The Best Mate Money Can Buy

There’s a proud tradition in psychological research that involves asking people about how much they value this thing or that one, be it in a supermarket or, for our present purposes, in a sexual partner. Now there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with doing this kind of research, but while there are certain benefits to it, the method does have its shortcomings. One easy way to grasp a potential issue with this methodology is to consider the dating website When users create a profile on this site, they are given a standard list of questions to answer in order to tell other people about themselves. Some of these questions deal with matters like, “What are six things you couldn’t do without?” or “what are you looking for in partner?”. The typical sorts of answers you might find to questions like these are highlighted in a video I really like called “The Truth About Being Single“:

“All these people keep interrupting my loneliness!”

The problem with questions like these is that – when they are posed in isolation – their interpretation can get a bit difficult; they often seem to blur the lines between what people require and what they just want. More precisely, the ratings people give to various items or traits in terms of their importance might not accurately capture their degree of actual importance. A quick example concerns cell phones and oxygen. If you were to ask people on Okcupid about five things they couldn’t do without on a day-to-day basis, more people would probably list their phones than the air they breathe. They would also tell you that, in any given year, they likely spend much more money on cell phones than air. Despite this, air is clearly the more important item, as cell phones stop being useful when the owner has long since asphyxiated (even if the cell phone would allow you to go out playing whatever bird-themed game is currently trending).

Perhaps that all seems very mundane, though: “Yes, of course,” you might say, “air is more important than iPhones, but putting ‘I need air’ on your dating profile or asking people how important is the air they breathe on a survey doesn’t tell you much about the person, whereas iPhone ownership makes you a more attractive, cool, and intelligent individual”. While it’s true that “people rate breathing as very important” will probably not land you any good publications or hot dates, when we start thinking about the relative importance of the various traits people look for in a partner, we can end up finding out some pretty interesting things. Specifically, we can begin to uncover what each sex views as necessities and what they view as luxuries in potential partners. The key to this method involves constraining the mate choices people can make: when people can’t have it all, what they opt to have first (i.e. people want air before iPhones if they don’t have either) tells us – to some extent – where their priorities lie.

Enter a paper by Li et al (2002). The authors note that previous studies on mating and partner selection have found sex differences in the importance placed on certain characteristics: men tend to value physical attractiveness in a partner more than women, and women tend to value financial prospects more than men. However, the ratings of these characteristics are not often found to be of paramount importance, relative to ratings of other characteristics like kindness, creativity, or a sense of humor (on which the sexes tend to agree). But perhaps the method used to derive those ratings is missing part of the larger picture, as it was in our air/iPhone example. Without asking people to make tradeoffs between these characteristics, researchers might be, as Li et al put it, “[putting the participants in] the position of someone answering a question about how to spend imaginary lottery winnings”. When people have the ability to buy anything, they will spend proportionately more money on luxuries, relative to necessities. Similarly, when people are asked about what they want in a mate, they might play up the importance of luxuries, rather than necessities if they are just thinking about the traits in general terms.

“I’m spending it all on cans of beans!”

What Li et al (2002) did in the first experiment, then, was to provide 78 participants with a list of 10 characteristics that are often rated as important in a long-term partner. The subjects were told to, essentially, Frankenstein themselves a marriage partner from that list. Their potential partners would start out in the bottom percentile for each of those traits. What this means is that, if we consider the trait of kindness, their partner would be less kind than everyone else in the population. However, people could raise the percentile score of their partner in any domain by 10% by spending a point from their “mating budget” (so if one point was invested in kindness, their partner would now be less kind than 90% of people; if two points were spent, the partner is now less kind than 80% of people, and so on). The twist is that people were only given a limited budget. With 10 traits and 10 percentiles per trait, people would need 100 points to make a partner high in everything. The first budget people started with was 20 points, which requires some tough calls to be made.

So what do people look for in a partner first? That depends, in part, on whether you’re a man or a woman. Women tended to spend the most – about 20% of their initial budget (or 4 points) – on intelligence; men spent comparably in that domain as well, with about 16% of their budget going towards brains. The next thing women tended to buy was good financial prospects, spending another 17% beefing up their partner’s yearly income. Men, on the other hand, seemed relatively unconcerned with their partner’s salary, spending only 3% of their initial budget on a woman’s income. What men seemed much more interested in was getting physical attractiveness, spending about 21% of their initial budget there; about twice what the women spent. The most vital characteristics in a long-term partner, then, seemed to be intelligence and money for women, and attractiveness and intelligence for men, in that order.

However, as people’s mating budget was increased, from 20 points to 60 points, these sex differences disappeared. Both men and women began to spend comparably as their budgets were increased and tradeoffs became less pressing. In other words, once people had the necessities for a relationship, they bought the same kinds of luxuries. These results were replicated in a slightly-modified second study using 178 undergraduates and five traits instead of ten. In the final study, participants were given a number of potential dates to screen for acceptability. These mates were said to be have been rated along the previous 5 characteristics in a high/medium/low fashion. Participants could reveal the hidden ratings of the potential dates for free, but were asked to reveal as few as possible in order to make a decision. As one might expect, men tended to reveal how physically attractive the potential mate was first more than any other trait (43% of the time, relative to women’s 16%), whereas women tended to first reveal how much social status the men had (35% of the time, relative to men’s 16%). Men seem to value good looks and women tend to value access to resources. Stereotype accuracy confirmed.

A now onto the next research project…

This is the reason I liked the initial video so much. The first portion of the video reflects the typical sentiments that people often express when it comes to what they want in a partner (“I just want someone [who gets me/to spend time with/ to sleep next to/ etc]“). These are, however, often expressions of luxuries, rather than necessities. Much like the air we breathe, the presence of the necessities in a potential mate are, more or less, taken for granted – at least until they’re absent, that is. So while traits like “creativity” might make an already-attractive partner more attractive, being incredibly creative will likely suddenly count for quite a bit less if you’re poor and/or unattractive, depending on who you’re trying to impress. I’ll leave the final word on the matter to one of my favorite comedians, John Mulaney, as I think he expresses the point well: “Sometimes I’ll be talking to someone and I’ll be like, “yeah, I’ve been really lonely lately”, and they’ll be like, “well we should hang out!” and I’m like, “no; that’s not what I meant”.

References: Li, N., Bailey, J., Kenrick, D., & Linsenmeier, J. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the tradeoffs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82, 947-955.

10 comments on “The Best Mate Money Can Buy

  1. – This reminds me of when I was a teenager, my mom would always tell me to be myself around girls and they would like me. The problem was I didn’t know what that meant. I now, having been in a relationship for several years, understand exactly what that means.

  2. chris on said:

    When women are pursuing short-term mating strategies they select men for their genetic quality.

    When women are pursuing long-term mating strategies they select men for paternal investment + genetic quality.

    (For the sake of simplicity, lets say genetic quality is only physical attractiveness, and we can rate it on a 1 to 10 scale. (I don’t have any data as to the weighting women attribute to it but I have a feeling that for short-term mating women care more about how good looking the guy is then how clever/intelligent he is).)

    Given this, would or would not a woman prefer a rich OR caring 8/10, to a poor OR uncaring 9/10?

    If the answer is yes, but only for long-term mating, not short-term mating, what then would cause the long-term mated woman to pursue a dual mating strategy and cuckold her long-term mated man with a more physically attractive man? Is it a decrease in the level of other qualities he brings to the table? Is it a decrease in his physical attractiveness such that it dips below her minimum level of physical attractiveness?

    I suppose what I’m asking is

    If Long-term mate value (LTMV) = Physical attractiveness (PA) + paternal investment (PI)


    Short-term mate value (STMV)= Physical attractiveness (PA)

    (PA)=those traits that go to increasing physical attractiveness, i.e. good looks, height, muscularity, masculinisation etc
    (PI)=those traits that go to increasing willingness or ability toe paternally invest, i.e. wealth, social status, career, kindness, generosity, “niceness” etc.

    what change in LTMV would cause a woman to seek out an extra-pair copulation with a male high in STMV? Or would a woman always try to seek an extra-pair copulation with a male higher in STMV regardless of the LTMV of her pair-bonded mate provided the male higher in STMV has higher PA than her long-term mated male?

    i.e. will a woman no matter what, always try to cuckold the rich/caring 8/10 with the poor/uncaring 9/10?

    (see the answer in my mind is that if the risk of cuckolding* is negligible, that is she won’t be found out, then the answer is yes. In which case, if you’re a male, you should spend all your time improving your PA qualities and not even bother putting effort into improving PI qualities as there is no guarantee of you reaping the benefits of the effort put into the improvement of those traits and it can be much much easier to improve PA than it is to improve PI (i.e. 3 years in the gym vs 3 years in college.))

    *When I refer to cuckolding I don’t actually mean producing a child, although it can be, I really just mean a defrauding of the male by convincing him to put effort into improving paternal investment traits on the belief that doing so will secure her exclusive sexual investment, while at the same time she is giving sexual investment to a man/men who instead put all their effort into improving PA traits instead of improving paternal investment traits. (Put simply, selling high to him but selling cheap to others while at the same time deceiving him into labouring to be in the sold to high camp when he could have used that labour to be in the sold to low camp and get the same rewards for doing so (that is non-exclusive mating access to her) at a cheaper cost/price (he doesn’t have to commit to her or put the higher effort into getting the PI traits needed to commit to her).

    I suppose what I am indirectly trying to figure out is if there’s any point in increasing one’s paternal investment (PI) value or should all effort just go into maximising physical attractiveness (PA) no matter what? i.e. Should I spend 3 years at the gym rather than 3 years at college? (I don’t want to squander my mating effort.)

  3. Clubfoot on said:

    Something that always bothers me with evo-psych theories about women’s preferences is how much choice did prehistoric women really have? The amount of reproductive choice women have today is only a modern phenomenon made possible by our modern peaceful societies. In the savage prehistoric societies in which we evolved, women and girls were probably treated like property by the men, didn’t have say in who they got married to at a young age and were frequently raped if they didn’t have male protectors. In many popular evo-psych books I’ve read the authors seem to imagine that prehistoric people behaved and chose mates like middle class people do today but just happened to live out in the jungle.

    In The Mating Mind, Geoffrey Miller paints a picture of prehistoric mate choice as being similar to the female choice dominated system seen in many bird species. He imagines that men would display to the women who would then choose which men to mate with. As a result, he supposes, men have evolved sexual ornaments analogous to the brightly coloured feathers and singing talents of many male birds.

    Now, this is complete fantasy. If men have been heavily sexually selected for hundreds of thousands of years then by now we’d all be tall, handsome, super sexy Casanovas with big willies and silver tongues. Sure, some men are like that but that level of sexual attractiveness should have become the default. There’s really little evidence that female choice has been a big driving force in recent human evolution. Although it makes perfect sense for women to try to act as gatekeepers to their eggs, the extent to which they were actually able to do so in prehistoric societies has probably been greatly overestimated by many people and most of mate choice in prehistory was probably men choosing women not the other way round.

    Teenage girls especially would’ve been chosen by men because they would’ve had the highest “long term reproductive potential” and because of this women have evolved to be at their most attractive at that age. It is women that have evolved the sexual ornaments such as perky boobs, fresh faces* and bright eyes in their teenage years as a result of male choice. The extreme attractiveness of teenage girls is exactly the kind of thing we’d expect to see if they have been heavily sexually selected but an equivalent doesn’t seem to have happened in men as a result of female sexual selection.

    I’m not sure if this is completely relevant to your post but I just wanted to post it somewhere.

    * The evidence is that female facial attractiveness peaks at about 14 which would’ve roughly been the age of peak nubility in caveman times.

    • Clubfoot on said:

      Ah look, here’s some more evidence that female choice wasn’t that important in prehistory. The much supported idea that women’s preferences should shift during her fertile window and motivate her to cuckold her husband with a higher quality male has turned out to have little to no statistical support.

      This isn’t really surprising given that the cuckoldry rate in HG societies is only a few percent, as Greg Cochran pointed out recently. There wouldn’t have been much selection pressure for cuckolding behaviours to evolve.

      • Clubfoot on said:

        Wait, my logic in that last sentence was a bit backwards. I should have that the fact that the cuckoldry rate is so low means that such adaptations haven’t evolved.

  4. Deus on said:

    That’s a good point you makes about the lack of evidence for female selection. If men have been sexually selected as much as theorists like MIller claim, then why are most men so clueless about seducing women? There’s a whole “pick up” industry that teaches men how to go about seducing women. A lot of the stuff they teach is really basic stuff about how to talk to women and spot indicators of interest. If men have evolved to seduce women wouldn’t they instinctively understand stuff like this already? It just doesn’t add up.

    • Clubfoot on said:

      You’re right. It don’t add up, does it?

      Being good at seducing women may increase a man’s reproductive success in modern societies but the rules may have been different in prehistory. Being an attractive, skilled seducer may have generally decreased a prehistoric man’s reproductive success by putting him in danger of being clubbed to death by a jealous husband. Remember, there were no police in caveman times to come and save you. Maybe the men that generally reproduced best in small prehistoric societies were those that specifically weren’t very good at seducing women and just kept their heads down guarding the mates they had already acquired through marriage or trade.

      • Clubfoot on said:

        Do you think I’m right, Jesse? Do you think Geoffrey MIller’s birdman theory is a bit stupid? Little more than a palaeo-fantasy that appeals to his middle class sensibilities and feminist beliefs?

        It seems clear to me that it’s the females in our species that have evolved the sexual ornamentation to impress the males and not the other way round like it is in many other species. I think I’m in good company because I think Darwin thought the same thing.