Brains over Beauty? Male Dating Preferences Are Evolving, Research Finds

February 18, 2016 | Kelly Tatera

woman in glasses reading a book

Gender equality is shaping what humans look for in a long-term partner.

Many people assume that guys are hardwired to seek out ladies with pretty faces and healthily-curved figures, but research from Northwestern University and the University of Innsbruck suggests that, in today’s society, modern men are increasingly valuing brains over beauty when choosing long-term partners.

“Our review across several disciplines suggest that mating preferences of men as well as women have responded with unsuspected speed to progress toward gender equality,” said Marcel Zentner, professor of psychology at University of Innsbruck.

Evolutionary scientists are now challenging the common view that mate choices are evolutionarily “hardwired” in our brains. Instead, they suggest that humans are programmed to respond to changing environments and norms with great flexibility.

This flexibility allows people to do what sociocultural theorists have maintained for a long time: Select partners who minimize the costs and maximize the benefits that they will experience in their future lives,” Alice Eagly, professor of psychology and faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern, said in a press statement.

The researchers looked at three sources of evidence to come to the conclusion that brains are becoming more important than physical appearance.

First, they looked at cross-cultural research to compare the values in different countries around the world. They found that the more gender-egalitarian a country was, the less likely the men and women would trade “male earning power” for “female youth and beauty,” according to the researchers. They also reported that in gender-equal nations, like Finland, men are more interested in an educated, intelligent partner than women are.

Second, they looked at individuals, finding that what people want in a partner had a lot to do with his or her gender-equal attitudes — people with traditional mindsets tend to prefer the combination of male breadwinning and female fertility and domestic skills. However, the researchers found that these preferences weakened considerably among people who see men and women as equals.

Finally, they compared what men and women want to the changes in gender roles in recent history. According to the researchers, the tradition of “female homemakers” and “male breadwinners” no longer exists in many nations. For example, in the US, 70 percent of mothers with children under 18 are working moms. Also, in 38 percent of marriages that involve a working wife, she earns more than he does.

While men used to be more attracted to looks and domestic traits of women, education and income have become increasingly important. These are traits that women have long sought in men, but what’s new is that men are now choosing wives based on brains.

“In today’s world, where both partners can (and often must) work to achieve a decent lifestyle, most men want an educated, intelligent wife who can earn a good wage,” Eagly said. “In turn, men can worry somewhat less about producing wealth but may benefit from brushing up their looks and domestic skills.”

It’s good news that humans can adapt their partner preferences as the social and gender spheres continue to evolve. Although this doesn’t mean that biology plays no role in mate preference, this research shows that social factors shape partner preferences much more than previously thought. Considering more women are locking down careers in STEM, it’s about time!

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