Attraction is complicated. I’ve often described it as a weighted formula comprising a wide range of characteristics. When it comes to the weights, i.e. importance, assigned to any particular characteristic, like good looks or social status, there are as many variations as there are individuals. Ideally, mating occurs when two individuals with complementary standards and priorities meet.
For short-term mating, i.e. casual sex, the formula is much simpler – fewer boxes must be ticked in order to be compatible “enough” for a brief period. Finding a lifelong partner is a far more complex undertaking, because you’re seeking both attraction and compatibility at levels that justify a permanent commitment and many years of living together.
Fortunately, it helps to know that men and women want the same thing. We share the same priorities when looking for a partner.
Ideal Standards In Mating
Research by Fletcher and Simpson (2014) identified no fewer than 78 characteristics important in mating. They labeled these “ideal standards.”
“A factor analysis of the ideal-partner items revealed the three factors we expected:
(a) partner characteristics relevant to intimacy, warmth, trust, and loyalty;
(b) personality and appearance characteristics concerning how attractive, energetic, and healthy the partner is;
(c) characteristics relevant to the partner’s social status and resources.”
Not surprisingly, they found that when a person perceived in the first month of dating that the factors were close to their own ideal standards, the relationship had a high probability of success a year later. The study also found that self-perception dictated the standards.
“The higher that individuals set their ideal standards, the more demanding they are in terms of how closely they expect their partners to match their ideal standards. Although this may seem paradoxical, it is understandable in terms of other results showing that individuals with more positive self-views (e.g., on the vitality-attractiveness dimension) also possess both higher ideal standards and less flexible ideal standards.
Sex Differences In Ideal Standards
The researchers give us an example of the wife who turns into a couch potato no longer being attractive to her husband, because “fit and attractive” is very high on his list of ideal standards.
How do these standards – and their enforcement – differ between men and women?
For all this talk of the ideal mate, people generally don’t expect to get everything they want in a mate.
“Individuals who are perfect 10s on every mating dimension are extremely rare. In the real world, as opposed to romance novels and television soap operas, almost everyone combines strengths and weaknesses as potential mates.
Mary is attractive and vivacious but is also rather flirtatious and perhaps untrustworthy. John is wonderfully kind and generous but is content with a rusty car and a low-status job. How and why do people make trade-offs among such characteristics when choosing mates, and do the sexes differ in how such decisions are reached?”
Fletcher has found that both sexes prioritize traits in the order listed above. Warmth and trustworthiness top the list for both men and women – by a lot. Evolutionary psychology theory holds that key sex differences exist; men are more likely to prioritize physical attractiveness while women are more likely to prioritize status/resources. Yet David Buss’ groundbreaking study of 37 cultures’ mating preferences found an interesting anomaly:
“Such sex differences do not appear to be entirely universal, however. For example, findings in both the United States and New Zealand with samples of young, liberal university students have sometimes revealed no substantive sex differences in the importance given to mate criteria such as resources and physical attractiveness (e.g., Buss, Shackelford, Kirkpatrick, & Larsen, 2001; Fletcher et al., 1999).”
To determine which gender differences are significant, Fletcher et al conducted another study which forced subjects to make tradeoffs in selecting a mate. Warm and Homely or Cold and Beautiful? Sex Differences in Trading Off Traits in Mate Selection (Fletcher, Tither, O’Loughlin, Friesen and Overall, 2015) examines the components of the “weighted formula” and how the sexes assign weights to different ideal standards.
“When warmth/trustworthiness was pitted against status/resources, sex differences almost disappeared, with most men and women preferring someone who was poor and warm to someone who was cold and rich, and this was true regardless of the relationship goal (date, fling, or long term).”
Things got interesting when they asked both sexes to choose between Warm & Unattractive vs. Cold & Attractive for a LTR. Again, both men and women chose warmth over looks. When it came to short-term relationships, the opposite was true. Both sexes – but especially men – preferred the cold and attractive “target.”
Overall, both sexes increase their emphasis on looks for flings. Women value warmth and trustworthiness even in casual relationships, though – perhaps this reflects their hope that the hookup will lead to a long-term relationship, a common path to commitment among young people today.
Fletcher believes these results are consistent with evo psych theory, but explicitly states that mating does not just occur “from the neck down”:
“We believe it is implausible on theoretical grounds to argue that evolution has left its stamp on human bodies and sexual reproductive systems but has left no trace of evolutionary adaptations in the human mind (e.g., desires and goals) and related behavior.
…Critically, the extent to which desires, goals, and emotions (and associated sex differences) are expressed in behavioral terms is bound to be highly variable across cultural and social contexts.
Thus, features of the social environment are capable of accentuating, diminishing, or even shutting down genetically based sex differences in mate-selection behavior.”
1. Slight sex differences exist in dating preferences, but these have weakened over time.
Both men and women want a partner who is above all warm and trustworthy. Even for men having casual sex, it’s a priority (though they’ll take the hot psycho over the nice homely girl when forced to choose).
2. Women value looks nearly as much as status, even for LTRs.
3. You have enough information after one month of dating to assess long-term compatibility based on whether the person meets your standards.
4. Because self-perception plays a large role in determining ideal standards, success in the mating market will depend on an accurate self-assessment up front.
This is tricky in the age of social media. All I can say is that responses of “Beautiful!” to every pic you post on Facebook should probably be tossed out as biased.
5. The word warmth turns up again and again.
Whether you are an introvert or extrovert, conveying caring, affection and loyalty is the single best strategy for dating. Leave the sarcasm at home and take a genuine, enthusiastic interest in your date. Playing it cool is not a winning strategy.
There will always be women who go for “sexy bastards” and men who like hot psycho chicks.
There will always be people who prefer relationships without strings, or no relationships at all.
There will always be narcissists and disagreeable sorts who think they deserve it all.
But this is not most people. Most people want exactly what you want. Let the outliers live as they wish. They have nothing to do with you. Instead, turn your attention to the vast majority that’s in the market right now, playing for keeps.