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Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society

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This study tested two hypotheses concerning the cognitive processes underlying human mate choice in Western society: (i) mate preference is conditional in that the selectivity of individuals' mate preference is based on their perception of themselves as long-term partners, and (ii) the decision rule governing such conditional mate preference is based on translating perception of oneself on a given attribute into a comparable selectivity of preference for the same attribute in a mate. Both hypotheses were supported. A two-part questionnaire was completed by 978 heterosexual residents of Ithaca, New York, aged 18-24; they first rated the importance they placed on 10 attributes in a long-term partner and then rated their perception of themselves on those same attributes. Both women and men who rated themselves highly were significantly more selective in their mate preference. When the 10 attributes were grouped into four evolutionarily relevant categories (indicative of wealth and status, family commitment, physical appearance, and sexual fidelity), the greatest amount of variation in the selectivity of mate preference in each category was explained by self-perception in the same category of attributes. We conclude that, in Western society, humans use neither an "opposites-attract" nor a "reproductive-potentials-attract" decision rule in their choice of long-term partners but rather a "likes-attract" rule based on a preference for partners who are similar to themselves across a number of characteristics.
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Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice:
The relationship between self-perception and
mate preference in Western society
Peter M. Buston* and Stephen T. Emlen
Department of Neurobiology and Behavior, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853
Communicated by Thomas Eisner, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, May 28, 2003 (received for review March 14, 2003)
This study tested two hypotheses concerning the cognitive pro-
cesses underlying human mate choice in Western society: (i) mate
preference is conditional in that the selectivity of individuals’ mate
preference is based on their perception of themselves as long-term
partners, and (ii) the decision rule governing such conditional mate
preference is based on translating perception of oneself on a given
attribute into a comparable selectivity of preference for the same
attribute in a mate. Both hypotheses were supported. A two-part
questionnaire was completed by 978 heterosexual residents of
Ithaca, New York, aged 18–24; they first rated the importance they
placed on 10 attributes in a long-term partner and then rated their
perception of themselves on those same attributes. Both women
and men who rated themselves highly were significantly more
selective in their mate preference. When the 10 attributes were
grouped into four evolutionarily relevant categories (indicative of
wealth and status, family commitment, physical appearance, and
sexual fidelity), the greatest amount of variation in the selectivity
of mate preference in each category was explained by self-per-
ception in the same category of attributes. We conclude that, in
Western society, humans use neither an ‘‘opposites-attract’’ nor a
‘‘reproductive-potentials-attract’’ decision rule in their choice of
long-term partners but rather a ‘‘likes-attract’’ rule based on a
preference for partners who are similar to themselves across a
number of characteristics.
decision rules assortative mating marriage reproductive
success alternative hypotheses
I
n all human societies most men and women form long-term
pair bonds that typically are formalized as marriages. These
marriages form as a result of specific mate-choice decisions made
by both male and female partners or by their parents and other
k insfolk. If we assume there is variation in reproductive suc cess
among different marriages, then the decision rules that lead to
the most reproductively successful marriages should be favored
by natural selection.
In recent years there has been a surge of interest among
evolutionary biologists and psychologists in the topic of human
mate choice. Much of the current literature is founded on
Trivers’ (1) theory of parental investment, which highlighted the
facts that females require only a few matings to fertilize all their
eggs, whereas males have the potential to fertilize more eggs than
a single female can produce. Because of this difference, repro-
ductive suc cess of a female tends to be limited by access to
resources to nourish each of her eggs, whereas reproductive
suc cess of a male tends to be limited by his access to female eggs.
Thus the mating strategies of males and females are predicted to
dif fer, and many studies have sought and found dif ferences
bet ween the sexes in the relative importance they place on
specific traits in long-term partners.
For example, it has been shown repeatedly that women exhibit
a stronger preference than men for attributes of ambition, social
st atus, and financial wealth in a partner as well as for a desire for
children and a commitment to family, all of which are indicative
of the partner’s ability to obtain and w illingness to invest the
resources necessary for the survival and suc cess of offspring
(e.g., refs. 2–10). Similarly, men exhibit a stronger preference
than women for features of youthfulness, health, and physical
attractiveness in a partner, all of which are indicative of high
fecundit y and reproductive potential (e.g., refs. 2, 48, and
10–12). Furthermore, men of ten exhibit a stronger preference
than women for indicators of sexual fidelity, presumably because
males suffer higher costs from being cuckolded than do females
(5, 10, 13–14). A lthough researchers have focused on the dif-
ferences in the mean level of preference expressed by the sexes,
it should be emphasized that all studies have also reported
c onsiderable overlap in the distribution of preferences expressed
by males and females (e.g., refs. 4 and 5).
The reproductive potential of an individual’s partner, how-
ever, may not be the only factor that contributes to the repro-
ductive output of their partnership. The stability of the partner-
ship may also influence its reproductive output (15). In socially
monogamous societies, an individual with an open-ended mate
preference (a preference for the most preferred partner avail-
able) would only obtain a st able long-term partnership if shehe
waited until the more preferred, same-sex members of the
population had paired. Individuals who did not wait would be
prone to form partnerships with mates of very different quality
than themselves, and such partnerships are expected to be
unst able, because the higher-quality mate has many opportuni-
ties for trading up in partner quality. A strategy more likely to
lead to stable long-term pairings would be to assess one’s own
relative quality as a mate, form a mate preference based on this
self-perception, and choose a partner of similar mate quality (10,
16, 17). Such a strategy requires cognitive processes that enable
an individual to assess both his or her own relative quality, and
relative quality of the potential mate, w ithin the local population.
There is evidence to suggest that both self-perception and
mate assessment are relativistic and may be influenced by
ex posure to different local populations. Self-perception as a
potential mate is influenced by exposure to desirable same-sex
models. Women lowered their self-assessment when exposed to
profiles of physically attractive females (18–20), whereas men
lowered their self-assessment when exposed to profiles of socially
dominant males (20). Further, an individual’s assessment of their
mate is influenced by ex posure to desirable opposite-sex models.
Women’s feelings about their current partner were affected
adversely by exposure to profiles of socially dominant men (21),
whereas men’s feelings about their current partner were af fected
adversely by exposure to profiles of physically attractive women
(21–23). For these cognitive processes to result in stable long-
ter m partnerships, all one needs to show is that self-perception
positively correlates with the selectivity of mate preference.
Waynforth and Dunbar (10) and Bereczkei et al. (2) provide
in itial support for the link between self-perception and selec-
tivity of mate preference. Using data from the wording of lonely
*To whom correspondence should be sent at the present address: National Center for
Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, University of California, 735 State Street, Suite 300,
Santa Barbara, CA 93101. E-mail: buston@nceas.ucsb.edu.
www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.1533220100 PNAS
July 22, 2003
vol. 100
no. 15
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PSYCHOLOGYEVOLUTION
hearts advertisements, they reported that women offering cues of
physical attractiveness made higher overall demands of potential
long-ter m partners (10) and higher specific demands for male
financial and occupational status (2) than did women who did
not offer such cues. Similarly, men offering cues of wealth and
st atus made higher overall demands in their advertisements for
long-ter m partners (10) and higher specific demands for female
physical attractiveness (2) than did men who did not offer such
cues. More recently, Little et al. (24) provided additional evi-
dence for mate preference being influenced by self-perception
by showing (using computerized faces) that a woman’s self-
perceived level of attractiveness was positively related to her
preferences for masculinized and symmetrical facial features in
a potential long-term partner. Thus, there is evidence that
selectivity of mate preference is conditional on self-perception in
Western societies.
Most evolutionary studies of human mate choice have focused
on individuals’ open-ended preferences for indicators of repro-
ductive potential in a partner and the impact that a partner’s
reproductive potential has on fitness (3, 5–9, 11–14). More recent
studies have focused on conditional preferences for indicators of
reproductive potential and the impact that both partnership
st ability and a partner’s reproductive potential have on fitness (2,
10, 15, 17). Here we investigate whether mate preferences are
relativistic, i.e., whether individuals’ mate preferences are based
on their perception of themselves as long-term partners, as is
predicted when partnership stability is an import ant c omponent
of fitness. We then consider the possibility that such relativistic
preferences may be generated in ways other than forming a
c onditional preference for indicators of reproductive potential.
We investigate t wo alternative hypotheses regarding how
self-perception on one trait is translated into selectivity of mate
preference in Western society: (i) individuals relate self-
perception on sex-specific indicators of reproductive potential to
selectivity of mate preference for sex-specific indicators of
reproductive potential in the opposite sex; or (ii) individuals
relate self-perception on one trait to selectivity of mate prefer-
ence in the same trait. The first relativistic decision rule, ‘‘prefer
individuals with reproductive potential similar to your own’’
(hereaf ter called the ‘‘potentials-attract’’ hypothesis) predicts
that individuals who are well endowed in sex-specific traits
indicative of high reproductive potential will be able to make
strong demands for traits that indicate high reproductive poten-
tial in the opposite sex. This c ognitive mechanism emphasizes
the difference between the strategies of the sexes (5), and it is the
mechan ism implicitly assumed in previous evolutionary studies
of conditional human mate choice (e.g., refs. 2, 5, 20, and 21).
The second relativistic decision rule, ‘‘prefer individuals with
traits similar to your own’’ (hereafter called the ‘‘likes-attract’’
hypothesis) predicts that individuals who are well endowed in a
particular trait will make strong demands for the same trait in the
opposite sex. This cognitive mechanism emphasizes the similar-
it y of the strategies of the sexes (4, 5), yet it is rarely considered
in evolutionary studies of human mate choice. Both relativ istic
hypotheses assume that the deg ree of similarity of partners,
measured either on traits indicative of reproductive potential or
on a trait-by-trait basis, will increase the stability of long-term
partnerships and thereby positively influence reproductive suc-
cess (15).
In this study we used questionnaires to deter mine whether the
import ance that one places on attributes of a potential mate are
c onditional on hisher self-perception as a mate. We also looked
in detail at the relationships between self-perception and selec-
tivity of mate preference for each of four evolutionarily relevant
categories of traits to determine whether individuals are using a
potentials-attract or likes-attract decision rule. We find that the
selectivity of long-term mate preference is strongly conditional
on one’s perception of oneself as a long-term partner, for both
women and men. Further, our results provide strong support for
the hypothesis that a likes-attract cognitive process underlies the
translation of self-perception into the selectivity of mate pref-
erence in Western society.
Methods
We conducted combined mate preference and self-perception
surveys in and around Ithaca, New York in the autumn of 1999.
Each of 122 students enrolled in extra-credit discussion sections
of the Cornell University Introduction to Animal Behavior
c ourse were asked to administer questionnaires to 10 other
people.
The questionnaire consisted of t wo parts. In part one, the
mate-preference survey, questions had to be answered regarding
the importance of 10 attributes when choosing a long-term
partner. The attributes were financial resources (e.g., expected
inc ome and inheritance), physical attractiveness, faithfulness,
parenting qualities, social status, health, desire for children,
devotion, ambition, and strength of family bonds (closeness to
their parents and siblings). Respondents rated each attribute by
using a n ine-point scale (1 not at all important and 9
extremely important). We considered the scores of a respondent
to be indicative of the selectiv ity of their mate preference on each
attribute. In part two, the self-perception survey, participants
rated themselves as long-term partners for the same 10 attributes
on an analogous nine-point scale (1 low and 9 high). For
each individual we then calculated two mean scores, one for the
import ance of the 10 attributes in mate choice (which we call
‘‘overall mate-preference score’’) and one for self-perception on
the 10 attributes as a potential mate (which we call ‘‘overall
self-perception score’’).
We tested the hypothesis that the mate preference of an
individual would be contingent on hisher self-perception. We
predicted that mate-preference scores would be positively re-
lated to self-perception scores. For females and males separately,
we conducted linear and second-order polynomial reg ression
analyses, with overall mate-preference score as the dependent
variable and overall self-perception score as the independent
variable.
To discriminate between the two mechanisms (potentials-
attract or likes-attract) by which self-perception might translate
into mate preference, we grouped the 10 attributes in the
questionnaire into four evolutionarily relevant categories (in the
sense of refs. 2 and 10). These categories were (i) wealth and
st atus (financial resources, social status, and ambition); (ii)
family commitment (parenting qualities, desire for children, and
strength of family bonds); (iii) physical appearance (physical
attractiveness and health); and (iv) sexual fidelity (devotion and
faithfulness). For each individual we calculated a mean score for
mate preference and self-perception in each category.
The potentials-attract mechanism predicts that women with
high self-perception of their own physical appearance and sexual
fidelit y will place great importance on wealth and status and
family commitment in a potential long-term male mate and
likewise that males who perceive themselves highly for wealth
and status and family commitment w ill place g reat importance
on physical appearance and sexual fidelity in a potential long-
ter m female mate. Thus we predicted positive relationships
bet ween the self-perception scores of respondents in categories
indicative of their own reproductive potential and mate-
preference scores of respondents in categories indicative of the
reproductive potential of a mate (Table 1).
In c ontrast, the likes-attract hypothesis predicts that individ-
uals who have high self-perception in a particular category will
place great importance on the same category in the opposite sex.
Thus, females’ physical-appearance self-perception scores are
predicted to be positively related to their physical-appearance
mate-preference scores, and males’ physical-appearance self-
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www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.1533220100 Buston and Emlen
perception scores are predicted to be positively related to their
physical-appearance mate-preference scores. Indeed, positive
relationships are predicted bet ween self-perception and mate-
preference scores for each category of attributes for both sexes
(Table 2).
In the event that both hypotheses were supported (e.g., if
females’ mate-preference sc ores for wealth and status were
positively related to their self-perception scores for both wealth
and status and physical appearance), we compared the goodness
of fit of the different regressions using a likelihood ratio test.
This enabled us to ask which of the independent variables
(categorical self-perception scores) was the better predictor of
the dependent variable (categorical mate-preference score) and
thereby to discriminate between the two hypotheses.
Results
Included in this study are 978 questionnaire respondents. They
range in age from 18 to 24 years (females: n 507, mean age
19.5, SD 1.2; males: n 471, mean age 19.8, SD 1.4) and
declared themselves to be heterosexual. We eliminated re-
sponses from declared gays and lesbians, because this study
focused on long-term heterosexual mate preference.
Individuals who rated themselves favorably as long-term part-
ners placed more importance on the attributes they sought in a
long-ter m mate than individuals who rated themselves less
favorably. For both women and men the overall mate-preference
sc ore was significantly positively related to the overall self-
perception score [womens’ second-order polynomial regression:
df 506, F 274.4, P 0.0001, R
2
0.36 (Fig. 1); mens’
sec ond-order polynomial regression: df 470, F 139.1, P
0.0001, R
2
0.37 (Fig. 2)]. For both sexes the sec ond-order
polynomial regression provided a better fit than the simple linear
regression (female likelihood ratio test comparing the polyno-
mial regression to the linear regression: df 1,
2
5.1, P
0.025; male likelihood ratio test comparing the polynomial
regression to the linear regression: df 1,
2
38.9, P 0.001).
By which cognitive mechan ism is self-perception translated
into mate preference? We tested the predictions of the poten-
tials-attract and likes-attract hypotheses by analyzing the reg res-
sions of mate-preference scores on self-perception scores for all
c ombinations of the four evolutionarily relevant categories of
attributes. Of the 32 regressions (16 for each sex), 27 were
positive and significant at the level of P 0.01, whereas 5 were
not significant. The results (F and P values) of all regressions for
women and men can be found in Tables 3 and 4. These results
provide preliminary support for both the potentials-attract and
likes-attract hypotheses.
Which cognitive hypothesis provided the better explanation of
how self-perception is translated into mate preference? Closer
examination of Tables 3 and 4 reveals that the highest coeffi-
cients of determination (R
2
values) were consistently those
bet ween the same categories of self-perception and mate pref-
Table 1. Predicted associations of the potentials-attract
hypothesis
Categorical
self-perception
score
Categorical mate-preference score
Wealth
and status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Sexual
fidelity
Wealth and status M M
Family commitment M M
Physical appearance F F
Sexual fidelity F F
Schematic representation of the predicted associations between the im-
portance placed on traits of a long-term mate and one’s perception of oneself
as a long-term mate according to two hypothesized cognitive mechanisms is
shown. M and F indicate, for males and females, respectively, that a positive
relationship is predicted between those categories of mate-preference score
and self-perception score (see also Table 2). The potentials-attract hypothesis
predicts strong relationships between self-perception scores on traits indica-
tive of the respondent’s own reproductive potential and mate-preference
scores on traits indicative of a mate’s reproductive potential.
Table 2. Predicted associations of the likes-attract hypothesis
Categorical
self-perception
score
Categorical mate-preference score
Wealth
and status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Sexual
fidelity
Wealth and status M, F
Family commitment M, F
Physical appearance M, F
Sexual fidelity M, F
The likes-attract hypothesis predicts strong relationships between the self-
perception scores in one trait and mate preference scores in the same trait, for
all traits, in both sexes.
Fig. 1. For women the overall mate-preference score depends on overall
self-perception score. Females who rated themselves highly as potential long-
term mates placed more importance on the attributes of potential long-term
male partners.
Fig. 2. For men the overall mate-preference score depends on overall
self-perception score. Males who rated themselves highly as potential long-
term mates placed more importance on the attributes of potential long-term
female partners.
Buston and Emlen PNAS
July 22, 2003
vol. 100
no. 15
8807
PSYCHOLOGYEVOLUTION
erence. On average, only 5% of the variation in women’s
mate-preference scores for wealth and status and family com-
mitment (categories assumed to be important indicators of the
reproductive potential of males) was explained by their percep-
tion of themselves in terms of physical appearance and sexual
fidelit y (categories assumed to be important indicators of re-
productive potential of females), whereas 35% of the variation
in these categories of women’s mate-preference scores was
ex plained by their perception of themselves in the same cate-
gories (see the comparison of italicized versus bold type in Table
3). Similarly, men’s self-perception in terms of wealth and status
and family commitment (categories assumed to be important
indicators of reproductive potential of males) explained, on
average, only 4% of the variation in the selectivity of their mate
preference for physical appearance and sexual fidelity (catego-
ries assumed to be important indicators of the reproductive
potential of females), but an average of 12% of the variation in
these categories of men’s mate preference was explained by
their self-perception in the same categories (see c omparison of
it alicized versus bold type in Table 4).
We compared the goodness of fit of the regressions predicted
by the two hypotheses using likelihood ratio tests. For females
and males the categorical mate-preference score was predicted
best by self-perception score in the same category (likelihood
ratio tests: females, df 1, all P 0.001; males, df 1, all P
0.001). These results provide strong support for the likes-attract
hypothesis. Individuals appeared to translate self-perception on
one trait into a comparable selectivity of mate preference for the
same trait.
Discussion
Our study provides strong support for the hypothesis that the
import ance that one places on the attributes of a potential
long-ter m partner is conditional on hisher self-perceived value
as a mate. Individuals who had a high self-perception of them-
selves were more discriminating in their mate preferences than
were individuals with lower self-perception scores. This conclu-
sion was equally robust for both women and men (R
2
0.36 and
0.37, respectively, both P 0.0001; Figs. 1 and 2). The obser-
vation that the second-order polynomial regression provided a
better fit than the simple linear model suggests that there may be
some minimal selectiv ity for long-term mate preference. The
implication of this result is that in an open marriage market,
individuals of low self-perception will find it hard to find and
keep a satisfactory partner, because such partners will them-
selves be seeking individuals of higher mate quality.
Our study also prov ides evidence that the conditionalit y of
mate preference is based on a cognitive mechanism that trans-
lates self-perceived score on one trait into a comparable mate-
preference score for the same trait (the likes-attract hypothesis).
Thus human mate choice in Western society seems to be based
on a preference for long-term partners who are similar to one’s
perception of self across a number of evolutionarily relevant
categories of traits.
Previous studies have also reported conditionality in human
mate preference in Western societ y. Little et al. (24) found that
women with a high self-perception of their physical attractive-
ness modified computer images of male faces to be more
‘‘masculine’’ and more symmetrical than did women with lower
self-perceived attractiveness. Waynforth and Dunbar (10) and
Bereczkei et al. (2) reported sex-specific conditionalit y in mate
choice strategies used in lonely hearts advertisements based on
their findings that what was requested of a partner in an
advertisement was c ontingent on what the individual placing the
advertisement had to offer. Waynforth and Dunbar and Berec-
zkei et al. both discuss their results in a manner that implicitly
assumes that individuals select partners by using a potentials-
attract mechanism.
A lthough the results of Waynforth and Dunbar (10) and
Bereczkei et al. (2) demonstrate conditionality in human mate
choice, we do not believe that they are suf ficient to discriminate
bet ween the potentials-attract and likes-attract hypotheses. This
Table 3. Females
Categorical
self-perception
score
Categorical mate-preference score
Wealth
and status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Sexual
fidelity
Wealth and status 146.9 17.8 26.3 4.3
*** *** *** ns
0.23 0.03 0.05 0.01
Family commitment 10.3 623.7 2.4 14.4
* *** ns **
0.02 0.55 0.01 0.03
Physical appearance 32.0 22.4 118.2 17.3
*** *** *** ***
0.06 0.04 0.19 0.03
Sexual fidelity 8.0 45.2 2.6 157.4
* *** ns ***
0.02 0.08 0.01 0.24
Summary of the outcome of linear regressions between categorical self-
perception and mate-preference scores for all combinations of four evolu-
tionarily relevant categories. In each cell the first line gives the F statistic, the
second gives the P value (
***
, P 0.0001;
**
, P 0.001;
*
, P 0.01; ns, P
0.01), and the third gives the coefficient of determination (R
2
, the amount of
variation explained), and all df 506. The potentials-attract hypothesis
predicts strong positive relationships between self-perception and mate-
preference scores in cells with italicized type, whereas the likes-attract hy-
pothesis predicts strong positive relationships in cells with bold type (see Table
1). Although 13 of the 16 regressions were statistically significant, those
predicted by the likes-attract hypothesis explained more of the observed
variation in mate preference than did those predicted by the potentials-
attract hypothesis.
Table 4. Males
Categorical
self-perception
score
Categorical mate-preference score
Wealth
and status
Family
commitment
Physical
appearance
Sexual
fidelity
Wealth and status 109.3 24.8 37.2 15.9
*** *** *** ***
0.19 0.05 0.07 0.03
Family commitment 8.9 342.9 7.8 10.2
* *** * *
0.02 0.42 0.02 0.02
Physical appearance 24.7 20.5 55.2 25.0
*** *** *** ***
0.05 0.04 0.11 0.05
Sexual fidelity 0.0 46.8 0.3 70.5
ns *** ns ***
0.00 0.09 0.00 0.13
Summary of the outcome of linear regressions between categorical self-
perception and mate-preference scores for all combinations of four evolu-
tionarily relevant categories. In each cell the first line gives the F statistic, the
second gives the P value (
***
, P 0.0001;
**
, P 0.001;
*
, P 0.01; ns, P
0.01), and the third gives the coefficient of determination (R
2
, the amount of
variation explained), and all df 470. The potentials-attract hypothesis
predicts strong positive relationships between self-perception and mate-
preference scores in cells with italicized type, whereas the likes-attract hy-
pothesis predicts strong positive relationships in cells with bold type (see Table
1). Although 15 of the 16 regressions were statistically significant, those
predicted by the likes-attract hypothesis explained more of the observed
variation in mate preference than did those predicted by the potentials-
attract hypothesis.
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www.pnas.orgcgidoi10.1073pnas.1533220100 Buston and Emlen
is because neither study contrasted the predictions of the two
alternatives. Had we only presented the regressions predicted
under the potentials-attract hypothesis, our results also would
have seemingly provided support for that mechanism. We too
found a highly significant regression between women’s self-
perception of their physical appearance and the selectivity of
their mate preference for wealth and st atus (Table 3; refs. 2 and
10). We also found a highly significant regression between men’s
self-perception of their wealth and status and the selectivit y of
their mate preference for physical appearance (Table 4; refs. 2
and 10).
A lthough our results are consistent with the potentials-attract
mechan ism, they provide stronger support for an alternative,
likes-attract mechan ism underlying human mate choice in West-
ern society. After close examination the regressions between
self-perception and mate-preference scores for the same cate-
gory of traits (those predicted by the likes-attract hypothesis)
ex plained sign ificantly more of the variation in mate-preference
sc ores than did the regressions between self-perception and
mate-preference scores for traits indicative of sex-specific re-
productive value (those predicted by the potentials-attract hy-
pothesis). Selectiv ity of mate preference on every category of
attributes was predicted best by self-perception on the same
category of attributes.
This analysis illustrates the danger of attempting to c onfir m
a specific hypothesis without contrasting its predictions against
those of alternative hypotheses. It is potentially very mislead-
ing to use regression statistics to test any one specific hypoth-
esis about the c onditionality of mate choice without providing
the full matrix of reg ression statistics for all relevant categories
of attributes. Further, when sample sizes are large (as they
t ypically are in human mate-preference studies), reg ressions
may achieve sign ificance yet ex plain very little of the associ-
ation between variables. For this reason, coef ficients of de-
ter mination (R
2
values) and goodness-of-fit tests (which can be
used to compare model qualit y) will be much better measures
for dif ferentiating among hypotheses than will sign ificance
levels alone.
The finding that the selectivity of long-term mate preference
is c onditional on perception of one’s self as a long-term mate is
the final link in the chain that stems from the cogn itive process
of self-perception, through a cognitive process of mate prefer-
ence, to the behavioral outcome of mate choice. If mate choices
indeed are based on likes-attract decision rules, then the most
f requent form of assortative mating in Western society is ex-
pected to be one of strict homogamy (25), i.e., marriages bet ween
partners who share many attributes in common. There is, in fact,
some evidence that this is true (4, 26–32).
Further more, if the likes-attract mechanism represents an
evolved mate-choice mechanism, then marriages between indi-
viduals who accurately assess themselves and prospective part-
ners and who pair assortatively on a trait-by-trait basis are
ex pected be more successful on average (i.e., to have higher
satisfaction ratings, greater stabilit y, and more surviving chil-
dren) than pairings of otherw ise comparable individuals who are
less accurate in their assessments or who use alternative mate-
choice mechanisms. Once again, there is some evidence that this
is true (summarized in refs. 28 and 33). Similarity in personality
traits reportedly contributes to marriage quality and marital
st ability (29, 34–36), which in turn may contribute to higher
reproductive success (15). Low but consistent c orrelations have
also been found between mate similarity for body dimensions
and fecundity (37) and between mate similarity on educational
att ainment and number of children (38).
This study is important because it shows that, in Western
societ y, humans use a conditional, likes-attract decision rule
when forming their preferences for long-term partners. This in
turn may help to explain why homogamous marriages have been
found to be more common and more successful than marriages
bet ween more disparate indiv iduals. If these findings are c on-
fir med by future work, then this study will have major implica-
tions not only for basic researchers interested in the cogn itive
mechan isms and fitness effects of human mate choice but also for
marriage counselors and the public at large. From the perspec-
tive of researchers trying to understand human monogamy, our
results suggest that the emphasis should be shifted away from the
st andard approach that focuses on indicators of reproductive
potential toward underst anding how matching on a trait-by-trait
basis c ontributes to marit al stability and possibly to reproductive
suc cess. From the counselors’ perspective, our results highlight
three areas in which people might have problems when it comes
to forming lasting relationships: (i) in the assessment of the
attributes of others, (ii) in the assessment of themselves, and (iii)
in translating their self-perception into their mate preference.
From the public’s perspective, our results suggest that individuals
seek ing st able long-term relationships should not seek the
highest quality partner available but should simply look for
partners who are similar to themselves.
This work is dedicated to the memory of Linda Mealey, past president,
International Society for Human Ethology. We thank Bernard Brennan,
Rulon Clarke, David Gilley, Lori Miller, and all the undergraduates
involved in the discussion sections of the Introduction to A nimal
Behavior course at Cornell University in the Fall of 1999 as well as the
978 members of the Cornell and Ithaca community who took the time
to complete the questionnaire. We thank James Dale and, especially,
Natalie J. Demong for c omments on the manuscript. The research was
supported by the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell
University.
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