Emotional fragility as a sexually selected trait

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Roissy recently drew up a list of female skills for attracting males, and although it is clearly weighted toward succeeding in short-term relationships, the rank order seems about right for getting married too. One quick way to see what has mattered to men is to look for sexually dimorphic traits. As Darwin noted, such traits can have the flavor of “armaments,” used to shove same-sex rivals out of the mating competition (such as deer antlers), or “ornaments” which attract mates (such as the peacock’s tail), or both. I’ll review some evidence that emotional vulnerability has been sexually selected in human females due to its attractiveness to males, rather than its use in female vs. female competition.

First, let’s use YouTube to convince ourselves that emotional fragility makes a female more attractive, regardless of her physical appearance. Consider Emmylou Harris, Karen O, Elizabeth Fraser, or Hope Sandoval — each is more desirable as a mate than if she were more tough-minded. In males, the attractiveness of fragility is conditional. If he can honestly signal manliness in dominating other males (however he does that), then emotional fragility around women may convince them that he’s the best of both worlds. But if he lacks drive or ambition, then fragility will only make him appear needy and pathetic. Males who succeed here include Johnny Cash, Mike Ness, LL Cool J, and Joey Ramone.

Next, let me clarify the term “emotional fragility.” It’s a tendency to cry easily about something that would upset a caring person, a trait that will move men to protect and comfort her. More concretely, I’ll treat it as a combination of the Big Five personality traits Neuroticism and Agreeableness, with more weight given to the former. A graph will help to illustrate [1]:


As for sex differences in these traits, see this previous post for a review of a meta-analysis by Costa et al. (2001). In brief, across all cultures of the world, females score higher than males on average for both Neuroticism and Agreeablness, though the magnitude depends on the physical and social environment that the population is adapted to: Europeans show huge sex differences, while Africans and East Asians show less pronounced differences. Among Europeans, the female mean is between 0.5 and 0.6 SD above the male mean for both Agreeableness and Neuroticism. A new cross-cultural survey by Schmitt et al. (2008) confirms this, although they find a slightly lower difference between means in Agreeableness. Both of these articles also provide good overviews of previous research.

While other personality traits show sex differences, Neuroticism and Agreeableness are by far the most dimorphic. Interestingly, in the first large-scale study designed to test changes in personality during adolescence, using a personality measure very comparable to an adult measure, McCrae et al. (2002) found a significant Time x Gender interaction effect for Neuroticism. During adolescence, females were much more likely to increase in Neuroticism than were males, in both the US and Belgium. Neuroticism declines for both sexes in the mid-20s, and drops even further by age 40. So, we observe a pattern of dimorphism that emerges just after puberty and gradually switches off beginning at the age when females would have had their first child. It is similar to physical attractiveness in females or muscularity in males, suggesting it has been sexually selected.

It is clear that fragility is unlikely to count as an “armament” used for same-sex competition, since it makes one more vulnerable to intimidation, teasing, and other forms of pushing one’s same-sex rivals out of the mating market. We would expect it to be more of an “ornmament” that attracts mates, then. It may not make a female appear sexier, but when a girl starts to cry because she feels that she’s become a burden to her friends and family, it may be nonsense, but a guy can’t help but want to comfort her and protect her. Once she inevitably feels a little better, the guy will feel like he’s performed his service as a man. And, modern malarkey aside, guys feel good when they do chivalrous and manly deeds, so that they would seek out women who offered the greatest opportunity to do so, and girls feel good when these acts are done for them. [2]

Moreover, comforting a female in need often involves close physical contact, such as holding her hand, holding her close and rubbing the upper part of her back, brushing the hair off of her face, or wiping the tears from her eyes. Physical bonding like this strengthens the relationship two people have, and also signals to her that the guy is a “protector of loved ones” (to borrow a phrase from the Mystery Method) — a quality she is interested in during the years leading up to motherhood. It also tells her that he would take care of her if she became sick. So, it serves the dual purpose of attracting mates and detecting who among them is worth hanging onto.

[1] The fact that the Big Five uses the axes of low Neuroticism – high Neuroticism and low Agreeableness – high Agreeableness doesn’t mean anything deep about how the traits are realized physiologically, or about how genes influence personality. We could rotate the old axes by, say, 45 degrees and come up a new set of two axes: a Tough-minded – Fragile dimension and a Cordial – Irascible dimension. The old traits of high A, low A, high N, and low N would lie in the quadrants of the new graph. In short, like a physicist, I’m perfectly free to chose my coordinate system to make life easy; I’m not claiming that things are different from how they’re typically described.

[2] Of course, there is variation too — some women succeed in the tough-minded niche and feel belittled when men try to do romantic things for them, and thus around whom men feel little motivation to behave in a chivalrous way. Roissy’s many remarks about female lawyers serve as a good example of this.

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25 Comments

  1. Roissy claimed that looks count for 95% of a woman’s appeal to men. If that is true (which I do not believe is the case, but let’s just assume it is), personality traits are relatively meaningless. Either a woman is hott, or she isn’t.

  2. i CAN’T believe you linked to roissy, that guy is totally sexist!

  3. Roissy recently drew up a list of female skills for attracting males, and although it is clearly weighted toward succeeding in short-term relationships, the rank order seems about right for getting married too. 
     
    I beg to differ. Maybe it’s just me.

  4. In my experience, it is possible to cross over from never crying to blubbing occassionally just by having a baby daughter. But if you lay a hand on her I’ll kill you. If you see what I mean.

  5. Wow. I couldn’t disagree more about emotional fragility being attractive (to me). It’s a huge turnoff, and I just don’t date women like that. I love tough minded, intelligent women who don’t take shit.

  6. Yes, the protection of loved ones attraction switch in the female brain is quite powerful. And it is likely that men evolved, in turn, to flip that switch and thus feel a rush of good emotions when they flip it. I once comforted a crying girlfriend after a ghost train (she didn’t know there would be ‘live actors’), and got an enormous rush from it. Amusement parks are good places to push this attraction switch.

  7. Yes, I have to agree with TG – toughmindedness, which is defined as “facing facts and difficulties with strength and determination; realistic and resolute” is a very attractive quality in a woman. Sensitivity in a woman in the sense that she is aware of & concerned for the feelings & plight of others is attractive. Emotional fragility, however, which makes someone easily hurt, discouraged, insecure, & makes it more difficult for her to get over minor setbacks or effectively deal with the inevitable obstacles & difficulties of life is more like a red flag, especially when looking for a wife & mother for your children. No thank you.  
     
    It’s notable that when a woman who is a public figure (a la Jackie Kennedy) or just a regular woman who is victimized in some way behaves stoically & shows strength & toughmindededness in the face of tragedy or difficulty, or is considered “scrappy” in her pursuit of some difficult goal & is not easily wounded by verbal attacks on her, she typically comes in for praise, respect, & admiration & her standing is enhanced, especially among men (women seem more sympathetic towards figures like Princess Di, who are known for emotional fragility rather than strength – I think men are more likely to see emotionally fragile women as high-maintenance, over-sensitive, potential pains in the ass).

  8. TG, Jay, 
     
    I’m with you guys on this. I have never dated someone who is overly emotional, and see it as symptomatic of bi-polar disorder. I only date/marry fairly tough-minded, rational women and find them very attractive. 
     
    BTW, one of the reason I support Hillary Clinton – she’s hottt!

  9. Well, “emotional fragility” is like any other personality trait — runs along a continuum. I don’t mean that the furthest extreme, someone who can’t handle the vicissitudes of life at all, is attractive. Rather, being more rather than less fragile is attractive. 
     
    Also remember that your preferences don’t necessarily generalize — in this case, almost surely not, or else the average female would be very different from what she is. My ethnic background is French, Japanese, and Scotch-Irish — yet I know that if my preferences were representative, northern European females would look quite distinct from what they actually do.

  10. yet I know that if my preferences were representative, northern European females would look quite distinct from what they actually do. 
     
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/7233565.stm

  11. Roissy didn’t list intelligence. While I’m not going to argue against the primacy of good looks, I seem to recall that assortative mating for intelligence is also very strong. Which is not too surprising since spending a lot of time with someone much stupider than you will pretty much make your eyeballs bleed. Plus if you want to have kids and would like them not to be blockheads it might pay to be a little concerned with finding a brainy wife. (Roissy though does not seem so inclined). 
     
    As for the emotional fragility, it could just be an outgrowth of dual selection pressures on the neuroticism and agreeableness axes. Though I can’t quite see what would select *for* neuroticism independent of the ‘emotional fragility’ scenarios you mention.

  12. I don’t think that men want fragile women in an absolute sense, i think that men want women who are weaker than them. THerefore, if the man is extremely strong himself, he will want a women who is almost as strong as himself, but that is still a strong woman. If the man is weak, he will want an even weaker woman.  
     
    As a woman, I find that the level of fragility the men I date respond to depends on their own level of security. I rarely cry at movies, but I notice the varied response from men when I do. The insecure ones seem extra pumped to comfort me, while the strong ones seem a bit disappointed at the show of “irrational emotion” to a scripted story line given my usual rationality. Yet these same strong men, don’t mind as much when I show fragility around a major event and are quick to offer a shoulder 
     
    So, I think the absolute level of fragility is not generalizable, but more, the level relative to the man.

  13. As for the emotional fragility, it could just be an outgrowth of dual selection pressures on the neuroticism and agreeableness axes. 
     
    It’s important to bear in mind that the N and A axes represent a particular choice of axes. We could choose to rotate them by an angle that would make the new axes Toughminded – Fragile and Cordial – Irascible. Then selection would only need to act on one dimension. 
     
    It’s not like kidneys and liver, where those labels refer to real things. Using N and A is just a convenience for describing differences between people’s personalities.

  14. One more thing, along the lines of razib’s link, I once had an african man tell me that his percentages go something like this: butt 70%, 15% face and rest of the body, 15% personality. So seems these percentages mean very different things to difference people.  
     
    COuld everyone be responding to diff evolutionary pressures?  
    http://www.news.harvard.edu/gazette/2004/11.18/01-running.html 
     
    Then there’s buns. “They are one of our most distinctive features,” Lieberman comments. “They are not just fat but huge muscles.” A quick look at a fossil australopithecine reveals that his pelvis, like that of a chimp, can only support a modest gluteus maximus, the major muscle that comprises a rear end.  
     
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/11/041123163757.htm 
     
    Human buttocks “are huge,” says Bramble. “Have you ever looked at an ape? They have no buns.” He says human buttocks “are muscles critical for stabilization in running” because they connect the femur ? the large bone in each upper leg ? to the trunk. Because people lean forward at the hip during running, the buttocks “keep you from pitching over on your nose each time a foot hits the ground.”

  15. ON POLO 
    I remember a magazine article, TIME I think, stating that the best place to take a first date was an amusement park. true, but the reason they gave was because it was ‘exciting’. i think it’s actually because you are repeatedly pushing the protector of loved ones attraction switch (POLO). POLO is activated on most rides: you hold her close to you on the log floom, even brush water off her face, you protect her on the ghost train, you hold her hand on the roller coaster or even the teacups. amusement parks allow you to repeatedly kino while you also POLO, which is an awesome attraction combination.  
     
    POLO can also be pushed by simple, tiny things, like sharing an umbrella during the rain (ensure YOU hold the umbrella or the POLO effect is neutralized), stopping her from crossing a dangerous road and leading her by hand across, stuff like that. 
     
    As mystery points out – the simple act of giving a woman food is more effective at building attraction and comfort than giving her a $25,000 car. Restaurants should never be used on a first date, as A. money is vague, and ethereal, you can spend it on her, but it will never push POLO to the extent that actually, physcially doing something for her (this added to the thousand other reasons restaurants are idiotic dating locations) COOK FOR HER, in your home, using as many natural ingredients as possible (ie make the sauce rather than use a jar) This will push that ancient but everpresent attraction switch whereby men essentially exchange food for sex. Much more effective than money for sex (not prostitition, i mean spending money on a woman you’re courting)

  16. Also – make sure your fridge is stocked fullish with good, wholesome food if you are taking her back to your place. I haven’t any evidence, but I’m sure the disappointment she may feel over a return to your less than modest apartment will be eliminated if you have a good, full display of food. Especially meats.

  17. The thing i remember most from the ‘cribs’ tv show were always the neatly and fully stocked fridge-freezers.

  18. vulnerability or displays of what seems ‘vulnerability’? after all, at the end of the day, most people ( male or female) don’t really like clingy/whiny people who cant sort themselves out without constant hand-holding, to be in a relationship with. or they like to be that person, not their partner. perhaps this is a ‘short-term’ trick/which people need to think about long-term repercussions!

  19. “I haven’t any evidence, but I’m sure the disappointment she may feel over a return to your less than modest apartment will be eliminated if you have a good, full display of food. Especially meats.” 
     
    Meats?

  20. Vis a vis POLO as Cuchullain writes above, I have some advice. Ice skating, but only if you can skate and she really can’t. She’ll spend the whole time hanging onto you for dear life.

  21. …the rank order seems about right for getting married too. 
     
    About right, meaning what? Fugly people don’t get married? 
     
    Next, let me clarify the term “emotional fragility.” It’s a tendency to cry easily about something that would upset a caring person, a trait that will move men to protect and comfort her. [...] So, it serves the dual purpose of attracting mates and detecting who among them is worth hanging onto. 
     
    So – let me get this straight. Men get hot if a woman they aren’t already attracted to starts blubbering over random shit? Must try this out asap…

  22. So – let me get this straight. Men get hot if a woman they aren’t already attracted to starts blubbering over random shit? Must try this out asap… 
     
    Attracting a mate long-term is about more than making his dick stiff. And even if your physical appearance could do that, a manly attitude (lawyers, bankers) will dampen this potential. 
     
    Except, of course, for girl-haters.

  23. I dont normally get involved in these debates but it is clearly nonsensical – Roissys point about looks are the points of an adolescent . Clearly class, race, background, job – etc. are more important for long term relationships, and I doubt that many who claim otherwise have had one. People assortative mate by class, ethnicity, culture etc, even if they do so on a subconscious level – and in any case the hottest women in the best lap-dancing clubs do not make long term relationships with lawyers, Lawyers marry lawyers, if anything, and then – only then – do looks count with ugly lawyers marrying ugly lawyers. After the unconscious decisions on class are made, then we notice looks. 
     
    I am talking long term of course, everybody should date a stripper once, if possible ( I did) if only to convince themselves that conversation and mutual interests matter enormously.

  24. Well, if we’re playing that game, humans mate disassortatively first and foremost — males seek out females and vice versa (homosexuals aside). “Then – and only then” does class, race, bla bla bla count.

  25. Attracting a mate long-term is about more than making his dick stiff. And even if your physical appearance could do that, a manly attitude (lawyers, bankers) will dampen this potential. 
     
    But if *crying* is the ticket, why is it that in situations where much mate selection happens (for example, groups of young people out on the town), females tend to be comforted by their female friends when they get upset?

a