Friday, September 07, 2007

What women want   posted by p-ter @ 9/07/2007 09:50:00 PM

Published today in PNAS is a paper by Peter Todd and colleagues on mate choice in humans. Of course, everybody and their mother has already commented on it, based on a press release, or a Fox News article, or something (science bloggers: disdainful of science press coverage in their own field, yet unthinkingly accepting of it in others?). It's always interesting, though, when some paper of possibly general interest comes out, to compare the reactions of people familiar with the line of research with those not. In this case, compare the reactions of Kate at The Anterior Commisure or the Mungers at Cognitive Daily, two blogs which touch on cognitive science and psychology, with the reactions of Sheril at The Intersection (a marine biologist) or Rob Knop at Galactic Interactions (a physicist). The former seem to recognize that they can't say much without reading the study, and use it as a jumping-off point to talk about the psychology of attraction in general, while the latter seem to have no trouble immediately identifying a fatal flaw in the researchers' assumptions. Hm. Something to think about (or don't think about it. If any scientist were to publicly criticize my research methods based on a Fox News article, I'm going to go out on a limb and say I'd be pretty damn pissed).

Anyways, now that the study is out, it turns out everybody was focusing on an entirely peripheral point in the paper. Yes, women are more "choosy" than men, and yes, money and status matter to women, and yes, looks matter to men, but that's not news. As Jason Malloy points out, if that's all this paper were to show, it wouldn't be in PNAS. I'm going to quote him in full (unless he objects):
This dataset looks laughably amateur when there are other recently analyzed speed-dating (and related) datasets with literally 1000s of people. Here is a speed-dating study from last year (PDF):

"We have data on approximately 1800 women and 1800 men who participated to 84 speed dating events (or markets) organised between January 2004 and October 2005"

This paper found women were definitely more choosy:

"Striking gender differentials in proposal behaviour are observed in the data. As emerged in many previous psychological studies [Trivers 1972], women are much choosier than men. On average, women choose 2.6 men and see 45 percent of their proposals matched, while men propose to 5 women and their proposals are matched in only 20 percent of the cases. About 36 percent of men and 11 percent of women do not get any proposal..."

And here's an even larger (and IMO more interesting) study from last year focusing on preferences through an online dating network (PDF):

"Our analysis is based on a data set that contains detailed information on the attributes and online activities of approximately 22,000 users in two major U.S. cities."

Again, females more choosy:

"Note that men appear much more receptive to first-contact e-mails than women. The median man (in terms of photo attractiveness) can expect to hear back from the median woman with an approximately 35% chance, whereas the median woman can expect to get a reply with a more than 60% chance. Figure 4.2 also provides evidence that more attractive men and women are "pickier.""

Also, more status domains were important to women than men, such as income and occupation:

"Our revealed preference estimates corroborate several salient findings of the stated preference literature. For example, while physical attractiveness is important to both genders, women... place about twice as much weight on income than men."

While men could compensate for ugliness with more money, women couldn't compensate for less attractiveness at all.

Finally, yet another speed dating sample from last year with a sample size of 400 found the same things among college students (PDF):

"Women put greater weight on the intelligence [As measured by SAT score] and the race of partner, while men respond more to physical attractiveness."
So this study isn't breaking any new ground in that regard (which seems to be the one people have focused on). Rather, the part that seemed novel to me (though I think I may have heard of research like this before) was to ask people beforehand what they're looking for in a partner, then compare that to their actual behavior. It's actually kind of amusing:
Table 3 depicts the correlations (separated by sex) between choice scores and stated preferences. The correlations for women are generally low for all domains except physical appearance and overall preferences (i.e., "ideal mate value" compared with "selected mate value"). Notably, men show a consistently negative relationship between stated preferences and chosen attributes. These counterintuitive correlations are significant for physical appearance and healthiness and marginally significant for overall preferences. Conversely, the results revealed a positive (although not significant) correlation between men's stated attractiveness preferences and the mean observer-rated attractiveness of their chosen women. As a whole, these findings indicate that there is a rather poor match between our sample's verbally stated preferences for mate traits and the preferences they expressed through their actual mate choices
That is, people essentially lie to themselves (or perhaps only to observers) about what they're looking for in a partner. Some commenters have fixated on the role of culture in preferences as something not accounted for by this study, but the data seem to suggest that, while it's not culturally acceptable to say that you're judging someone by their looks, well, that's what ends up happening anyways.

Note to commenters: please do not tell me how you met your wife/girlfriend and how your personal experience differs with the conclusions here, or about your successes/failures in online dating. I don't care.