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Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences

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Based on undergraduates' self-reports of mate preferences for various traits and self-perceptions of their own levels on those traits, Buston and Emlen [Buston PM, Emlen ST (2003) Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 100:8805–8810] concluded that modern human mate choices do not reflect predictions of tradeoffs from evolutionary theory but instead follow a “likes-attract” pattern, where people choose mates who match their self-perceptions. However, reported preferences need not correspond to actual mate choices, which are more relevant from an evolutionary perspective. In a study of 46 adults participating in a speed-dating event, we were largely able to replicate Buston and Emlen's self-report results in a pre-event questionnaire, but we found that the stated preferences did not predict actual choices made during the speed-dates. Instead, men chose women based on their physical attractiveness, whereas women, who were generally much more discriminating than men, chose men whose overall desirability as a mate matched the women's self-perceived physical attractiveness. Unlike the cognitive processes that Buston and Emlen inferred from self-reports, this pattern of results from actual mate choices is very much in line with the evolutionary predictions of parental investment theory. • assortative mating • decision making • evolutionary psychology • sexual selection • speed-dating
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Different cognitive processes underlie human mate
choices and mate preferences
Peter M. Todd*
†‡
, Lars Penke
§¶
, Barbara Fasolo
, and Alison P. Lenton**
*Center for Adaptive Behavior and Cognition and
International Max Planck Research School LIFE, Max Planck Institute for Human Development,
Lentzeallee 94, 14195 Berlin, Germany;
Cognitive Science Program, Indiana University, 1101 East 10th Street, Bloomington, IN 47405;
§
Department of Psychology, Humboldt University, Rudower Chaussee 18, 12489 Berlin, Germany;
Operational Research Group,
London School of Economics, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, United Kingdom; and **Department of Psychology,
University of Edinburgh, 7 George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9JZ, United Kingdom
Edited by Gordon H. Orians, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, and approved July 23, 2007 (received for review June 7, 2007)
Based on undergraduates’ self-reports of mate preferences for
various traits and self-perceptions of their own levels on those
traits, Buston and Emlen [Buston PM, Emlen ST (2003) Proc Natl
Acad Sci USA 100:8805–8810] concluded that modern human mate
choices do not reflect predictions of tradeoffs from evolutionary
theory but instead follow a ‘‘likes-attract’’ pattern, where people
choose mates who match their self-perceptions. However, re-
ported preferences need not correspond to actual mate choices,
which are more relevant from an evolutionary perspective. In a
study of 46 adults participating in a speed-dating event, we were
largely able to replicate Buston and Emlen’s self-report results in a
pre-event questionnaire, but we found that the stated preferences
did not predict actual choices made during the speed-dates. In-
stead, men chose women based on their physical attractiveness,
whereas women, who were generally much more discriminating
than men, chose men whose overall desirability as a mate matched
the women’s self-perceived physical attractiveness. Unlike the
cognitive processes that Buston and Emlen inferred from self-
reports, this pattern of results from actual mate choices is very
much in line with the evolutionary predictions of parental invest-
ment theory.
assortative mating decision making evolutionary psychology
sexual selection speed-dating
W
hat characteristics are preferable in a human mate? The
answer depends, as ever in behavioral research, on how
one asks the question. When asked in a normative manner—
what characteristics should men and women seek in a mate?—
the question can be addressed from the theoretical framework of
evolutionary biology. Starting with the assumption that the
underlying function of mate choice is reproductive success,
evolutionary psychologists have proposed that men should seek
young, fertile, faithful women, and women should seek high-
st atus, resourceful, c ommitted men, and both sexes should
bargain for the traits they desire in the other sex by offering the
desirable traits that they themselves possess (1, 2). When people
are asked what traits they prefer in a mate, however, the answer
to this question becomes less clear. On the one hand, the traits
that people around the world say they prefer match the evolu-
tionary predictions for making adaptive mate choices (3–5). On
the other hand, Buston and Emlen (6) found that people do not
indicate that they want to exchange, for instance, male status for
female attractiveness (a hypothesis, based on an evolutionary
mating market framework, that they call ‘‘potentials-attract’’)
but rather seek someone just as high-status (or low) and attrac-
tive (or not) as themselves (a form of active positive assortative
mating they call ‘‘likes-attract’’). Why do the theoretical mate
choice predictions and stated mate preferences clash in this way?
In this work, by comparing the attributes that a group of
mate-seek ing individuals said they prefer in a mate with what
they actually chose in potential partners, we show how the
c onflicting results can be reconciled.
The reconciliation between the evolutionary predictions and
the verbally reported preferences begins in recognizing that the
for mer are not necessarily predictions about the latter. The
evolutionary reasoning predicts what traits people will actually
tend to choose, not what people say they will (or would like to)
choose. Although there is evidence for a certain degree of
behavioral validity of st ated mate preferences, such as for age
dif ferences (1, 3), these preferences often disagree with actual
choices, a mismatch that scientists also have shown across a
number of other domains and disciplines (7–9). This can happen
simply because of environmental constraints: The available
opportun ities in the world may not match what people want.
People also may be forced to make tradeoffs between prefer-
ences on different dimensions or to lower their overall standards
in the face of c ompetition from others [e.g., intrasexual compe-
tition for the same mates (1, 2)]. Mismatches between prefer-
ences and choices in many domains also can arise for more
psychological reasons, such as when people do not have stable
stored preferences but rather must construct them on the spot
when asked or when choosing (10). This may lead to different
outc omes when choices are stated at different times or in
dif ferent circumstances (11, 12). Furthermore, people may not
be adept at verbalizing their internal preferences (13). Social
cues that lead people to try to give answers that they think the
questioner wants to hear also can influence the responses given
[e.g., demand effects (14)]. Finally, our minds may even be
adapted to giving ‘‘wrong’’ responses, opposing or mask ing our
tr ue preferences, especially in import ant domains such as mate
choice, where it may be beneficial to deceive competitors,
potential mates (15), and even ourselves (16).
Given the problems inherent in asking people what they want
in a mate, it is preferable to turn to a more direct method of
observing what traits people actually do choose. One way would
be to study current couples and ask them (or infer backward)
what traits originally attracted them to each other, but this
approach is of questionable usefulness because it relies on
fallible memories of what was once found to be attractive in one’s
mate (cf. ref. 17). Another method would be to observe human
mate choice ‘‘in the wild,’’ but this is difficult because of the
challenges in determin ing the cues being used and the choices
being made (but see ref. 18). In this study, we turned to a more
c ontrolled, but still realistically motivated, setting where we
c ould observe mate choice oc curring at a rapid rate: speed-
dating, a popular social event where men and women talk to each
other for a few minutes before deciding whether or not they
would like to pursue this person as a potential mate. By asking
Author contributions: P.M.T., L.P., B.F., and A.P.L. designed research; P.M.T., L.P., B.F., and
A.P.L. performed research; L.P. analyzed data; and P.M.T. and L.P. wrote the paper.
The authors declare no conflict of interest.
This article is a PNAS Direct Submission.
To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: pmtodd@indiana.edu.
© 2007 by The National Academy of Sciences of the USA
www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.0705290104 PNAS
September 18, 2007
vol. 104
no. 38
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PSYCHOLOGYEVOLUTION
people before a speed-dating session what traits they prefer in a
mate and observing the traits embodied in the potential partners
they actually chose, we were able to c ompare both stated
preferences and choices with the theoretical predictions made by
evolutionary psychology. In short, we found that whereas st ated
preferences supported the likes-attract hypothesis (6), actual
choices did not, instead fitting more with evolutionary hypoth-
eses, including potentials-attract.
Background: Mate Choice in the Speed-Dating Microcosm
Speed-dating events can be thought of as a microcosm where
mate choices are made sequentially in a faster and more for-
malized fashion than in daily life. The structure of these events,
increasingly popular in many c ountries, follows a similar pattern:
Single people interested in finding a partner sign up for a session,
of ten run by a c ommercial firm and usually segregated ac cording
to age (and sometimes other demographic variables, such as
oc cupation). At a typical session, several men ( 20) meet a
similar number of women for 3- to 7-min ‘‘minidates’’ during a
single evening. After each of these accelerated dates, each
participant marks a card indicating how interested he or she is
in meeting that person again, usually via a categorical decision
(‘‘I would like to meet again’’ vs. ‘‘I would not like to meet
again’’). Only those pairs of participants who expressed a mutual
desire to meet are provided w ith each other’s contact informa-
tion. Speed-dating thus provides an ideal forum in which to study
mate choice decisions, combin ing laboratory-like control with
ec ological realism (19). Our special speed-dating session added
a prequestionnaire in which participants (singles in midadult-
hood) rated their own level and their desired level in a mate on
seven evolutionarily relevant traits also used by Buston and
Emlen (6): physical attractiveness, present financial st atus, fu-
ture financial status, social status, healthiness, desire for chil-
dren, and parenting qualities.
The artificially set length of speed-dating interactions might
look too short for serious mate choices, but research on person
perception in the minimal information paradigm repeatedly has
shown that people are surprisingly accurate in judging others
af ter very brief periods of time. This is not only the case for
superficial traits, such as physical attractiveness, but also for less
directly observable personality characteristics, such as broad
personalit y traits and general intelligence (20, 21). Furthermore,
although studies of speed-dating events can only capture the
in itial ‘‘screening’’ stage of the mate choice process, this initial
st age is cr ucial, because it determines which pairings have any
chance at all of resulting in committed romantic relationships.
Kurzban and Weeden (22) were among the first to examine
mate choice decisions and mating success in the context of
speed-dating events, exploring the role of self-reported mate
value in initial mating decisions. Just as Darwin (23) and Trivers
(24) predicted, Kurzban and Weeden (22) found that women
were much more selective than men: A lthough men chose, on
average, every second woman, women only wanted to meet a
third of the men again. Both men’s and women’s success at the
events (i.e., the number of times they were chosen, regardless of
their own choice) was mainly predicted by visible indicators of
good physical condition (e.g., body mass index). Resource indi-
cators (e.g., income and education) had surprisingly little impact
on success. However, having more resources made men more
selective, and having indicators of good physical condition
increased selectivit y in both sexes. Greater selectivity, in turn,
was related to stronger preferences for good physical condition
in both sexes. Our study extends these results by comparing
participants’ choices with their stated preferences.
Results
Comparison of Overall Self-Perceptions and Stated Preferences. We
first tested whether individuals with higher overall self-
appraisals were choosier in terms of their overall preferences, as
found by Buston and Emlen (6). To do this, we formed total sum
sc ores of all seven attribute values for the self-perceptions and
for the stated preferences (given their broadness, these sets had
ac ceptable internal consistencies of
0.68 and 0.63, respec-
tively). The t wo summed sc ores were positively associated in
both women (r 0.57, P 0.008) and men (r 0.77, P 0.001).
Comparison of Domain-Specific Self-Perceptions and Stated Prefer-
ences.
To assess whether likes attract as Buston and Emlen (6)
did, the stated mate preferences for the seven attributes were
c ombined to for m three of the four evolutionarily relevant
domains considered by Buston and Emlen. Thus, present finan-
cial status, future financial st atus, and social status were summed
to yield a ‘‘wealth and st atus’’ composite; desire for children and
parenting qualities were summed as a ‘‘family commitment’’
c omposite; and physical attractiveness and healthiness were
summed as a ‘‘physical appearance’’ composite.
††
The self-
perception ratings were similarly combined. However, although
for ming composite scores is appealing on theoretical grounds
[e.g., for healthiness and attractiveness (25)], some of the
attributes aggregated into these composites showed low internal
c onsistencies, especially in the physical appearance domain (
0.10 for reported preference and 0.33 for self-perception; inter-
nal consistencies of the composites were not reported by Buston
and Emlen). We therefore also analyzed the attributes of
physical attractiveness and healthiness separately.
Following Buston and Emlen’s (6) data analysis strategy, for
women and men separately we computed a series of univariate
linear regressions in which the reported preference in each
domain was individually regressed on each of the self-perception
sc ores. We show these values in Table 1 for women and Table 2
for men, where the results corresponding to Buston and Emlen’s
††
We did not ask participants about the fourth domain, sexual fidelity, because of concerns
that the questions could be misinterpreted in the speed-dating context and could affect
the honesty of the other responses.
Table 1. Beta weights from univariate linear regressions of domain-specific stated preferences
on self-perceptions for women
Domain-specific stated preferences
Domain-specific
self-perceptions
Wealth and
status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance Attractiveness Healthiness
Wealth and status 0.13 0.10 0.17 0.35 0.07
Family commitment 0.23 0.76*** 0.22 0.41
0.05
Physical appearance 0.08 0.25 0.84*** 0.59** 0.60**
Attractiveness 0.04 0.21 0.59** 0.65** 0.22
Healthiness 0.17 0.19 0.75*** 0.30 0.74***
***
, P 0.001;
**
, P 0.01; †, P 0.10; all df 1, 18.
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www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.0705290104 Todd et al.
are found in the upper left 3 3 cells. As can be seen in this part
of the tables, two of the nine coefficients for women and four of
the nine coefficients for men reached significance (P 0.05),
even in our relatively small sample. Additionally, two regressions
for men were marginally significant (P 0.10).
The significant results for the women closely followed the
likes-attract pattern found by Buston and Emlen (6): In two
domains (family c ommitment and physical appearance), wom-
en’s self-perceptions explained a large amount of variance in
their corresponding stated preferences (58% and 70%, respec-
tively). However, women’s self-perceptions of wealth and st atus
showed no significant or subst antial relationship with their
st ated preference for this domain, which does not support the
likes-attract hypothesis.
For the men, the pattern was less clear: On the one hand, and
in support of the likes-attract hypothesis, all relationships be-
t ween domain-specific self-perceptions and the corresponding
st ated preferences were at least marginally significant, and in two
of the three cases (wealth and status, family commitment), the
c oefficient of determination was higher for the predictor of the
same domain than for the other two. On the other hand,
self-perceived physical appearance was related to st ated prefer-
ence for family c ommitment nearly as much as it was related to
preference for physical appearance (R
2
0.24 vs. 0.28). More
not ably, self-perceived wealth and status was a much better
predictor of st ated physical appearance preference than of its
c orresponding wealth preference domain (R
2
0.41 vs. 0.14),
which lends support to the evolution-based potentials-attract
hypothesis. Nevertheless, comparing the overall amount of vari-
ance explained by these two competing hypotheses, as per
Buston and Emlen (6), shows a clear advantage for the likes-
attract hypothesis.
Tables 1 and 2 also show how each of the items composing the
physical appearance domain individually relate to the various
domains. For women, self-perceptions of both attractiveness and
healthiness were strong predictors of stated preferences for the
same domain, and not for any other, supporting the likes-attract
hypothesis. At the same time, the two items did not significantly
predict one another, which points out the heterogeneit y within
the physical appearance composite (see ref. 26). For men, a
similar pattern emerges, with both attractiveness and healthiness
self-perceptions strongly relating to their respective stated pref-
erences. Note that only the self-perceived attractiveness item
shows the same significant relationship with stated preferences
for family c ommitment as seen with the physical appearance
c omposite. Likewise, reported attractiveness preferences are
much more strongly predicted by self-perceived wealth and
st atus than are healthiness preferences. It thus seems that, in
men, attractiveness, rather than healthiness, produces the effects
found in the physical appearance domain.
Do Stated Preferences Predict Real Choices? It looks as though
individuals in our sample stated preferences that are close to their
own self-perceived trait value s, replicating Buston and Emlen’s (6)
likes-attract finding. The question we are most interested in,
however, is how people’s actual choices are structured.
To answer this question, we calculated choice scores from the
of fers that the men and women made at the FastDating event.
On average, men made more offers (saying ‘‘yes’’) than women
[men: M 7.35, SD 3.68; women: M 4.00, SD 3.15, t(44)
3.25, P 0.002, Cohen’s d 0.98]. Three women and one man
did not make offers to anyone, so they were excluded from
further analysis. For each remaining participant, we calculated
the mean attribute value of the people to whom they made an
of fer, by averaging the chosen individuals’ self-perceived values
on each of the seven attributes. To illustrate, imagine Nate, who
made offers to three women: Ophelia, Petra, and Ruth. If
Ophelia rated herself asa7onfamily commitment, Petra rated
herself a 3 on this trait, and Ruth a 2, then Nate’s mean choice
sc ore for family c ommitment would be (7 3 2)/3 4. In
addition to doing this for each of the seven self-rated attributes,
we calculated the choice score for ‘‘observer-rated’’ physical
attractiveness by using averaged attractiveness ratings made by
t wo FastDating employees.
‡‡
Table 3 depicts the c orrelations (separated by sex) between
choice scores and stated preferences. The c orrelations for
women are generally low for all domains except physical ap-
pearance and overall preferences (i.e., ‘‘ideal mate value’’ com-
pared with ‘‘selected mate value’’). Notably, men show a con-
sistently negative relationship between stated preferences and
chosen attributes. These counterintuitive correlations are sig-
n ificant for physical appearance and healthiness and marginally
sign ificant for overall preferences. Conversely, the results re-
vealed a positive (although not significant) c orrelation between
men’s stated attractiveness preferences and the mean observer-
rated attractiveness of their chosen women. As a whole, these
findings indicate that there is a rather poor match between our
sample’s verbally stated preferences for mate traits and the
preferences they expressed through their actual mate choices.
Comparison of Choices and Self-Perceptions. Next, we deter mined
more specifically how the preferences that people express
through their choices relate to their own self-perceived traits: Do
likes attract, or do potentials attract in this case? First, to
examine whether individuals with higher overall self-perceived
mate value also choose others with relatively high overall
self-perceived mate value, we ran c orrelations between these two
summed sc ores separately for women and men. Contrary to both
Busten and Emlen’s (6) and our own findings comparing stated
mate-value preferences with self-perceived mate value, overall
mate value of actual choices showed no appreciable relationship
‡‡
These ratings were highly correlated (r 0.56, P 0.001), justifying this averaging into
an aggregate score (for men: M 5.6, SD 1.2; for women: M 6.0, SD 1.4).
Table 2. Beta weights from univariate linear regressions of domain-specific stated preferences
on self-perceptions for men
Domain-specific stated preferences
Domain-specific
self-perceptions
Wealth and
status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance Attractiveness Healthiness
Wealth and status 0.37
0.25 0.64*** 0.59** 0.42*
Family commitment 0.27 0.85*** 0.35
0.07 0.37
Physical appearance 0.19 0.49* 0.53** 0.41* 0.39
Attractiveness 0.17 0.45* 0.12 0.56** 0.18
Healthiness 0.12 0.29 0.63** 0.08 0.70***
***
, P 0.001;
**
, P 0.01;
*
, P 0.05; †, P 0.10; all df 1, 24.
Todd et al. PNAS
September 18, 2007
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PSYCHOLOGYEVOLUTION
with overall self-perceptions: Correlations were 0.34 (P 0.18)
for women and 0.27 (P 0.19) for men.
Unlike domain-specific stated preferences, choice sc ores were
not well predicted by self-perceptions within the same domain
for either men or women (upper left part of Tables 4 and 5). For
women, the likes-attract hypothesis is supported only for physical
appearance. The only other significant relationship identified
was between self-perceived family commitment and the choice
sc ore for physical appearance (R
2
0.24), not fitting the
likes-attract pattern. Further evidence against likes-attract
emerged when the internally inconsistent physical appearance
c omposite was broken down again into its subcomponents (Table
4): Contrary to Buston and Emlen’s (6) finding, neither self-
perceived attractiveness nor healthiness predicted their respec-
tive traits in the observed choices. Self-perceived attractiveness,
on the other hand, was a significant predictor of choices for all
other domains, explaining 24–30% of their variance. A woman’s
self-perceived attractiveness was even a strong predictor for the
overall self-perceived mate value (mean across all traits) of the
men she chose (r 0.58, P 0.016).
For men (Table 5), there were no reliable relationships
bet ween stated preferences and choice scores: The coefficient of
deter mination was rarely 0.10, and in several cases the beta
weight was even negative. Only the observer-rated attractiveness
of the chosen women was marginally significantly and positively
predicted from men’s self-perceived physical appearance. The
same was tr ue when the physical appearance c omposite was
again split into its two components, with self-perceived attrac-
tiveness being a more potent predictor (R
2
0.18).
Overall, the likes-attract pattern that Buston and Emlen (6)
found relating people’s self-perceptions to their st ated prefer-
ences in various attribute domains could be seen in rough form
in our dat a but was not at all detect able between self-perceptions
and actual preferences expressed in choices. Instead, women
appeared to exchange their self-perceived physical attractiveness
for everything but physical attractiveness in their chosen mates,
largely as predicted by the potentials-attract hypothesis. Men, on
the other hand, did not appear to make exchanges based on their
self-perceptions at all (except for a weak indication of exchang-
ing self-perceived attractiveness for women’s externally rated
attractiveness).
Strategies Used in Making Offers. The high correlation between
women’s self-perceived attractiveness and their chosen men’s
mate values suggests that women generally followed a strategy of
adjusting their choosiness for overall mate value (mean on all
traits) further upward the higher they rated themselves on
attractiveness. Was this a reasonable strategy for women to
follow in the FastDating setting? To find out, we first assumed
that women generally want a small number of good matches from
the event. This is supported by our prequestionnaire dat a, which
indicates that on average women sought fewer than five matches.
Sec ond, we proposed that to achieve this goal, women would set
their threshold for making offers to be as high as possible given
the number of men available and their own ability to attract
of fers (if they set their threshold too low, they could get too many
matches to less-desirable men, given that men make a larger
number of less-discriminating offers). Now we can rephrase our
question: Is a woman’s self-perception of her own attractiveness
a good cue to use in setting her aspirations? Yes: women’s
self-perceived attractiveness was the only domain-specific self-
perception that was substantially correlated with the number of
of fers received from men (r 0.43, P 0.059; all other P
values 0.25). (Note that externally rated attractiveness was also
highly correlated with offers: r 0.86, P 0.001.) At the same
time, women’s self-perceived attractiveness was unrelated to the
number of men to whom they made offers (r 0.01, P 0.96).
Thus, the women seemed to be using an ef fective strategy for
adjusting their threshold for making of fers to a small number of
men of similar desirability as a mate, trading of f their physical
attractiveness against the overall quality of men across different
domains, to achieve a few good matches.
Can the Unsuccessful Individuals Be Accounted For? As mentioned
earlier, three women and one man did not make any offers,
mean ing that they were unwilling to meet again with anyone at
this FastDating event. Their refusal to make choices did not
allow us to analyze the c ontingency of their actual preferences on
their self-perceptions. Still, we can compare these nonchoosers
with their peers who did make choices.
The three nonchoosing women did not differ markedly f rom
the women who made choices in terms of age, overall self-
perception, and overall reported preferences (all d values
Table 3. Zero-order Pearson correlations between individuals’ stated preferences and choice scores (mean trait values of chosen
dates) for different domains
Domain-specific choice scores
Stated preferences
in the same domain
Wealth and
status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Attractiveness
(self-perceived) Healthiness Overall
Attractiveness
(observer-rated)
Women 0.39 0.33 0.53* 0.13 0.14 0.54* 0.05
Men 0.25 0.07 0.41* 0.07 0.44* 0.36
0.30
*
, P 0.05; †, P 0.10.
Table 4. Beta weights from univariate linear regressions of domain-specific choice scores (mean trait values of
chosen dates) on self-perceptions for women
Domain-specific choice scores
Domain-specific
self-perceptions
Wealth and
status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Attractiveness
(self-perceived) Healthiness
Attractiveness
(observer-rated)
Wealth and status 0.10 0.03 0.03 0.06 0.01 0.27
Family commitment 0.36 0.18 0.49* 0.35 0.42
0.10
Physical appearance 0.32 0.40 0.54* 0.23 0.58* 0.16
Attractiveness 0.49* 0.55* 0.50* 0.20 0.55* 0.28
Healthiness 0.05 0.13 0.40 0.19 0.41 0.00
*
, P 0.05; †, P 0.10; all df 1, 18.
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0.40). However, they were 1 SD above the choosing women’s
mean on externally rated attractiveness (d 1.07) and 1.5 SD
above the choosing women’s mean on self-perception of physical
attractiveness (d 1.56). Although these results are far from
being statistically meaningful, they illustrate that the women who
rejected all potential mates in this setting behaved very much in
ac cordance w ith the attractiveness-adjusted-threshold mate
choice mechanism suggested by the data of the women who did
make choices.
The one man who did not make any choices was also within 1
SD of the men’s mean for age, overall self-perception, and each
domain-specific self-perception, including the physical attrac-
tiveness item. However, he was 1 SD above the mean for the
choosing men’s externally rated attractiveness (7.50, M 5.63,
SD 1.19), paralleling the nonchoosing women. Interestingly,
he was also 1 SD higher for overall st ated preferences (7.00,
M 5.99, SD 0.95), indicating that he was very picky in both
his stated preferences and his actual choices.
Both the two women and the three men who did not receive any
offers at this FastDating event fell 1 SD below those who did
receive offers on externally rated attractiveness (both d 1.17). The
men apparently tried to compensate for this disadvantage by being
less discriminating: They gave approximately twice as many offers
as men who themselves received offers (M 13.3 vs. 6.6). In
contrast, the women rejected by every man did not make more
offers than women who received offers (both M 4.0).
Discussion and Conclusions
Before a speed-dating event, we asked participants to indicate
their own self-perceived level on a variety of traits and the
preferred level of their ideal mate on those same traits. We
c ompared these with the trait levels of the people they actually
chose to make offers to while speed-dating. Our results show that
although both men and women stated that they prefer mates who
possess attributes similar to their own (likes-attract), their actual
choices told a different story: Men’s choices did not reflect their
st ated preferences or their self-perceptions. Instead, men ap-
peared to base their decisions mostly on the physical attractive-
ness of the women. They also appeared to be much less choosy,
as reflected in the greater number of offers made by men
c ompared with women (cf. ref. 22). One interpretation of these
results is that men ‘‘propose’’ to nearly every woman above some
cert ain attractiveness threshold, independent of their own de-
sirabilit y as a mate. This is in line with Grammer et al. (27) who
found that men’s preferences for women’s physical attractiveness
are best described as an avoidance of unattractiveness (see also
ref. 28).
A lthough women’s actual choices, like men’s, did not reflect
their stated preferences, they made more discriminating choices:
They appeared to be aware of the importance to men of their
own physical attractiveness, and they used their self-perception
to adjust their aspiration level and picked only a few men with
traits that matched their own desirability as a mate. Thus, both
men’s and women’s choices were influenced by women’s physical
attractiveness.
This pattern of results is in line with evolutionary models of
human mating based on parental investment theory: Unlike
men, women face a tradeof f between a mate’s quality, both
phenot ypic and genetic (for which physical attractiveness is used
as a cue) and his willingness to provide paternal investment (2,
24, 29). As a consequence, it is more adaptive for women to take
into account how likely potential mates are to be committed to
them and hence aim for mates of similar quality, instead of
simply aiming for the most attractive mates. A small number of
good matches also helps women to reduce unnecessary mating
ef fort and to lower the risks associated with further in-depth
screen ing of potential mates; thus, the speed-dating process can
have important advantages for women.
In the context of speed-dating at least, self-reported mate
preferences deviate markedly from actual mate choices. As with
desires [e.g., for sexual variety (1 and 30)] and fantasies (31),
st ated preferences can be useful for understanding how evolu-
tion has biased the male and female mind in different directions,
but they are a fallible base for disc overing the process mecha-
n isms of real choice behavior, as Buston and Emlen (6) aimed
to do. Contrary to the concerns raised by Buston and Emlen (and
subsequently ref. 32), the mate choice patterns of men and
women, as we have found by analyzing speed-dating, are very
much in line with the theories of Darwin (23) and Trivers (24).
Further more, these patterns imply that the well documented
phenomenon of human positive assortative mating (e.g., refs. 33
and 34), at least when it arises through active mate choice rather
than social homogamy, is almost exclusively a result of the picky
female choices, not the rather undiscriminating male ones. In this
way, humans put themselves in line with most other mammals in
following Darw in’s (23) principle of choosy females and com-
petitive males, even if humans say something different.
Methods
To gather dat a from a real speed-dating session, we worked in
c ooperation with FastDating, a company based in Munich,
Ger many. Via the company’s web site, participants were invited
to take part in a special research-oriented FastDating session
inc orporating one pre-event and one post-event questionnaire,
in exchange for a 10-euro discount of f the standard price of 29
euros. Here we focus only on the pre-event questionnaire results.
A tot al of 21 women and 26 men participated in the special
session. One woman failed to fill out the questionnaires, so her
dat a were excluded f rom all analyses. The remaining 20 women
ranged in age from 26 to 42 (M 34.0, SD 4.7), the men f rom
26 to 44 (M 35.6, SD 4.5).
The online prequestionnaire
§§
(c omprising 76 items and avail-
able 8 days before the dating session) asked participants to
§§
One participant submitted a hard copy of the prequestionnaire because of limited
Internet access.
Table 5. Beta weights from univariate linear regressions of domain-specific choice scores (mean trait values of
chosen dates) on self-perceptions for men
Domain-specific choice scores
Domain-specific
self-perceptions
Wealth and
status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Attractiveness
(self-perceived) Healthiness
Attractiveness
(observer-rated)
Wealth and status 0.32 0.07 0.22 0.05 0.26 0.22
Family commitment 0.16 0.03 0.20 0.35
0.07 0.01
Physical appearance 0.32 0.07 0.28 0.05 0.34
0.36
Attractiveness 0.24 0.19 0.10 0.04 0.10 0.43*
Healthiness 0.23 0.08 0.31 0.03 0.39
0.13
*
, P 0.05; †, P 0.10; all df 1, 24.
Todd et al. PNAS
September 18, 2007
vol. 104
no. 38
15015
PSYCHOLOGYEVOLUTION
indicate for a variety of traits both their ideal ‘‘level’’ or value of
the trait (1 very low, 9 very high) and the importance (1
not at all important, 9 very important) they attach to attaining
a mate with that level (e.g., desiring a very healthy mate, but
placing only medium importance on getting someone with this
trait value). We investigated most of the traits used by Buston
and Emlen (6): physical attractiveness, present financial status,
future financial status, social status, healthiness, desire for
children, and parenting qualities. After this, participants rated
their own levels on these attributes, using others of their same sex
and social g roup as a comparison standard.
We assessed both trait value and trait import because, from a
decision theoretic point of view, these two constr ucts are pre-
sumably independent, and both are required when assessing the
overall utility of an option [summing up all of the attribute values
times importance weights for each alternative (35)]. Buston and
Emlen (6) asked participants to rate the importance of traits in
potential mates but to rate the values of their own traits, which
c ould have led to some mismatch between the two scales. We
found that the desired value and importance of the attributes
were highly c orrelated in our sample (mean r 0.77), indicating
that when people wanted a high value of some trait, they also felt
that it was import ant to get that value. Thus, Buston and Emlen’s
(6) results should not have been greatly affected by their
dif ferential use of the scales. However, to be consistent, we used
the self and other attribute values (not importance weights) for
the analyses reported in this paper.
¶¶
At the special FastDating session, participants were given a
badge with an identification number (women 1–21, men 1–26),
along with a paper card for rec ording their dating decisions
(‘‘yes,’’ I would like to see this person again, or ‘‘no,’’ I would not
like to see this person again). The 21 women sat down, 1 per
t able, and 21 of the men sat down opposite them. Men 22–26
waited until they were rotated into the meeting scheme.
Each couple then t alked for 5 min, after which all of the men
shif ted over one table to meet the next woman in line (with man
26 now meeting woman 1). While this shift was t aking place, the
participants marked down their decision about the person they
had just met. These marks also c ould be made, or changed, at any
time during the evening, but almost all individuals recorded their
choices about someone while or immediately after talking with
them. At the end of the evening, the decision cards were
c ollected. The only difference from a regular FastDating session
was that, during the course of the evening, the organizer and an
assist ant (one man, one woman) made surreptitious judgments
of the physical attractiveness of each participant on a scale of 1
(not attractive at all) to 10 (very attractive).
Af ter the FastDating session, the organ izer c ompiled the
participants’ decisions from their cards in the st andard way:
Whenever a woman and man indicated mutual interest in each
other (i.e., they each marked yes to the other), a match was
rec orded. Within 2 days after the session (and only after they had
filled out the postquestionnaire), participants were e-mailed a
list of those people with whom they had matched. In some cases,
this list was empty (three men and t wo women in our sample).
We thank Johannes Much of FastDating for his crucial help in enabling
this study to happen, A nita Todd for editing, and two anonymous
reviewers for their comments.
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