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Always close. (Photo credit: Hannele Luhtasela-El Showk)Regular readers will probably have realized from the links I share (or from my twitter stream) that sexism and gender issues are subjects which matter to me. Unfortunately, a lot of my discussions about gender get sidetracked by a “pop evolutionary” story based on naïve evolutionary psychology. We “evolved on the plains of Africa”, the story goes, where our preference in partners was shaped by biological needs; modern gender roles and partner preferences reflect these ancestral adaptations. It’s a nice story which does a great job of justifying the existing patriarchal structure, but is it true? That’s a huge question which is unlikely to be settled by a single study. Nevertheless, Marcel Zentner and Klaudia Mitura, a pair of psychologists at the University of York, decided to take it on.

The problem isn’t that the evolutionary story is necessarily untrue, but rather that it’s often assumed to be self-evidently true, perhaps because it dovetails nicely with the existing social order. The basic argument is that the sexes evolved different preferences in a partner based on their different roles and needs. Pregnancy and nursing cost an enormous amount of energy, so females are supposed to prefer a partner who can provide plentiful resources, which is why wealth and status are attractive in males. By contrast, males don’t have to worry as much about cost but are expected to look for youthful partners who will be more fertile. If these differences are hard-wired into male and females brains by evolution, they should be the same across cultures, which is precisely what a series of studies across 37 countries found.  The amount of difference wasn’t consistent, though, being larger in areas like the Middle East and North Africa and smaller in Scandinavia. Zentner and Mitura point out that this doesn’t fit with the evolutionary theory; after all, if evolution has shaped the sexes’ preference in partners, why would the difference be larger in some countries than in others?

An alternative is that what we look for in a partner is shaped more by social factors, like roles in marriage and employment, than by evolutionary history. According to this theory, inequality between the sexes shapes our perception of gender roles, leading males and females to look for different qualities in a partner; as the sexes become more equal, these differences should become smaller or disappear.  For example, women are less likely to be concerned about their partner’s ability to provide resources in societies where they can support themselves by working.  “There was accumulating evidence that gender differences in mental abilities, such as math performance, vanish in gender-equal societies,” said Dr. Zentner, so the duo set out to see if the same was true for how we pick our partners.

This is hardly the first time the “social theory” has been tested, but the results from earlier studies were generally ambiguous.  Although inequality between the sexes seemed to affect preferences, the effect disappeared when other factors, such as different levels of affluence, were taken into consideration.  The existing measures of gender inequality didn’t take these factors into account, making it difficult to understand exactly what was happening.  To overcome this, Mitura and Zentner used the Gender Gap Index (GGI), introduced in 2006 by the World Economic Forum to overcome the problems of earlier metrics.  The GGI is designed to measure the extent to which a country has narrowed the gap between men and women; it controls for factors like wealth and explicitly measures outcomes rather than policy efforts.

The pair used an online questionnaire to learn about the preferences of nearly 3,200 people from 10 countries; the participants were asked to rate the importance of different characteristics in a partner, ranging from social status and good looks to chastity, education or being a good cook and housekeeper.  The researchers calculated the difference in preferences between males and females for each factor individually and as a combined average.  Comparing these differences with the countries’ GGI scores revealed a strong pattern: in countries with a higher level of gender equality, like Finland and the Philippines, there wasn’t much difference between what males and females preferred in a partner, while in countries where the genders were unequal, such as Turkey, Korea and Mexico, the sexes tended to have very different preferences.  To confirm these results, the researchers also reanalyzed the data from earlier studies and found the same effect. Although the results cast serious doubt on the evolutionary story, Dr Zentner warned that it shouldn’t be ruled out, saying “the capacity to change behaviours and attitudes relatively quickly in response to societal changes may itself be driven by an evolutionary programme that rewards flexibility over rigidity.”

I’m guessing there are still going to be people who stick to the evolved-and-adapted story of gender roles and partner preferences. Actually, that’s fine. This study certainly isn’t perfect.  For one thing, it doesn’t address the difference between sex and gender or consider what effect transgender or genderqueer people might have on their survey.  In fact, the results don’t really address the issue of whether or how humans have evolved sex-specific criteria for picking a partner. However, they do clearly show that even if evolution has shaped what we look for in a lover, this hard-wiring can be overcome by how we are socialized.  Results like these show us to be more than simple automata; rather than using evolutionary history as an excuse to reinforce existing power structures, we should strive to create societies that overcome our flaws.

Zentner, M., & Mitura, K. (2012). Stepping Out of the Caveman’s Shadow: Nations’ Gender Gap Predicts Degree of Sex Differentiation in Mate Preferences Psychological Science, 23 (10), 1176-1185 DOI: 10.1177/0956797612441004