In most species, females are the “choosy” sex – meaning that males are often in competition with one another to gain access to females, while females are picky and mate with their preferred male. This process is called “mate-choice” and is one of the driving mechanisms of sexual selection.
This choosiness could be a consequence of the dramatically fewer gametes (ova/eggs) women are born with for their entire lifetime, compared to the billions (sperm) males are able to produce throughout theirs. This excess number of sperm to ova renders the female gamete a precious resource. Additionally, reproduction has greater consequences for women than men, given pregnancy (and associated risks), childbirth, breastfeeding, and even childrearing are largely dependent on the mother.
Given such considerations, it makes sense for women to be more particular than men when it comes to mating. So then, what do women look for in a man?
“Women fall in love with what they hear, while men fall in love with what they see.” While this quote makes for aesthetic Tumblr posts, it’s not the most accurate assessment of human mating. Men indeed place more value on physical attractiveness, but women are not indifferent to men’s looks.
One research team explored the effects of muscularity and body hair as determiners of sexual attractiveness. Through a series of five studies, the scientists concluded that women consistently preferred a muscular body type with broad shoulders and a narrow waist, compared to a slim or heavily built body type.
These characteristics might be deemed attractive given our evolutionary history; for example, men required physical strength to hunt and protect their families. Muscularity could also signal men’s health to potential mates, such as their cardiac function or metabolism. Remarkably, the preference for muscular men was consistent across the U.K. and Sri Lanka, two markedly different cultures. This finding suggests it’s likely an innate preference, and not so much the product of social constructionism.
Women consistently preferred a muscular body type with broad shoulders and a narrow waist.
Further, women expressed a preference for men with chest and abdomen hair and perceived them as older than men with no such hair. It could be the case that men’s body hair, a secondary sexual characteristic, signals their sexual maturity.
In exploring height preferences, researchers have found that on average, both sexes prefer to be in relationships where the man is taller and the woman is shorter. Height is positively associated with a variety of characteristics, including social standing, health, educational achievement, and wealth; some of these associations (such as height and wealth) are more pronounced among men.
Another physical consideration is that of facial attractiveness. Research in this area has provided mixed results. Some studies have reported a female preference for more masculine and dominant facial traits (such as larger jaws), while others have demonstrated a preference for more feminine characteristics. A potential explanation for these inconsistent findings is the assumptions made about the personality traits men with masculine or feminine faces possess.
For example, increasing the masculinity of a man’s facial features increases perceptions of his dominance, age, and masculinity, while decreasing perceptions of honesty, emotionality, and parental quality. Socials skills, like cooperativeness, warmth, and parental skills, are associated with femininized male faces. This is perhaps because they soften features that are associated with negative personality traits.
Notably, among both sexes and across cultures (including modern-day hunter-gatherer groups), symmetrical faces are preferred to less symmetrical ones.
Both women and men prefer partners who are at least as smart as they are when it comes to long-term relationships. This is because intelligence has a lot of value, such as in problem-solving, navigating social systems, or meeting the demands of modern life. So, smart is sexy.
Smart is sexy.
However, women (to a greater degree than men) place a premium on intelligence in their long-term partners relative to their short-term ones. Women are more inclined to reject “low quality” men, given the substantial costs of making mating mistakes. By contrast, the consequences of making such mistakes are less severe for men. Thus, men are not as picky when it comes to the intellectual quality of short-term partners.
Personality characteristics have a vital role in selecting partners and marital satisfaction. Both sexes prefer partners who have a personality similar to theirs and tend to mate with partners who embody their preferences. However, women are more particular about personality preferences, and seek greater levels of socially desirable traits in their partners. These include more extreme preferences for partners who are active and dominant, as well as intelligent, knowledgeable, and perceptive. Furthermore, women, to a greater degree than men, want partners who are fair, warm, generous, emotionally stable, and hardworking.
Despite these sex differences in the degree of preference, women and men gravitate toward the same qualities in a mate, commonly seeking partners high in conscientiousness, openness/intellect, agreeableness, and emotional stability. Having a partner low in the latter three of these domains is associated with marital and sexual dissatisfaction.
Women are attracted to men with heroic and altruistic tendencies. This preference is more pronounced within the context of long-term relationships. Altruism might have evolved as an indicator of future behavior towards a partner and the children they have together, serving as a signal of someone’s parenting qualities. It encompasses various traits, such as kindness, fairness, and generosity.
Women prefer brave risk-takers, but this doesn’t apply to risk-taking that offers no prosocial element.
Another form of prosocial behavior is heroism. Think of your friendly neighborhood Spiderman. In one study, the research team found that women were attracted to heroic men over altruistic men. Heroism in men was preferred in long-term partners, short-term partners, and male friends, while altruism influenced women’s choices to a lesser degree. And though women preferred brave, risk-taking partners, it’s important to note that this preference doesn’t apply to risk-taking that offers no prosocial element. This latter type of risk seeking would more accurately portray careless behavior and signal unreliability in the context of marriage and children.
Given women invest more so in their children (pregnancy, breastfeeding, child-rearing), they prefer mates who can obtain and secure the necessary resources to sustain their family. In contrast, men are less concerned about their partner’s resources. This trend is observed across both human and non-human species. So, naturally, women are more likely to seek resources than men. And complementing this, men are more likely to advertise their financial success to appeal to women.
The average woman considers a man’s resources alongside numerous other traits.
That’s not to say women are gold-diggers. In searching for a mate, the average woman would consider a man’s resources alongside numerous other traits, while a “gold-digger” might center their attraction primarily around a man’s finances.
Women prefer a man who will make them laugh, and men prefer a woman who will laugh at their jokes. Women, more so than men, value a sense of humor in potential partners, and laugh and smile throughout conversations, particularly in response to jokes made by the opposite sex. Preferences and perceptions of humor are associated with preferences and perceptions of intelligence and warmth, suggesting humor might function as a signal of a partner’s underlying qualities (such as their intelligence). Humor has other functions as well, including promoting mental health, softening criticisms, and facilitating communication between lovers.
It’s no secret that women and men behave differently in the dating market. While there’s considerable overlap in mating preferences, there are also interesting sex differences. Exploring these unique preferences through an evolutionary lens not only provides historical insight, but can also go a long way in understanding why women and men behave the way they do in today’s dating culture.
Love Evie? Let us know what you love and what else you want to see from us in the official Evie reader survey.