-esteem, intelligence, and personality did not affect liking for the dates or subsequent attempts to date them. This study, then, did not find any support for the matching hypothesis. Most people – regardless of how attractive they were – reacted more positively to profiles of attractive dates than of unattractive dates. Although learning one could be rejected by a potential date had a dampening effect on reactions to the other, overall the physical attractiveness effect (liking someone more, the more attractive he/she was) predominated over a matching effect or a concern about rejection. All people prefer highly attractive individuals but only the attractive ones are accepted by them. In consequence, the attractive people will pair with each other leaving the non attractive ones to mate among themselves.

    Further support for the mechanism of courtship rejections comes from blind dates [Asendorpf et al. 2011, Back et al. 2011] and internet dates [Hitsch et al. 2010, Shaw Taylor et al. 2011], where highly attractive men are universally preferred by female users. Strategic behaviors (decrease theirs beauty standars) were not found in participants of blind dates [Kurzban & Weeden 2005, Todd et al. 2007, Luo & Zhang 2009, Asendorpf et al. 2011, Back et al. 2011] and internet dates [Hitsch et al. 2010, Shaw Taylor et al. 2011, but see Lee et al. 2008]. Courtship thus may not be strategic when the number of prospective male partners is large and costs o searching or being rejected are low [Hitsch et al. 2010].

  15. According to Frederick & Loewenstein, 1999, people seem to adapt to the advantages and disadvantages they experience as a result of their physical looks (much as they adapt to many other situations), achieving roughly similar levels of happiness throughout a wide range of attractiveness levels.

    Anyway In a series of recent studies, researchers investigated the matching hypothesis with actual online daters (Taylor, Fiore, Mendelsohn, & Cheshire, 2011). Although results were not entirely consistent, there were a few interesting findings to note.

    Using a mixture of laboratory study, surveys of online daters, and extensive activity logs of a large national online dating site the authors of the current study attempted to shine light on whether or not people really do choose to date people they perceive to have similar levels of socially desirable traits. they found that:

    - Beautiful women tended to communicate only with the most attractive men on the site, with popular men who received high levels of inbound communication.This women are less apt to be responsive in general.

    - Average and unattractive women reply only handsome men but some of them are able to accepted to communicate with men in their league behaviour and never lower of their league.

    - all women are exclusively focused in highly attractive men on the site (irrespective of their own attractive). And there is no correlation with other parameters of men profiles such as employment status, income, hobbies, psychosocial qualities, etc..


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