Surprise! Women Don’t Trade Beauty For Male Status

June 23, 2014


trophy wife

The good old days?

The  Science of Us profiles a new study that investigates the exchange of female beauty for male status in marriage. In Beauty and Status: The Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection, Notre Dame prof Elizabeth McClintock looks closely at the incidence of trophy wife marriages and finds assortative mating instead.

“I find that handsome men partner with pretty women and successful men partner with successful women,” says McClintock, who specializes in inequality within romantic partnerships. “So, on average, high-status men do have better-looking wives, but this is because they themselves are considered better looking–perhaps because they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to afford braces, nice clothes and trips to the dermatologist, etc. Secondly, the strongest force by far in partner selection is similarity — in education, race, religion and physical attractiveness.”

McClintock’s research shows that there is not, in fact, a general tendency for women to trade beauty for money. That is not to say trophy wife marriages never happen, just that they are very rare.

…McClintock’s research also indicates that, contrary to the trophy wife stereotype, social class barriers in the marriage market are relatively impermeable. Beautiful women are unlikely to leverage their looks to secure upward mobility by marriage.

McClintock is an expert on the behavioral economics aspects of relationships. In this study she differentiates between two prominent pairing mechanisms:


More commonly referred to as Assortative Mating, matching is the selection of a partner very similar to oneself, especially with regard to education, socioeconomic status, and physical attractiveness.


The Exchange strategy involves trading one particularly strong characteristic to compensate for what one lacks. The most common cultural example of this is the older, wealthy but not very attractive male pairing off with a young, beautiful woman who appears to have little to offer other than her looks.

McClintock realized that past research into this phenomenon focused exclusively on male status and female beauty. Male looks and female socioeconomic status were ignored.

Using a large data sample of romantic couples, McClintock found that male socioeconomic status and female beauty are indeed highly correlated. But so are socioeconomic status and good looks in general – for both sexes.

What if these results can mostly be explained by matching rather than exchange? If people with high levels of status or beauty simply seek out similarly blessed people, that could explain why high-status men (who are more likely to be attractive) often end up with attractive women (who are more likely to be high status). Like is seeking like: It isn’t necessarily the case that much trading is going on. 

And that’s exactly what happened. There was scant evidence for Exchange strategy. Not only that.

McClintock found that for both men and women, the rare trading of beauty for bucks was restricted to short-term relationships, or flings.

This is not the first study to expose a glaring omission in previous social science research. I recently described a similar revelation in Women Want Men Who Are Dominant With Other Men (rather than them). How do such errors occur and how are they sustained over time?

Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern who studies relationships but who wasn’t involved in this study [said], “Scientists are humans, too, and we can be inadvertently blinded by their beliefs about how the world works.” 

“The studies that only looked at men’s (but not women’s) income and only looked at women’s (but not men’s) attractiveness were problematic in that way, as was the peer review process that allowed flawed papers like that to be published. Fortunately, cases like that are the exception rather than the rule, and science tends to do a good job of ferreting them out. That’s what McClintock has done here.”

Trends In Assortative Mating

Assortative mating increased sharply in the period between 1960 -2005, due to the large number of married women who entered the workforce. This explains 10-16% of income inequality in the U.S., according to one source. The Economist describes it this way:

Male doctors in the 1960s married nurses because there were few female doctors. Now there are plenty. Yet assortative mating (the tendency of similar people to marry each other) aggravates inequality between households—two married lawyers are much richer than a single mother who stacks shelves.

…The economic incentive to marry your peers has increased. A woman with a graduate degree whose husband dropped out of high school in 1960 could still enjoy household income 40% above the national average; by 2005, such a couple would earn 8% below it.

In 1960 a household composed of two people with graduate degrees earned 76% above the average; by 2005, they earned 119% more.

These trends will continue unabated as long as women remain in the workforce, which is to say, indefinitely. Women no longer seek to trade up. They’ve already arrived. Are you surprised?