Behavior, biology, evolution, gender, Gender role, partner, People, Popular science, relationships, romance, science, Science in Society, sex, sex differences
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
Rob Sica (@robsica) said:
“Continuing to promote the erroneous view that psychological sex differences are entirely learned and are largely absent in high gender parity nations may seriously hamper the advancement of sexological science and could be deleterious to men’s and women’s sex-linked psychiatric and healthcare needs.”
Click to access EP107207261.pdf
Jim Birch said:
It seems likely to me that if there are gender differences they would belong in the older lower automatic brain areas not in the recently acquired frontal lobes. If so, gender differences would be stronger in stressful environments when people act more impulsively. Requiring a man for protection and support is in itself a form of stress. Where levels of affluence and education are high and life is not stressful the gender differences would tend to fade because people have ability to act in a more considered, thoughtful, higher brain mode.
Of course, culture has a massive effect as well and could probably wipe this sort of effect out. It’s a tough complex area to research. Which might be why we just make stuff up.
Thanks for the comments!
@ Rob Sica: I didn’t claim that “psychological sex differences are entirely learned”; in fact, I explicitly said in the last paragraph that this study doesn’t really address the question of whether we’ve evolved particular preferences; instead, it just shows that we should be able to reshape our preferences despite any evolutionary heritage. I also don’t think Zentner & Mitura make such a strong claim, which is why I included the quote from Dr. Zentner saying that we may have evolved a flexible, context-dependent set of preferences.
@ Jim Birch: I’m not convinced that the stress explanation is the simplest or most straightforward interpretation of the results, but it’s certainly possible. To be honest, though, I don’t really see why differences between the sexes would be found in a specific part of the brain. Subjects like this are always challenging to tackle, though I think their inherent complexity is confounded by the preconceptions that all of us bring to the table.
Jo Ann said:
I always enjoy reading your posts, sedeer (even if I don’t completely understand them!) because I appreciate your balanced approach to interpreting the studies you review and I always learn something. It does seem to make sense that in countries with a higher level of gender parity would, and do, shape our preferences in selecting a mate.
Jo Ann said:
Last sentence revised: It does seem to make sense that in countries with a higher level of gender parity, there are different forces at work that can, and do, shape our mate selection preferences.
Thanks for your lovely comment, Jo Ann! I always make an effort to present the science without making statements that are too strong, since things are usually too complicated to be reduced to simple soundbites; it makes me really glad to hear that I’m succeeding to some extent. 🙂
Please feel free to ask questions whenever you don’t understand a post! I’m trying to make science accessible to non-scientists, but I’m still learning how to do that (and hopefully improving!). I’m sure I sometimes fall short and it would really great to know when I do.
Thanks for stopping by, as always!
Neuroskeptic also posted today about another study addressing gender roles and differences between the sexes. If you’re interested in the subject, go check it out:
For a critique, see:
Royce Johnson said:
One factor that is consistent in direct and magnitude across all cultures appears to be the definiton of “nice looks” including a specific waist-hip ratio (women) and waist-shoulder ratio (men). This variable was used to rate potential lovers in the Zentner and Mitura study and may therefore enfold the evolved attraction factors into the rating itself.
A social factor that was not measured, but clearly strongly varies across the studied cultures, is touched on by Jim Birch’s observation about stress. There is much lower risk of life adversity in the higher gender-equalized cultures, with their very strong social safety nets and economies, vs the gender-polarized cultures which typically have high levels of life risk. Societal or personal affluence doesn’t affect that, either. Perhaps a longitudinal study could be done using one culture across eras of distinclty different life risk, as in comparing preferences in the US during a good economy vs now during a poor one. Are all the post-apocolyptic fictional stories of cultures reverting to strong gender polarization in roles and partnering simply fiction or derived from observing what happens to societies under stress?
Pingback: Why Do Men and Women Want Different Things? — The Good Men Project
Phillip Bell said:
The part about women looking for men based on needs of resources like in older times being different from now kind of seemed like a no brainer. Of course women don’t need to look specifically for a provider in today’s world, I’m sure some women could care less if the man makes a lot of money, as long as he has a good personality. I do wish the study with the questionnaire had more profound data rather than just saying that different levels were higher in different places. Just something along the lines of what questions they asked and how the levels differed. All-in-all though I found this article to be very interesting.
Stevie Tinker said:
I believe that in some cultures that are not as developed that society does play a role in shaping one’s preferences in a partner. However, I think cultures such as ours and other developed countries are not as influenced on our preferences in partners by “history”. I believe that today individuals make their own decisions on their preferences in partners and not by what the norm in society is. Peoples preferences in partners have changed drastically from what they were in earlier cultures. Gender roles are not as important now as they used to be. Women are not fixed on finding a stereotypical man because it is more accepted for women to take on some masculine roles.