Most people seek a partner for at least a while or even for life. But knowing that we meet hundreds of thousands of people in the course of our lives, how do we pick one another? Psychological science has long tried to answer this question.
Human mate preferences in the past and the present
When selecting a partner, looks matter to men while women seem to care more about security. Human mate preferences used to be this way and still are, regardless of the major social changes that happened over time, according to a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Men usually prefer younger women and women prefer older men. It appears to be a good match when the preferences of both parties coincide. For instance, when Norwegian men and women marry for the first time, live together, or have kids, their age difference is usually about two to three years and that hasn’t changed since the late 1980s, according to data provided by Statistics Norway. To determine whether the same human mate preference is observed cross-culturally, the team conducted a study involving 14,399 people from 45 countries.
Perspectives on courtship and mate selection
The team attempted to replicate the classic studies and test the two competing perspectives on human mate preferences: the biosocial role perspective and the evolutionary psychological perspective. Psychologist David Buss, who co-authored the study, said via Medical Xpress that the results of their study are more or less the same as the results more than 30 years ago. He was the one who laid the foundation for the evolutionary psychological perspective in his study on gender differences in mate selection. The 1980s findings remain valid, he said.
Buss surveyed 37 countries in the 1980s to determine which traits were most attractive in the opposite sex regardless of their culture. Strong similarities were found between men and women. Intelligence and friendliness were considered the most attractive qualities by both sexes. However, in 36 of the 37 cultures, women preferred good financial prospects in choosing a partner than men did. Women likewise cared more about the person’s good health and intelligence than men.
It was the opposite in terms of appearance. In 34 of the 35 cultures, more men than women generally believe that good looks were a priority. Therefore, men base their mate choice on appearance. This could be because of biological advantages to bear more attractive kids. In general, men preferred younger women while women prefer older men with financial prospects.
Norwegian University of Science and Technology Department of Psychology Professor Mons Bendixen said that their study tested the findings of Buss. It also revealed that Buss’s findings withstood the test of time on a large cross-cultural selection and strengthened the explanations on the evolutionary psychological perspective in choosing a partner.
Overcoming the experimental psychology’s replication crisis
Academic experts in psychology and other fields sometimes encounter a problem when they repeat the previous scientific data and replicate the results. This methodological crisis found in many scientific studies is called the replication crisis, casting doubt on the research results. In the case of Buss’s finding, it is possible to overcome the experimental psychology’s replication crisis and obtain a result that is more or less the same in the previous scientific study.
Bendixen believes it is reassuring to observe that the results from the past cross-cultural studies on mate selection were largely replicated in their new study. This is because they have a solid theoretical foundation for the study, providing the opportunity to create a hypothesis about the outcomes even before they test them by experience or observation rather than theory or pure logic. Overcoming the replication crisis does not mean, though, that there are no cultural variations found in the present study.
Professor Leif Edward Ottesen Kennair from the Department of Psychology of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology said not everyone is equally excited about their findings. One criticism of their findings was shared on social media, pointing out that there has been an extreme overlap in the sexes involved in the study. Some believe that it could have been better if it was better communicated in their research. Kennair opined, though, that the criticism is unfair as their research determines the similarities, differences, and overlaps.
What received the most arguments are the differences, he says. This makes the criticism polemical. Going forward, it would be exciting to see those who will give the most balanced descriptions, the co-author went on to say. Bendixen agrees with Kennair. He said that the point of the criticism is to see if the differences in gender observed in the past cross-cultural studies can be replicated. To a great extent, the answer is yes, they were reproducible but there were also factors linked with gender differences that are only supported in the present study.
What matters most in a spouse or partner
The Pew Research Center asked 2,003 participants about the most important factors in choosing a spouse or partner. Overall, the participants put the greatest importance on finding a partner who has the same ideas about having and raising children. Seventy-three percent said this is very important while 63% said finding someone who has a steady job matters the most. Some 48% said the important factor in choosing a spouse is the same moral and religious beliefs, 29% said having similar or at least the same educational background, and 17% said having the same racial or ethnic background.
Compared to women who have never been married, their perspective on some of these qualities is different. Among the never-married adults who want to get married in the future, 78% of women say it’s important to have a spouse with a steady job. The public was also divided over the value of marriage as 46% said society is better off if marriage and children are a priority.
In a 2017 survey conducted by database company Statista involving 5,421 US adults, it found that couples meet online (39%), at a bar or restaurant (27%), through friends (20%), at work (11%), in school or college (9%), and through family (7%).
While no person is perfect, there are key qualities that adults look for in a partner and the recent findings show that women and men still choose mates as they used to in the past.