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Women's Mate Choices Across Cultures

Some Aspects Are Universal, Vary By Culture

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David C. Geary :
I'm sure that many men throughout the ages have been and will continue to be perplexed by women's preference for one man over the other, especially if they are this other man. Biologists have been studying females' mate choices since Darwin's Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, and continue to debate why females prefer one male and not another.
In some cases, the male traits that drive females' choices appear to be relatively arbitrary, but generally, females chose males that will benefit them and their offspring in some way. The benefits are typically genetic, including passing advantageous immune-system genes to their offspring, or behavioral. The latter includes protection from predators or from harassment by members of the same species, as well as providing food or other material resources (e.g., nests) to offspring and sometimes to the female. Among primates, females prefer males that will protect them and their offspring from harassment by other males and sometimes females. Humans are the only primate species in which men consistently provide some type of material resources to their wives and children, which makes men who can and are willing to provide these resources particularly valuable from the perspective of female choice.
Before we get into some of the details of these choices, I note that in traditional cultures, marriage choices are much more deeply intertwined with family and wider social dynamics than they are in liberal Western countries. Apostolou's research on marriage types across 190 hunter-gatherer societies illustrates the dynamic. Here, marriages were classified into four categories based on who made the decision; specifically, parental arrangement, kin arrangement (e.g., brother, uncle), courtship with parental approval, and free-choice courtship. Each society was classified in terms of its most common or primary marriage type and whether or not any of the other marriage types occurred, which were classified as secondary.
Overall, parents arranged most of the marriages in 70% of these societies and free-choice courtship was the primary marriage type in only 4% of them. Unconstrained choice of marriage partner (primary or secondary) was not reported for four out of five of the hunter-gatherer societies. The tendency of parents or other kin to arrange marriages is even stronger in agricultural and pastoral communities. There are many reasons underlying parents' choice of one marriage partner or another, such as building relationships between kin groups, and these include the resources the would-be groom can provide to the bride and her children.
The specifics of the resources - from cows to cash - can vary from one context to another, depending on which of these contributes to women's ability to support their children in the local context. A similar pattern emerges when a woman's choice of a groom is not unduly influenced by her parents or by other kin, which is the norm in liberal Western countries and a few others. The bottom line is that women prefer culturally successful men, those who have social influence and control over culturally important resources, whatever these might be (e.g., access to farmable land, livestock, or a "nice" income). These are resources that can be directly transferred from the man to his wife who then has some control over how they are used. So, a degree from a fancy college might get a would-be bride's attention but in and of itself is not enough if it's not associated with employment or prospective employment in a well-paying occupation.
On top of providing access to transferable and culturally important resources, women prefer men who are a few years older than they are, likely because older men are generally more socially and economically established than are younger ones. The preference for somewhat older, culturally-successful men is a universal feature of women's mate preferences, but their preference for other traits can vary from one context to the next. However, this cross-cultural variation is not arbitrary and varies with the trade-offs associated with emphasizing one trait more than others and the importance of this mix of traits in the woman's current circumstances. These trade-offs reflect the reality that the ideal husband is not to be found, but there are good-enough husbands out there, each of whom has some mix of positive and not-so-positive traits. For instance, one prospective husband might be well educated and have an impressive and well-paying job, but might also be sporting an equally impressive beer belly. The latter is not high on the list of women's preferred traits in a would-be husband but is often a tolerable cost if the man has other things to offer.
The most interesting cross-cultural variations are found for women's preferences for men's personal attributes (e.g., personality) and physical traits. Although a would-be husband's material resources are always important to some extent, they are less important in countries with a well-developed social safety net and in countries in which women have political and social influence and some financial independence. The gist is that when economic supports are provided by sources outside of the marital relationship, women downgrade the importance of a prospective mate's financial prospects and focus more on other traits, especially the interpersonal one (e.g., cooperative, sense of humor) that make for a satisfying marital relationship. The latter is particularly important among educated adults in these cultures, because the bride and groom are often separated from their wider network of kin support due to jobs that require them to move away from this network. In this situation, the marital relationship is a stronger source of social support than it is in many other contexts. It's not that women in these other contexts don't value these traits, it is just that other factors, such as ambition and financial prospects, are prioritized.
It is not surprising that women also prefer handsome and physically fit husbands, but whether these are priorities or luxuries depends on where they live. In wealthy countries with well-nourished populations and access to modern medicine, it is often difficult to tell if the man (especially when they are young) has any underlying health problems. These are often masked by the reduction in health risks (e.g., lower risk of serious infectious disease) in these contexts. A more realistic assessment of the relationship between physical attractiveness and health can be found in studies conducted in developing countries and in more traditional cultures. Here, men are much more variable in their overall health and women's mate preferences are more strongly related to men's physical attractiveness and masculinity than they are in wealthy countries. In these more natural contexts, chronic poor nutrition and disease are associated with shorter stature, less muscle mass, and poor physical fitness in adolescent boys and men. In these contexts, women's focus on the physical traits of a would-be groom makes sense, especially if the men need to engage in strenuous physical activities to support the family. It is not a coincidence that these are many of the same traits that women in wealthy nations find attractive in men, even when these traits are only weakly related to the health of young men in these nations. In other words, even though these traits aren't always a priority in women's mate choices, they still find them attractive and would prefer them in a would-be husband.  
The bottom line is that women prefer somewhat older and socially established men who have some level of access to culturally important resources and are willing to transfer these resources to the woman and her children. In contexts in which the family lives away from the extended family, the marital relationship becomes a central source of social support and thus women prefer men who are able to develop and maintain friendly and supportive relationships. When a man's contributions to the family are dependent on his physical fitness, women prefer muscular and physically fit men. In other words, some aspects of women's preferences fluctuate from one context to the next, but whatever the context, they prioritize traits that will benefit them and their family in the long term.  
(David C. Geary, Ph.D., is a Curators' Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and the Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri).


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