Choosing a life partner is an important decision. Because of that fact, there’s been a lot of research both good and bad that explore how we decide who we want to spend our lives with. Some of this research, such as the work that helped to develop science-based couples therapies, is helpful and uplifting.
But some of it is questionable, and may only be suitable fodder for click-bait and sound bites. I’ll be talking about some of the questionable research that has come out recently and offer you an example of some “research” that made a big splash about a dozen years ago that just got totally debunked.
Recent research claims that while men and women are very different in what they are looking for, they are similar in one fundamental way in that they both appear to have minimum standards.
A new “speed-dating” research study may make some people a bit uncomfortable. It appears that these most critical of life decisions are typically made on fleeting, superficial factors.
The research shows that men regularly choose women who are to some degree, physically attractive, while women prefer men of some baseline social status.
In choosing a life partner, the importance of the factors of physical attraction and social status was clear. The speed dating study found that low-status men and unattractive women failed to make the first cut.
It’s pretty clear, claims this research. We can talk about character, ambition, inner beauty, yadda… yadda till the proverbial cows come home. But I’m not so sure.
But at the end of the day, according to these researchers, when we’re talking about a potential life partner, men want attractive women, and women want men with social status.
But is thus solid research or just a commentary on the folly of youth? Can these findings hold up among more mature dating partners? I have my doubts.
The study did reveal something about short-term relationships for women. While Mr. Right needs to have some status, Mr. Right Now can just be an attractive other. In other words, Men and women were the same when thinking about an unserious short-term relationship. They were solely focused on physical attraction.
So tell us something we didn’t already know.
The study used two popular methods for processing comparisons; speed dating and online dating. The researchers asked the study subjects about their preferences before they began interacting with members of the opposite sex.
Lead author of the research, Dr. Norman Li, discussed the findings:
“[people] prioritize different qualities when screening each other in online chats and speed-dates – women want men who are at least average in social status while men want women who are at least moderately physically attractive.
We also are the first to demonstrate that what individuals say they value in potential mates is indeed reflected in how they actually choose them in initial mating situations.”
In other words, people do know what they want in a partner, although men and women differ.
Dr Oliver Sng, one the study co-authors, said:
“Speed-dating events and other modern contexts have many factors that can prevent a person’s ideal preferences from being expressed.”
Another co-author of the study, Professor Douglas Kenrick, made what I thought was a profound observation. He went right at the gender-neutrality fictions that are the stuff of political correctness, but can’t be found in how people actually behave:
“The new study helps to dispel politically correct – but factually misguided – notions of a gender-neutral world where men and women want the exact same kind of mates.”
We may not live in a gender-neutral world, but I’d be more interested in how people’s assessment of desirable qualities shifts and matures over time. This researcher seems to be making an ad hominem attack against our species. It is kinda depressing. It made me skeptical, and want to dig a little deeper into this dark corner of research.
The study was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Li et al., 2013).
Another recent study went deeper into exploring the traits women find attractive.
The results were even more politically incorrect.
Does choosing a life partner simply mean finding the badest boy you can hook up with?
A study was conducted where women were shown a selection of men’s faces which were shifted to reflect a “dark and brooding” appearance.
These researchers believe that many women may be more attracted to “bad boys.” They also found that the degree to which women attracted to some of these dark and menacing traits may have a link to the likelihood of reproduction. They call these traits the “Dark Triad.”
But wait a minute. Can’t there be other explanations?
For some reason this research made me think about the famous character of Heathcliff in Emily Bronte’s novel Wuthering Heights. Bronte describes a precarious world of revenge devoid of justice, or rule of law.
Heathcliff is the dominant, foreground presence in this classic novel. He straddles a broad moral universe. He is both a consummate insider and a marginalized outsider. He is at various points in the novel both a cruel landlord and a starving and neglected orphan.
He evidences traits of both wild impulsivity and careful self-possession. He is a character with two apparently contradictory traits; on the one hand, a passionate intense focus, and an indifference to the feelings of others.
And in equal measure, a strict discipline and amoral rationality which equip him to carefully plan and sustain an exacting vengeance over many years.
He is a man of raw and deep emotions.
His contrasts are annoyingly well-balanced. We can never be sure about what we are getting Heathcliff.
So back to our research. How can we be sure about what we are getting with these “personality traits”? And how were the researchers so sure that these morphed photos conveyed these three distinct “Dark Triad” traits?
Agency is the capacity of an individual to act in a given environment. The capacity to act does not at first imply a specific moral dimension to the ability to make the choice to act, and moral agency is distinctly separate notion.
Could these study subjects simply be responding to a visual cue which conveys elements of agency, such as confidence, intensity, and passion?
Why are these the researchers so quick to invoke the “Dark Triad?” Is it the only explanation?
As I said before, psychologists call these traits the “Dark Triad” Here they are:
Dr. Minna Lyons, one of the study’s authors, explained the results in detail:
“We examined whether the preferences of the women surveyed for the Dark Triad personality traits in men’s faces were related to reproductive success. Previous studies have found that out of the three Dark Triad features, narcissism was associated with physical and psychological health benefits in men as well as social success.
(notice how the emphasis on social sucess echoes the finding about social status in the first piece of research I discussed?)
We predicted that women’s preference for narcissism could be most strongly related to their reproductive success, and as we found that women with a preference for high narcissistic men’s faces gave birth to more offspring.
Women with a strong preference for Machiavellian male faces reported fewer offspring than their same-aged peers with weak preference. Those with a preference for psychopathic men’s faces was unrelated to women’s current number of offspring.
These findings suggest that in today’s society women’s preference for some of the Dark Triad traits in men may be related to their reproductive success.”
Sorry. I am not buying it. Higher sex drives are an obvious alternative explanation. But why are we equating images with character traits, and how are we even sure that the women are seeing exactly what the researchers are seeing?
Perception in interpersonal dynamics can be tricky. You are wrong…but I was misinformed. You lied…but I misspoke.
An alternative “Agency Triad” of resilient self-confidence… passionately focused single-mindedness… and a high degree of interpersonal skill could also explain the attraction.
After all, does it make sense to want to mate with a timid, aimless and undisciplined man of uncertain goals, who can’t handle himself in competitive environments among other men?
Could this be another example of the wholesale toxification of male virtues?
The study was published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior (Marcinkowska et al., 2016).
I don’t think political correctness has anything to do with this… and I’m going to take these recent studies with a large grain of salt.
I remember a book called “Sperm Wars” which came out 12 years ago. It offered a “revolutionary thesis” about sex that turned centuries-old biological assumptions on their head.
The argument Sperm Wars made was that evolution is pitiless.
Evolution, Sperm Wars argues, has designed men to conquer and monopolize sexual access to women. Sperm Wars claimed that choosing a life partner was a battle, not a choice.
While the previously mentioned research insulted men by pathologizing their agency, the Sperm Wars research insulted women by stripping away their agency.
It also argued that women, without making a conscious decision, are merely seeking the best genetic material on hand from potential available sexual partners.
Sperm wars also made the provocative claim that reproductive strategies and choosing a life partner were not necessarily congruent undertakings.
Sperm Wars made some other shocking claims; ten percent of children are not fathered by their “fathers,” 99% percent of a man’s sperm isn’t capable of fertilizing anything, they claimed, most of it exists to make war on other men’s sperm.
The book also claimed that “smart” vaginal mucus encourages some more highly-desired sperm but blocks out others. And they argued that a woman is far more likely to conceive through a casual fling than through sex with her life partner.
Pretty provocative stuff. But just because it’s shocking doesn’t mean it’s true.
New research from molecular science suggests otherwise. Studies done on the genetic sequencing of chimpanzee reproductive system indicates that humans have no special biological adaptations to cope with sperm competition. It was all just a sexy story offered up in a $170.00 “research” book.
But the stories we tell about what it means to be human matter. Choosing a life partner matters.
It is a decision that I’d like to hope that we endeavor to always bring our best selves to. We may not always rise to the occasion, but I’d like to think more highly of humans and the intimate decisions we make than these studies suggest.
The research that de-bunked Sperm Wars:
Anderson, M.J. & Dixson, A.F. (2002) Motility and the midpiece in primates. Nature 416:496.
Baker, R.R. (2006) Sperm Wars: Infidelity, Sexual Conflict and Other Bedroom Battles. New York: Basic Books.
Thanks to Dr. Jeremy Dean for his valuable subscription service Psyblog, which regularly provides me with information and research material to think and write about.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT, Gottman Method, and the Developmental Model.