Assessing Female Mate Preferences: Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology

A few years ago, I was giving an invited presentation to an audience of mostly sociologists and family studies professors on the topic of evolution and human reproductive strategies. I mentioned that some social scientists hold false beliefs about “evolutionary psychology,” such as the mistaken assumption that evolutionary psychologists think all men are interested in bedding as many women as possible (often called short-term mating), whereas all women are only interested in marrying a single man and staying faithful to him for a lifetime (i.e., long-term mating). When I tried to dispel this common misperception by noting, for instance, that evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized women are just as designed for short-term mating as men are — in some ways even more so such as women’s heightened desires for cues to genetic quality in short-term mates — an audible gasp swept through the conference hall. I kid you not, I could see rows of people who looked genuinely horrified. I was a little taken aback, so I asked an audience member near the front row who had her hand over her mouth if something was unclear, to which she proclaimed, “that’s not the evolutionary psychology I know.” When I tried to explain that women’s evolved short-term mating desires have been studied by evolutionary psychologists since the early 1990s and the topic remains a very active area of inquiry today, heads swiveled in disbelief. My subsequent Power Point slides chock-full of studies confirming women’s specially designed short-term mating psychology were falling, I feared, on an auditorium of deaf ears (or blind eyes, I suppose). Alas, this stereotype about evolutionary psychology wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

It seems to me many critics of evolutionary psychology cling steadfastly to false stereotypes of the field, both theoretical and empirical. This is partly because so much evolutionary psychological research has been produced over the last 25 years it is hard for even evolutionary-informed scholars themselves to keep up (for an up-to-date review, I recommend Buss’ new edition of The Evolutionary Psychology Handbook[1]). Add to that the methodological breadth of different techniques used by evolutionary scholars to test hypotheses about the adaptive design of the human mind, and it is understandably difficult to know what all evolutionary researchers have been, and currently are, up to as active Darwinian scientists. Perhaps more than other social scientists, evolutionary psychologists use an incredible variety of research methods, ranging from self-report surveys and behavioral field test experiments, to investigations involving genetics, hormones, and neuroscience, to cross-species and cross-cultural comparisons, to ethnographies of foraging societies and computer modeling of artificial intelligences[2] [3] [4]. To be aware of contemporary evolutionary psychology requires broad and deep knowledge of many scholarly disciplines, and a lot of evolutionary psychology’s critics simply do not know what they do not know about the field as it is practiced today.

Beyond simply not knowing about the empirical breadth and methodological richness of modern evolutionary science, many critics exhibit a certain kind of “empirical nihilism” toward any psychological findings even remotely portrayed as supporting evolutionary hypotheses. For instance, when one points to a set of studies that respond to a specific criticism, some critics reply with a “yes, but” attitude and set forth new criticisms requiring more evidence (sort of a serial “moving the goalposts” maneuver). Now, in science extreme skepticism is generally a good thing. For scientists, there are no capital “T” Truths, and every claim about reality is tentatively true with a small “t” and is always adjustable as more evidence is accumulated over time. Sometimes, though, this attitude is more than healthy skepticism about a particular empirical finding and is, instead, clearly an attitude of irrefutable empirical nihilism toward evolutionary psychology studies in particular. As an example of this type of unshakeable attitude of disbelief, I list below 10 of the more common “yes, but” criticisms of evolutionary findings on women’s long-term mate preferences. It’s an illustrative (not exhaustive) list of just how impenetrable some scholar’s beliefs are when it comes to considering evidence that our evolved human mind might be something more than a domain-general learning mechanism writing on an asexual, ungendered blank slate. 

Women’s Long-Term Mate Preferences

Looking across the animal kingdom, one cannot help but notice that members of most species tend to mate non-randomly. Whether it is peahens preferring peacocks with more elaborate trains[5] or female common chimpanzees preferring males who possess higher social dominance[6], males and females of most species display adaptive forms of preferential mate choice. Evolutionary psychologists were among the first to propose similar sex differences might exist in human mate preferences. For instance, evolutionary psychologists hypothesized that women may possess specially-designed long-term mate preferences for cues to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources to her and their offspring[7] [8] [9]. Such cues include a man’s status and prestige which, depending on local culture, may involve hunting ability, physical strength, or other locally-relevant attributes, as well as his ambition, work ethic, intelligence, social dominance, maturity, and slightly older age[10] [11]. Not all women desire the highest value long-term mate at all times, of course, but it is expected that women’s long-term mate preferences should be marked by some degree of “special design” that is reliably observable using the methodological richness of modern evolutionary psychological science.

One way to evaluate whether women possess long-term mate preferences for cues to status-related traits is to directly ask people whether they prefer those attributes in long-term mates (via methods such as self-report surveys), and then compare the intensity of responses of women and men. When doing so, psychologists typically evaluate the degree of sexual differentiation using the d statistic, with an observed d value of ±.20 being considered a “small” sex difference, ±.50 is a “moderate” sex difference, and ±.80 is a “large” sex difference[12]. Negative d values typically indicate women score more highly on a particular preference, whereas positive values indicate men score more highly.

Buss and Barnes[13] were among the first to evaluate whether women (more than men) prefer cues related to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources. For instance, they found women more strongly prefer long-term mates who have a “good earning capacity” (a large sex difference, d = -0.82), “are a college graduate” (d = -0.60), and “possess intelligence” (d = -0.19). Obviously, these findings are not definitive proof that men and women differ in the evolved design of long-term mate preferences. The findings are merely tests of evolutionary-guided hypotheses, and the tests were supportive of specially-designed sex differences existing in human mate preferences. Still, some critics challenge these results, arguing yes, but…

1) Yes, but… that is just one study. One cannot trust the results of just one study. Evolutionary psychologists need to conduct many more studies before I am convinced these effects are legitimate, let alone evidence of evolved psychology. I’m sure many other studies wouldn’t find sex differences in mate preferences.

Actually, most investigations of sex differences in mate preferences have been supportive of these hypotheses (to be honest, virtually all studies have). In 1992, Feingold[14] meta-analytically reviewed the extant literature (including 32 independent samples) on self-reported mate preferences across college students and community samples and found women more greatly desired socioeconomic status (d = -0.69), ambition (d = -0.67), and intelligence (d = -0.30) in potential long-term mates. Numerous additional investigations have since replicated these basic sex differences in long-term mate preferences among college students[15] [16] [17] [18] [19][20] [21] [22]. For instance, a recent study focused on women’s mate preferences for men with the ability to invest in them, revealing that college women desire a man who has earned his money (compared to other sources), ostensibly reflective of the aforementioned qualities (ambition, work ethic, intelligence), and that this effect is strongest in the long-term mating context[23].

2) Yes, but… those studies are mostly with college students. People in the real world (e.g., representative samples of adults) won’t display these stereotypical sex differences of youth.

Actually, yes they do[24] [25] [26]. For instance, Sprecher and her colleagues[27] examined sex differences in mate preferences across a nationally-representative sample of the United States and found women, more than men, valued a long-term mate who had a steady job (d = -0.73), earned more than they did (d = -0.49), was highly educated (d = -0.43), and was older by five years (d = -0.67). Young or old[28] [29] [30], gay or straight[31] [32], sex differences in long-term mate preferences for status-related attributes tend to reliably emerge.

3) Yes, but… many of those findings are from decades ago. Sex differences in mate preferences are probably not historically stable. They may have existed many decades ago (in the era of Mad Men), but sex differences in mate preferences are surely not present in more recent times.

Actually, yes they are. In a cross-generational analysis of the same mate preference questionnaire administered to Americans from 1939 to 1996, both men and women increased their valuing of good financial prospects and decreased valuing ambition/industriousness over time, but the degree of sex differences in these items largely persisted in strength across more than 50 years[33].

4) Yes, but… that is only when you have people self-report their ideal mate preferences from a pre-chosen list of traits given to them. If you ask them what they really want, say at a minimum, or maybe let them freely design their ideal potential partners, status-related traits aren’t emphasized by women more than men.

Actually, yes they are. Researchers have questioned people about their long-term mate preferences using a wide variety of self-report methodologies. Kenrick and his colleagues[34] asked people what the minimum threshold of possessing a particular attribute would need to be to agree to marry a person. Women, on average, required men’s earning capacity to be in the 70th percentile to be marriageable, whereas men required women to be in the 40th percentile (overall d = -1.41).

Using another nuanced form of self-report, Li[35] compelled men and women to engage in tradeoffs among various cues when intentionally designing a desirable long-term mate. Women devoted the most of their limited budget toward their mate’s social level (33%), whereas for men social level was of moderate budgetary importance (17%). Across a series of studies[36], researchers using this tradeoff paradigm concluded that women, but not men, consider a long-term mate’s social status a “necessity” and not a “luxury.” Indeed, when forced to make decisions with very limited budgets, sex differences in long-term mate preferences are stronger than with typical self-report surveys.

Self-report surveys also reveal men, more than women, appear effective at displaying status-related traits to the opposite sex[37]. Overall, self-report methods (via ratings, rankings, trade-offs, nominations, or open-ended questions[38]) consistently support the hypothesis that women possess long-term mate preferences for cues to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources.

5) Yes, but… this is only because women are denied access to resources themselves. If women have higher status themselves, they would not prefer men with high status. It’s just basic rationality, not evolved psychology, causing these sex differences in mate preferences for status.

Actually, it is a compelling test of women’s long-term mate preferences for men’s status-related traits (including their ability and willingness to provide resources) to evaluate whether their expressed preferences disappear when women have ample resources of their own. It could be women only prefer cues to men’s ability and willingness to provide resources because women are structurally denied access to resources[39].

Addressing this alternative explanation, Townsend and his colleagues have found women in medical school[40] and law school[41] are more selective of a future mate’s financial status, not less. Similarly, Wiederman and Allgeier[42] found college women’s expected income was positively associated with their ratings of the importance of a potential long-term mate’s earning capacity. Regan[43] found as women’s mate value goes up, so does their insistence on men’s high status and resources (i.e., they “want it all”; see also[44]). Having higher personal status and resource-related traits appears not to attenuate women’s preferences for cues to men’s ability and willingness to provide resources. Instead, at least in the USA, women achieving high status themselves appears to make their long-term mate preferences for men’s high status even more intense!

6) Yes, but… that is only true in the United States. Americans happen to live in a culture with conspicuous gender stereotypes about mate preferences that the rest of the world does not share. If you look at more gender egalitarian cultures, in Scandinavia for instance, sex differences in preferences for status-related attributes “disappear” (as claimed by Marks[45]).

Actually, no, they do not. Numerous studies have found sex differences in mate preferences for status-related attributes are prevalent across cultures[46] [47] [48]. Lippa[49] conducted an internet sampling of 53 nations and Zentner and Mitura[50] conducted an internet sampling across 10 nations and both studies found 100% of cultures displayed expected sex differences, with women demonstrating especially heightened long-term mate preferences for good financial prospects, social status, ambition, and older age.

Some researchers have found the magnitude of sex differences in mate preferences for status-related attributes shifts from a large/medium effect size to a more moderate medium/small effect size in nations with higher gender egalitarianism. Zentner and Mitura found exactly this pattern of results after placing nations into three groups, low gender egalitarian cultures (within which women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more than men, d = -0.65), medium gender egalitarian cultures (women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more, = -0.53), and high gender egalitarian cultures (women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more, d = -0.48). Hence, sex differences in the preference for Ambition-Industriousness in long-term mates were reduced (though not by much, and were still mediumin terms of effect size) in nations with higher levels of gender egalitarianism.

Most other sex differences in status-related mate preferences also were attenuated from larger to more moderate levels in Zentner and Mitura’s sample of nations that were higher in gender egalitarianism (e.g., Good Financial Prospects went from d = -1.04, to d = -0.84, to d = -0.55; Favorable Social Status went from = -0.67, to = -0.42, to = -0.31). In most cases, these reductions were caused by women preferring status-related traits less in high gender egalitarian nations, though in many cases men’s preferences for status-related attributes also were reduced in high gender egalitarian nations (which seems counter to the logic of men appreciating women’s status-related traits more as women enter the workforce in high gender egalitarian nations). One thing is clear, sex differences in long-term mate preferences for status-related traits do not “disappear” in gender egalitarian cultures. They may only be moderate in size, but we see them just fine.

Importantly, Zentner and Mitura also found in low gender egalitarian nations, men valued Good Looks only a little more than women, d = 0.24; in medium gender egalitarian nations, men’s valuation of Good Looks was higher still than women’s, d = 0.43; and in the highest gender egalitarian nations, men’s valuation of Good Looks was the most different from women’s, d = 0.51. Thus, contrary to the expectation that gender egalitarianism always reduces sex differences, Zentner and Mitura found sex differences in Good Looks are largest in nations with the highest gender egalitarianism. What!? Actually, these findings are not unusual, as high gender egalitarian nations also exhibit larger sex differences in Big Five personality traits and the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and psychopathy; in romantic attachment and love styles; in sociopolitical attitudes and personal values; in clinical depression rates and crying behavior; in tested cognitive and mental abilities; and in physical attributes such as height and blood pressure[51]. If the sociopolitical gender egalitarianism found in Scandinavian nations is supposed to produce smaller psychological sex differences, it’s not doing a very good job of it.

7) Yes, but… all these studies showing men and women want different things in potential partners are merely evidence of gendered narratives as measured by self-report surveys. If ever tested in the real world, women would not preferentially choose or be affected by a partner’s status-related attributes more than men.

Actually, there have been dozens of studies of real world mating and mating-related cognition, and almost all find that women do choose and are affected by a partner’s status-related traits more than men are.

Feingold[52] meta-analytically examined what women ask for and what men advertise in public, real-world personal advertisements and found, as expected, women more than men ask for cues to willingness and ability to provide resources (e.g., 27% of women ask for high socioeconomic status compared to 7% of men). Men who advertise such status-related cues actually receive more responses from women, as well. For example, in a study that experimentally manipulated real-life personal ads, ads placed by men noting they were financially successful elicited the most interest, whereas for women physical attractiveness was the key[53]. In a study of Polish personal ads, the top four cues displayed by men that received responses from women were good education, older age, high resource levels, and tall height[54]. In a study of mail order brides from Colombia, Russia, and the Philippines, women universally listed ambition, status, and wealth as among their most desired attributes in a future husband[55].

In another real-world test of women’s mate preferences for status, Guéguen and Lamy[56]conducted a naturalistic experiment to evaluate whether women’s reactions to a request for their phone number are affected by men’s apparent status (in this case, driving different types of cars). When a potential participant was a few yards away they had a male experimental confederate (one of six male confederates pre-selected for high physical attractiveness) open his car door and look the participant in the eyes and smile. Then he approached her and said: “Hello, my name’s Antoine. I just want to say that I think you’re really pretty. I have to go to work now, but I was wondering if you would give me your phone number. I’ll call you later and we can have a drink together somewhere.” Women approached by a man driving an expensive Audi A5 Ambition Luxury gave their number 23% of the time. Women approached by a man driving a mid-priced Renault Mégane gave their number 13% of the time. Women approached by a man driving a 15-year-old Renault 5 Super Campus (worth only a few hundred dollars) gave their number 8% of the time. Women’s preferences for resource-related cues appear to affect their real-world mating behavior.

Numerous studies of marital patterns also have found women tend to desire (and actually marry) men who are slightly older than they are, regardless of women’s own age[57] [58]. As men get older, in contrast, they tend to desire and marry younger and younger women[59]. Women have been found to preferentially marry higher status men across such diverse cultures as the Kipsigis of Kenya, the Hausa of West Africa, Trinidadians, and Micronesian islanders, among many others[60]. It is true that some speed-dating studies in urban settings find women do not choose higher status men more often as dates, but these studies are limited by having only high status men in their samples (no homeless men allowed) and potentially including those who are interested in short-term mating (women’s short-term mate preferences focus more on gene quality, not status). In speed-dating studies with low status men included, and when the context is explicitly long-term mating only, women do pick higher status men more often for dates[61].

There also are a wide range of cognitive studies that test for women’s desires for status-related traits without explicitly asking them what they want. For instance, as part of a study ostensibly helping a university develop a dating service, Kenrick and his colleagues[62] experimentally manipulated whether already-mated men and women were exposed to a target date either very high in dominance or very low in dominance. They found women, but not men, were less committed to their current long-term mating partner after being exposed to a high dominance member of the opposite sex. Merely being experimentally exposed to a man with very high dominance lowered women’s commitment to their current mate, and did so without consciously asking women about their preferences for dominance.

Similarly, exposure to physically attractive women appears to evoke in men desires to fulfill women’s evolved preferences, such as increasing men’s attention toward and desires to possess resources and to display ambition, creativity, independence, and risk-taking[63] [64] [65]. And when exposed to men who are high in dominance, men tend to rate themselves as lower in mate value[66] and men’s feelings of jealousy are more strongly evoked[67]. All of these cognitive processes occur differently in women and men without explicit, conscious awareness of why they are doing so. Surely, to an open-minded scientist these types of non-survey findings should buttress the view that women possess mate preferences for men’s status-related attributes…

8) Yes, but… even though evolutionary psychologists may study real life cognition, emotion, and behavior, they fail to study the most important Darwinian outcome…fertility. If women evolved mate preferences for status-related traits, then women who marry men of high status men should have more children. Evolutionary psychologists haven’t even bothered to look at these outcomes, lazy-headed daisies…

Actually, several studies by evolutionary psychologists have found women who marry higher status men tend to have more children, and to have children survive to an older age. In a study of pre-industrial Finland (from the 1700s), women married to wealthier men had more children and decreased child mortality[68]. In another study, marrying a man four years older was associated with maximum levels of fertility among women[69]. Bereczkei and Csanaky[70]conducted a study of 1,800 Hungarians over 34 years of age and found women who married older and better educated men tended to have more children. These are important findings, as it is critical that women’s mate preferences for status-related attributes lead to reproductive success, or at least likely did so in our evolutionary past[71] [72].

One may also look at the effects of high personal status on men’s versus women’s reproductive success. Nettle and Pollett[73] and many other scholars have found men’s higher level of personal status is related to higher fertility, but the same is much less true (or not at all true) for women’s higher level of personal status. In fact, modern women who have higher personal incomes themselves tend to have fewer children[74]. Jumping Jehoshaphat…yes, but…

9) Yes, but… ancestral men were foragers and could not accumulate wealth, so these mate preferences for “good earning potential” are largely irrelevant to evolved mating psychology. Evolutionary psychology findings are extremely limited because they only apply to modern materialistic cultures.

Actually, it is correct that large masses of “material wealth” were not present in our ancestral past when we lived as foragers, but it is likely ancestral men did accumulate social capital or “status” (from among other things, hunting ability). Several studies have documented this form of male status as being the subject of selective pressures (i.e., high status men — whether that status comes in the form of land, livestock, money, physical prowess, or hunting ability — have more offspring[75] [76]). Evidence of selection for men’s status has been found in many types of cultures, including studies of men’s hunting ability among the Aché, Hadza, and Tsimane[77]. Apicella[78], for instance, found men’s hunting reputation and upper-body strength both predicted reproductive success among Hadza hunter–gatherers.

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that women’s preferences in modern nations do not seem to be calibrated on money, per se. Instead, women may view money as a proximal cue to the underlying qualities that they have evolved to care about, such as status, prestige, social dominance, ambition, work ethic, and intelligence[79]. So it is certainly true that ancestral men did not accumulate financial wealth, but focusing too much on the importance (or not) of money or wealth across all cultures is missing the adaptive forest for the trees.

10) Yes, but… I know so many people who strongly believe that sex differences in mate preferences simply cannot exist. The idea of evolved sexual desires of any kind are a theoretical impossibility from my point of view! Evolved sex differences in mate preferences have to be just a figment of the imagination of evolutionary psychologists bent on maintaining patriarchy. If the evidence is, on balance, supportive of women possessing long-term mate preferences for men with high status, why do so many postmodernists and social constructionists insist evolved sex differences are not, indeed cannot, be real[80]?

That’s a big question requiring several responses. First, the evidence of evolved sex differences in mate preferences is accumulating, but it is certainly not definitive. Evolutionary psychologists evaluate evidence of psychological adaptation in many ways[81], including cross-species, neurological, hormonal, genetic, and epigenetic evidence that has not been reviewed here (some examples of such evidence, see[82] [83] [84] [85] [86] [87]). Nothing in science is ever set in stone, and more evidence could emerge that would cast serious doubt about evolved sex differences in mate preferences (though it would take quite a lot to tip the scales against the existence of this particular set of mate preferences). Scientists are skeptical and open-minded, so anything is possible.

Second, it is a mistake to pit postmodernism and social constructivism against evolutionary psychology as though they are in an intellectual death match that only one side can win. This tribalistic, us-versus-them thinking isn’t helpful to science. Much like partitioning the causes of human behavior into nurture versus nature or culture versus biology or learned versus innate, social constructivism versus evolutionary psychology is a false dichotomy that may feel intuitively correct but should not be utilized very often by serious scientists (exceptions include behavioral genetics studies). As insightfully noted by Tooby and Cosmides[88], “To say a behavior is learned in no way undermines the claim that the behavior was organized by evolution because the behavior was learned through the agency of evolved mechanisms. If natural selection had built a different set of learning mechanisms into an organism, that organism would learn a different set of behaviors in response to the very same environment. It is these evolved mechanisms that organize the relationship between the environmental input and behavioral output, and thereby pattern the behavior. For this reason, learning is not an alternative explanation to the claim that natural selection shaped the behavior, although many researchers assume that it is. The same goes for culture. Given that cultural ideas are absorbed via learning and inference — which is caused by evolved programs of some kind — a behavior can be, at one and the same time, ‘cultural’, ‘learned’ and ‘evolved’.” Mate preferences in humans are certainly to some degree cultural, learned, and evolved. Ultimately, the adaptations of the human mind unearthed by evolutionary psychologists will likely play key roles in explaining precisely how and why human social constructionists have the mate preferences they do[89].

Third, some scholars believe, based on strict ideological commitments, that evolved psychological sex differences must not exist[90] or even if they do exist, studies of sex differences should be evaluated in ways that favor certain political ideologies over others, such as raising the evidentiary bar for evolutionary psychology hypotheses[91]. As a consequence of these political beliefs, many scholars chauvinistically dismiss or ignore much of the extant evidence accumulated by evolutionary psychologists. This is a mistake on several levels, not the least of which is that even if evolved sex differences in mate preferences do exist, that does not make them “desirable” or “good” or “inevitable” in any way. Thinking like that is fallacious, it is wrong. Even though humans have likely evolved to be omnivorous, that doesn’t mean we should eat meat. What is natural is not inherently connected to what is desirable and thinking that way is committing the so-called naturalistic fallacy (actually more related to the is-ought problem and appeal to nature fallacy). Instead of this false point of view, evolutionary psychologists take the position that by knowing what our evolved psychological adaptations are, and precisely how they are expressed (e.g., how they are specially-designed and which environments especially accentuate or attenuate their expression), we will be more capable of creating effective tools for altering human behavior in ways we do find desirable. This includes utilizing the socially-constructive psychological adaptations in our mental toolkit to do so. Evolved sex differences are not to be ideologically feared, they are to be scientifically evaluated and, if they exist, knowledge about their special design can be used to more efficiently create the healthy society within which we wish to live[92] [93].

Lastly, there are some scholars who are actively deceiving people about empirical findings in evolutionary psychology (e.g., claiming that sex differences “disappear” in egalitarian cultures[94]). Many of these thinkers spread doubt about evolved mate preferences by alluding to a highly popular study by Eagly and Wood[95]. People’s memories of Eagly and Wood’s study, however, are often quite at odds with what they actually found, and with the hundreds of empirical findings since.

Eagly and Wood related the size of sex differences in mate preferences for “good financial prospects” to sociopolitical gender equality measures across nations (actual mate preference data came from a large cross-cultural study by Buss[96]). Eagly and Wood examined four indicators of sociopolitical gender equality and found only one indicator (that’s right, only one of four tests) was significantly linked to smaller sex differences in long-term mate preferences for good financial prospects. Based on that rather meager empirical finding, a generation of scholars seems to have fallen for a “Jedi mind trick” (these aren’t the sex differences you are looking for) and have been convinced that sex differences in mate preferences completely disappear in more gender egalitarian nations. Indeed, Eagly and Wood’s study has been cited over 1,000 times and has led to many to believe all psychological sex differences disappear in gender egalitarian cultures. Not true then, not true now.

To the contrary, most cross-cultural studies find nations with the highest sociopolitical gender equality (e.g., Scandinavian nations) exhibit the largest psychological sex differences in the world. You read that correctly. Higher gender egalitarian nations tend to have larger sex differences in mate preferences for Good Looks, in Big Five personality traits and the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and psychopathy; in romantic attachment and love styles; in sociopolitical attitudes and personal values; in clinical depression rates and crying behavior; in tested cognitive and mental abilities; and in physical attributes such as height and blood pressure[97]. If sociopolitical gender egalitarianism is supposed to reduce sex differences to the point where they “disappear,” it’s doing a terrible job. In fact, it’s most often doing the exact opposite. Without the constraints of patriarchal sex role socialization, it appears men and women are freer to follow their evolved desires in ways that lead to even greater psychological difference[98].

In Sum

In this piece, I’ve listed some of the more common “yes, but” criticisms of evolutionary psychologists and the evidence they employ to evaluate the existence of psychological adaptations. Many critics assert evolutionary psychologists rely solely on studies of college students, or unrepresentative samples, or out-of-date samples, or Westernized samples, or use only self-report methods, or ignore fertility outcomes, the list goes on. The focus here has been on evaluating these criticisms with regard to women’s long-term mate preference adaptations for men with status-related traits. In this case, these criticisms appear to be largely mistaken. Indeed, there are many other studies and findings that can be (and have been) used to fruitfully evaluate women’s long-term mate preference adaptations for status-related attributes, including important work on developmental and contextual factors that adaptively alter women’s expression of long-term mating desires[99] [100] [101] [102] [103] [104] [105]. For instance, evidence suggests high mate value women — feminine, agreeable, and attractive women — display the most marked preferences for men with status-related traits[106] [107][108] [109] [110] [111] [112], and in some cultural contexts other psychological adaptations appear to overwhelm the expression of women’s evolved sexual desires[113].

It should be noted there also exists a very progressive research agenda into women’s evolved short-term mating strategies. Recall earlier that I mentioned many scholars fail to even acknowledge evolutionary psychologists expect women to have an evolved short-term mating psychology. In truth, there is quite a bit of support for several hypotheses about short-term seeking women particularly preferring men who possess cues to “good genes,” cues such as physical symmetry, facial masculinity, vocal masculinity, and other immunocompetence-related and testosterone-related indicators[114] [115] [116]. Whether it is comparing women who short-term mate versus women who long-term mate, contrasting when the same woman short-term mates versus when she long-term mates, evaluating women’s mate preference shifts across the menstrual cycle (women seem to express short-term mating adaptations more when nearing ovulation[117] [118]), or observing which men are the most successful at short-term mating, support for evolutionary-informed hypotheses about women’s short-term mating adaptations has been accumulating rapidly[119]. Indeed, since the 1990s there have probably been more supportive studies testing hypotheses about women’s short-term mating adaptations than long-term mating adaptations. Breaking stereotypes about evolutionary psychology is hard.

Overall, the breadth and depth of evidence for evolved long-term and short-term mate preferences in both men and women is, based on frameworks for evaluating evidence of psychology adaptation, rather strong[120] [121]. Even so, as I’ve noted earlier, psychological science might accumulate additional evidence that would tip the scales against thinking that mate preference adaptations have been sculpted into our evolved psychology. Inspired by Darwin himself, keeping an open mind and always on the lookout for new evidence (especially evidence against one’s own hypotheses) is what evolutionary psychologists do[122], no buts about it.


David P. Schmitt, Ph.D, is a Caterpillar Inc. Professor of Psychology at Bradley University. You can connect with him on Twitter @PsychoSchmitt


This article was originally published on the Evolution Institute’s This View of Life Magazine. Read the original article


All endnotes are linked and available at the original article.

Digital content is available for free, but writing that isn’t subject to the commands of its sponsors is rare -- Areo is one such publication. Creating for you is our passion, and we want to devote more of ourselves into this venture and continue to produce independently for you. If you find value from our articles, support us on Patreon:
David P. Schmitt

4 thoughts on “Assessing Female Mate Preferences: Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology

  1. I started and deleted my comment three times… because I’m not academic, speaker etc.
    My thoughts:
    Mate-preference was – and still is – matter of community management, from skills to social status these criteria were appreciated by families. Research of female mate preference is almost inconceivable in many cases, both historically and geographically. (male autonomy was/is also restricted)
    What I find relevant about Hadza is not that they are attracted by beauty, rather the lack of strict hierarchy and the way their children get the same education. Monogamous relationship is valued but not mandatory and both men and women do or can do some tasks of the other sex. I would be curious how their brain works, compared to other populations, if it’s about evolutionary sex differences.
    Fertility: socially well off women have less children only because this is not a preference any more and they can prevent pregnancy.
    “If sociopolitical gender egalitarianism is supposed to reduce sex differences to the point where they “disappear,” it’s doing a terrible job. ” Why would legal equality, equal access to resources and services eradicate sex differences? Isn’t it a bit like apples and oranges?

  2. OK, I’ll bite. Name one study in which YOU have participated that is actually based on genetics or neural imaging, rather than surveys. And please don’t insult my intelligence by referring to an article in Psychology Today, Popular Mechanics, or similar publication.

Leave a Reply