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Gender Differences in Mate Selection
Criteria: Sociobiological or
Socioeconomic Explanation? ’
Michael W. Wiederman
Bowling

Green State

University,

and Elizabeth Rice Allgeier
Bowling

Green,

Ohio

Past research has demonstrated clear gender differences in reported mate selection
criteria. Compared to women, men place more importance on physical attractiveness
and women place more importance than men do on the earning capacity of a potential
mate. These gender differences have been explained using both sociobiological propositions and differences in the relative economic power of men and women. The present
study tested the structural powerlessness hypothesis as an explanation for women’s
greater emphasis on the earning capacity of a potential spouse. Samples of college
students (N = 997) and community members (N = 282) were asked to report expected
personal income and to rate the importance of listed characteristics in a potential mate.
Consistent with past research, men placed more emphasis on the item Good Looks,
whereas women placed more importance on the item Good Financial Prospecf. Contrary
to the structural powerless model, women’s expected income was positively related to
ratings of the importance of a potential mate’s earning capacity in the college sample
and was unrelated to women’s ratings of the item Good Financial Prospect in the community sample. Findings are discussed in terms of both evolutionary psychology and
gender differences in access to financial resources.
KEY

WORDS:

Socioeconomic

Gender

differences;

Mate selection; Evolutionary

psychology;

status.

R

esearch has consistently demonstrated that men and women differ
in their ratings of particular criteria in the selection of a mate.
Specifically, research employing various methodologies with a
,variety of samples have shown that men place significantly more
importance on the physical attractiveness of a potential partner, whereas
women place more emphasis on the ability of a mate to provide material
support (e.g., Buss 1985; Buss and Barnes 1986; Coombs and Kenkel 1966;
’ Portions of these data were presented at the Annual Meeting of The Society for the Scientific
Study of Sex in Minneapolis, Minnesota in November, 1990.
Received April 22, 1991; revised September

10, 1991.

Address reprint requests and correspondence to Elizabeth Rice Allgeier, Ph.D., Department
of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, OH 43403.
Ethology and Sociobiology 13: 115-124 (1992)
0 Elsevier Science Publishing Co., Inc., 1992
655 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10010

0162-3095/92/$5.00

116

M. W. Wiederman

and E. R. Allgeier

Ford and Beach 1951, p. 86; Townsend and Levy 1990). Indeed, with regard
to actual mate choice, it has been noted that successful career men are more
likely to be married to physically attractive women (Elder 1969; Taylor and
Glenn 1976; Udry and Eckland 1984). Different explanations of these robust
gender differences in the mate selection process have been advanced by
evolutionary psychological and economic inequality models.
Those taking the perspective of evolutionary psychology have argued
that gender differences in human mate selection criteria exist as a result of
natural selection (Buss 1987, 1988; Daly and Wilson, 1983; Symons 1979).
More generally, evolutionary psychology posits that complex human psychological mechanisms (adaptations) evolved in response to specific adaptive problems encountered during the Pleistocene (Buss 1991, pp. 461-463;
Tooby and Cosmides 1989). Symons (1990) pointed out that there are several
implicit assumptions in the evolutionary psychological view of any such
adaptation: 1) During the evolutionary past heritable phenotypic variation
existed with regard to a particular trait. 2) Differential reproduction occurred
as a consequence of variation in the particular phenotypic trait. 3) Natural
selection designed at least one psychological mechanism specifically for the
particular trait. 4) Genes specifically for the particular trait were established
in the species’ gene pool (pp. 428-429).
With regard to mate selection, it is hypothesized that “the adult human
male brain contains one or more adaptations designed to produce maximal
sexual attraction, other things being equal, to certain physical correlates of
human female nubility . . .” (Symons 1990, p. 429). These correlates are
physical characteristics typical of women in the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness (EEA) who were most fertile (Symons 1979, 1990).
As female fertility is strongly age dependent in all cultures (Williams 1975),
younger women in the EEA were more fertile than older women. Selection
could not have designed a psychological mechanism to detect female age
per se, but instead may have designed mechanisms sensitive to female physical characteristics that were reliably correlated with youth for a significant
span of time (Buss 1989a; Symons 1990). These features associated with
youth, and hence female reproductive capacity, include smooth skin, good
muscle tone, lustrous hair, full lips, etc. (Symons 1979). Standards of sexual
attraction and physical beauty are hypothesized to have evolved to correspond to these features (Buss 1989a). Compared to women, men’s fertility
is less steeply age-graded from puberty on and, therefore, cannot be as
accurately assessed by physical appearance. From this perspective, men
would be expected to place more value on the physical attractiveness of a
mate than would women.
If physical attractiveness of a potential mate is less relevant to women
than to men, what adaptations are hypothesized to have evolved with regard
to female mate choice? In contrast to males, female reproductive success
is not as closely linked to finding fertile mates, but rather to finding a mate
who is both willing and able to provide resources related to parental in-

Gender Differences in Mate Selection

117

vestment in offspring such as food, shelter, territory, and protection (Buss
1989a; Trivers 1972). It has been hypothesized that during the EEA those
women who preferred resource-providing mates enjoyed immediate material
advantage for both themselves and their offspring, enhanced reproductive
advantage for offspring through increased social and economic status, and
genetic reproductive advantage for both ths, woman and her offspring if the
qualities that led to resource acquisition were at least partially heritable
(Buss and Barnes 1986; Buss 1989a). It follows that psychological mechanisms related to detection of possession, or likely acquisition, of resources
by potential mates may have been selected for in human females. From this
perspective, women would be expected to place more value on the capacity
for resource acquisition of a mate than men would.
An alternative explanation for the robust gender differences demonstrated in research on self-reported mate selection criteria is the structural
powerlessness hypothesis (Buss and Barnes 1986; Buss 1989b): “Males and
females have identical [mate selection] preferences, but social structural
arrangements produce gender differences” (Caporael 1989, p. 17). It has
been hypothesized that men’s relative preference for physical attractiveness
and women’s relative preference for economic resources in a mate may be
byproducts of the culturally determined differential economic status of men
versus women. If women are typically excluded from power, and are viewed
as objects of exchange, then women may seek mates possessing characteristics associated with power and resource acquisition skills (e.g., earning
capacity). Marriage is, therefore, a means by which women may improve
their economic status (Caporael 1989). “Men, in contrast, [may] place a
premium on the quality of the ‘exchange object’ itself, and so value physical
beauty (e.g., enhanced value as a sex object). Physical attractiveness [then]
becomes a central means for designating relative value among exchange
commodities” (Buss and Barnes 1986, p. 569).
In line with the structural powerlessness hypothesis outlined above,
several testable predictions are apparent: 1) Between cultures, as sex differences in economic power diminish, the sex differences in mate selection
criteria should diminish (Buss 1989b, p. 40). 2) Within cultures, those women
who have greater economic power should value earning power in potential
mates less than those women who do not have such economic power (Buss
and Barnes 1986, p. 569; Buss 1989b, p. 40). 3) Within cultures, men who
possess less economic power should value earning power more in potential
mates than those men who possess greater economic power (Buss 1989b,
p. 40). 4) Within cultures, men who possess greater economic power should
value physical attractiveness more in potential mates than those men who
possess less economic power. In short, the structural powerlessness hypothesis implies that as economic differences between men and women diminish, men and women become more alike in their mate selection preferences. What do the existing data suggest regarding the evolutionary

118

M. W. Wiederman

and E. R. Allgeier

psychological explanation versus the cultural structural powerlessness explanation?
In the most ambitious cross-cultural project on self-reported mate selection preferences conducted thus far, Buss (1989a) surveyed more than
10,000 respondents from 37 samples around the world. The measure Buss
(1989a) used was the list of 18 characteristics constructed by Hill (1945); it
included the primary target items Good Looks and Good Financial Prospect.
Respondents rated the importance of each of the characteristics in a potential
mate. In support of Buss’s evolutionary psychological hypotheses, women
placed more value on the financial prospects of potential partners than men
did-significant
differences occurred in 36 of the 37 samples. In 34 of the
37 samples, men rated good looks in a potential partner as more important
in selecting a mate than women did. In the remaining three samples (India,
Poland, and Sweden), the differences were not significant, but they were
similar to the other 34 samples. Buss (1989a) declared that the findings of
his study supported evolutionary psychological propositions regarding gender differences in mate selection mechanisms that have evolved through
natural selection.
The findings of Buss (1989a) were not accepted by all researchers as
supportive of only evolutionary psychological propositions. Some critics
held that the results could also be explained by some version of the cultural
structural powerlessness hypothesis and that the findings of Buss (1989a)
demonstrate the pervasiveness of male/female economic inequality (Caporael 1989; Glenn 1989; Wallen 1989). In response, Buss (1989b, p. 41) offered
some evidence contrary to the structural powerlessness hypothesis. Data
collected in the United States from a sample of 100 young married couples
(100 men and 100 women) included self-reported personal income and ratings
on the importance of potential income of an ideal mate. There was no association between the variables among the men surveyed, whereas women’s
personal income correlated 0.31 (p < 0.001) with their rating of the importance of the potential income of an ideal mate. Those women in the sample
who had the greatest access to financial resources actually placed more value
on the financial potential of an ideal mate.
Further evidence contradicting the structural powerlessness hypothesis
was provided by Townsend (1989) who examined the relationship of women’s economic standing to mate selection. Using open-ended questions,
Townsend investigated mate selection criteria among 20 male and 20 female
medical students. When asked what characteristics are most important in
choosing a partner for a serious relationship, 85% of the men listed physical
attractiveness, whereas only 10% of the women did so. In contrast, 45% of
the women listed earning capacity as an important characteristic, whereas
none of the men did so. Despite the fact that each of the 20 female medical
students in the sample expected their personal annual incomes as physicians
to exceed $60,000, all of the women indicated a preference for a spouse
whose income equaled or exceeded their own. In contrast, 60% of the male

Gender Differences in Mate Selection

119

medical students reported a preference for a mate with lesser incomes than
their own.
In Townsend’s (1989) study, women’s personal access to financial resources did not seem to mediate the gender differences in mate selection
criteria consistently demonstrated by other researchers. These women, despite the expectation of a substantial personal income after completion of
their medical education, continued to place more emphasis on the earning
capacity of a potential spouse than their male classmates did. The women
in Townsend’s sample, however, represented only one end of the personal
income continuum, and thus the results cannot be generalized to women
who expect to earn either a more modest living or no personal income at
all.
Is a woman’s rc! ,tive economic independence related to the value
placed on the earning capacity of a potential husband, and if so, how? Is a
man’s relative economic independence related to the value placed on the
physical attractiveness and!or earning capacity of a potential wife, and if so,
how? The present study was designed to investigate these issues more directly, using large samples of both college students and community members. In addition to accessability, the reason for choosing the first sample
was that they are more representative of unmarried young people in this
society in terms of expected personal income, than were Townsend’s medical studems It was hoped that by asking the students to estimate their
personal annual income three to four years after graduating from college,
the responses would serve as a rough measure of their degree of perceived
economic independence after completing their formal education. We recognized that college students represent a restricted range in terms of age,
expected personal income, and experience in financial self-support. Thus,
a second sample of more mature adults from the greater community was
also surveyed. In this sample respondents were asked to report their expected personal income for the following year. All respondents were given
the list of characteristics in a potential mate generated by Hill (1945), and
subsequently used by Buss (1989a), and were asked to rate the importance
of each characteristic in a potential mate.

METHOD
Subjects
Participants in the college sample were 997 undergraduate students (360
males and 637 females). They were recruited from three different courses
at a midsized midwestern university including introductory psychology (N
= 657), human sexuality (N = 165), and human anatomy and physiology
(N = 181). The median ages were 20 years for males, and 19 years for
females. Approximately 75% of both men and women indicated that they

120

M. W. Wiederman

and E. R. Allgeier

were currently dating, either casually or steadily, and approximately 15%
indicated that they were not dating.
Respondents in the community sample were 115 men and 167 women
(total N = 282) surveyed in Bowling Green and Toledo, both in Ohio. Approximately 55% of the surveys were completed in grocery stores, 25% in
a shopping mall, 15% at a city park, and 5% in a laundromat. The median
ages were 32.5 years for men (mean = 36.6, SD = 14.2, range = 18-74
years) and 33 years for women (mean = 35.6, SD = 12.9, range = 18-78
years). The median expected personal income for the following year for men
was $32,000 (mean = $36,653, SD = $29,983) and was $20,000 for women
(mean = $22,935, SD = $15,685). Approximately 60% of both men and
women indicated that they were currently married. The sample size varied
slightly with each analysis due to missing data.

Measures
The one-page questionnaire began with a brief introduction to the purposes
for studying people’s attitudes towards marriage, a reminder to participants
not to identify themselves, and the names of the researchers if respondents
wanted to contact us. Requested information included amount of personal
annual income the respondent expected to earn either three to four years
after graduating from college (for the student sample) or for the next year
(for the community sample).
After three questions dealing with the role of love in marriage (Allgeier
and Wiederman 1991), participants were presented with the Hill (1945) list
of 18 characteristics, and asked to rate each one in terms of its importance
in the selection of a marriage partner. Embedded in the list were the two
target items relevant to the present study: Good Looks and Good Financial
Prospect. Seven-point scales were provided to rate each characteristic from
Extremely Unimportant (1) to Extremely Important (7).

Procedure
For the college student sample, the one-page questionnaire was distributed
to students at the start of class. The verbal introduction given to the respondents, beyond asking for their participation, was an explanation that
the study was being conducted by a faculty member and graduate student
from the psychology department, that responses were completely voluntary
and anonymous, and that the researchers would return to their class to present the findings of the survey. Questionnaires were then handed out, and
after several minutes, participants were asked to pass them face-down to
the center aisles where they were collected.
In the community sample, potential respondents were approached by
one of the group of researchers who wore casual clothing, but not blue jeans,
tee-shirts, etc. Each person involved in data collection wore a name tag that

Gender Differences in Mate Selection

121

contained his or her first name and the name of the university with which
he or she was affiliated. Upon approaching potential respondents, the researchers explained that they were working with a professor who was interested in studying love and marriage and that they would like the respondents to complete a very brief anonymous questionnaire. The one-page
questionnaire was given to respondents on a clipboard. Upon completion,
respondents were provided with a large manilla envelope which contained
other completed questionnaires and they were instructed to place their questionnaire inside the envelope to protect their confidentiality. The respondents were then thanked for their time and participation.

RESULTS
Consistent with past research, men placed more emphasis on Good Looks
than did women, with item means of 5.41 (SD = I .IS> and 4.79 (SD = 1.18),
respectively (r (985) = 8.03, p < 0.001). This gender difference was also
demonstrated by the fact that 84.2% of the men, compared to 66.6% of the
women, rated Good Looks above the midpoint on the importance scale.
Women placed more value on Good Financial Prospect than did men, with
item means of 4.92 (SD = 1.38) and 3.83 (SD = 1.55), respectively (t (993)
= 11.52, p < 0.001). A greater percentage of the women (70.6%) rated Good
Financial Prospect above the midpoint of the scale than men did (36.6%).
There was a positive relationship between women’s expected personal income and the importance ascribed to the item Good Financial Prospect (r
= 0.17, p < 0.01). That is, in contradiction to the structural powerlessness
hypothesis, women who expected to earn the most after college placed more
importance on Good Financial Prospect than did women who expected to
earn less. Also, in contradiction to the structural powerlessness hypothesis,
for men in the sample there were no relationships between expected personal
income and the importance placed on good looks (r = - 0.04, n.s.) or good
financial prospects (Y = - 0.03, n.s.> in the selection of a marriage partner.
Consistent with the sample of college students, men in the community
sample placed more emphasis on Good Looks than women did, with item
means of 4.91 (SD = 1.44) and 3.99 (SD = 1.32), respectively (t (223) =
5.38, p < 0.001). This gender difference is also demonstrated in the fact that
71.2% of the men rated Good Looks above the midpoint on the importance
scale, whereas only 38.5% of the women did so. None of the community
women rated Good Looks a 7 in importance. Community women placed
more value on Good Financial Prospect than men did, with item means of
4.65 (SD = 1.45) and 3.79 (SD = 1.70), respectively (t (202) = 4.27, p -C
0.001). A greater percentage of the women (60.5%) rated Good Financial
Prospect above the midpoint of the scale than men did (35.5%). Unlike the
college sample, however, there were no significant relationships between
the amount of money women expected to earn next year and their ratings

122

M. W. Wiederman

and E. R. Allgeier

of the items Good Financial Prospc>ct (r = 0.04, n.s.). Again, for men there
were no significant relationships
between expected personal income and the
importance
placed on good looks (r = - 0.09, n.s.) or good financial prospects (r = 0.04, n.s.) in the selection of a prospective
spouse. In terms of
a possible cohort effort for the items relevant to the structural powerlessness
hypothesis,
age of the respondent
was unrelated to ratings of Good Finunciul
Prospect by both men (Y = 0.22, n.s.1 and women (v = - 0.08. n.s.), and
age was unrelated
to ratings of Good Looks by men (r = - 0.04. n.s.).

DISCUSSION
A robust finding in past research on mate selection preference
is that the
earning capacity of a potential mate is more salient to women than it is to
men, and that men place more value on physical attractiveness
in a potential
mate than women do. These gender differences were replicated in the present
study, both in a large sample of college students and in a sample of men and
women from the general community.
Explanations
for the gender difference
in mate selection preferences
have been provided by both evolutionary
and
socioeconomic
perspectives.
The present study sought to test predictions
from the structural
powerlessness
explanation
by correlating
women’s
expected personal income with the importance
they ascribe to a potential
mate’s earning
capacity,
and by correlating
men’s expected
personal
income with the value they place on a potential mate’s earning capacity and
physical attractiveness.
The findings from our large college student sample were similar to those
of Buss (1989a) and Townsend
(1989) who essentially
found a positive relationship between young women’s expected personal income and their ratings of the importance
placed on the financial prospects of a potential mate.
In the present sample of a thousand college students,
there was a small but
positive correlation
between
women’s expected
personal
income and the
value placed on the earning capacity of a potential spouse. That is, in contrast
to the structural
powerlessness
hypothesis,
the more personal income the
women in the sample expected to earn, the more likely they were to value
good financial prospects
in a mate. Also in contradiction
to the structural
powerlessness
hypothesis,
men’s personal
income was unrelated
to their
ratings of the importance
of both earning capacity and good looks in a potential mate.
We recognized
that the college student sample represented
a restricted
range in terms of age. income. and relationship
experience.
For example,
women’s expected
annual income three to four years after college ranged
from $10,000 to $150.000, with the median amount being $30,000. In the
community
sample, on the other hand, women’s expected personal income
for the following year ranged from $0 to $75,000, with the median amount

Gender

Differences in Mate Selection

123

being $20,000, hence the importance of obtaining a community sample as
well. Ratings of the item Good Financial Prospect by the community women
were unrelated to the amount of money they personally expected to earn.
Again, the results for women were in contradiction to the predictions implicit
in the structural powerlessness hypothesis. Also in contradiction to the structural powerlessness explanation, community men’s personal income was
unrelated to ratings of the importance of good financial prospects and good
looks in a potential spouse.
The present study is, of course, by no means definitive. Both the evolutionary and socioeconomic explanations of gender differences in mate
selection preferences are dependent upon the notion of resource acquisition.
In the present study the item Good Financial Prospects was used to refer
to a potential mate’s earning capacity, and expected personal income was
used as a rough indicator of personal economic independence. We recognize,
however, that resources include more than just monetary sums. This is a
relevant point for both the evolutionary and socioeconomic perspectives.
For example, because money was not part of our environment of evolutionary adaptedness humans are unlikely to have any psychological mechanisms to deal with money per se. In the socioeconomic view, if women are
primarily responsible for providing child care, their own earning ability may
be hampered by their child-rearing responsibilities. So even if women can
support themselves before having children, their earning power may be interrupted, at least temporarily, following the birth of a child, and a potential
mate’s earning ability may be more important to women than to men as a
result. Nonetheless, in the present study items dealing with the earning capacity of a potential spouse and the respondent’s expected personal income
were used as crude indicators of a potential mate’s resource acquisition
skills, and the respondent’s personal economic independence, respectively.
In summary, the results of both past research on mate selection preferences and the present study do not support the structural powerlessness
explanation for existing gender differences. That is, although women place
more value on a potential mate’s earning capacity than men do, women do
not appear to value a mate’s potential earning power based on an expected
deficiency in their own ability to support themselves. Instead, there is modest support for the reverse: Women who anticipate higher incomes place
more value on the earning power of a potential mate than do women who
expect to earn less money. Also in contrast to the structural powerlessness
hypothesis, men’s relatively greater emphasis on the physical attractiveness
of a potential mate is not related to expected personal income, nor is expected personal income related to men’s ratings of the importance of a potential mate’s earning capacity. The evolutionary explanation of men’s and
women’s differing preference for a physically attractive partner versus a
good provider appears to be more viable than do hypotheses based on economic inequality between men and women.


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