Assortative Mating and Good Looks

September 13, 2016

hands-437968_640I’ve written frequently about assortative mating, and its increasing influence in the dating and marriage market. Assortative mating is defined as the tendency for like to choose like in mating. We prefer mates with similar income, education, religious background, and political beliefs. There’s also a strong observed tendency for people to pair off with someone about as physically attractive as themselves.

“Studies of assortative mating find very strong correlations between the attractiveness of dating and marital partners (Berscheid & Walster, 1974; Buss & Barnes, 1986; Epstein & Guttman, 1984; Spurler, 1968).”

Evolutionary theories suggest that assortative mating maximizes gene replication and increases fitness. There are several different hypotheses as to how/why this is effective:

  1. Equity Theory: a relationship built on attribute matching could be perceived to be more equitable and satisfactory.
  2. Parental Image Theory: people are attracted to others who resemble their parents and thus indirectly themselves.
  3. Market Theory: attractive people seek one another as mates, leaving the less attractive people to choose among themselves.

Physical Attractiveness

The physical attraction aspect of assortative mating has generated a lot of interest among researchers because it hasn’t been well understood. In an earlier post I referenced the Dan Ariely study If I’m Not Hot, Are You Hot or Not?  The key findings of that study were:

  • Men care more about looks than women do. They have fewer attraction triggers.
  • Men are less selective than women are; a much higher percentage of the opposite sex makes the cut. Men are 240% more likely to say yes to potential dates.
  • Both men and women perceive attraction in similar ways regardless of their own level of attractiveness. They may have to settle, but they’re not deluding themselves.
  • Both men and women prefer to date someone “moderately more attractive”, and neither prefers to date someone “overwhelmingly more attractive.”
  • Men are much more likely to aim high and reach out of their league in dating. They are very influenced by the attractiveness of the target, and not very mindful of their own attractiveness.

Taken together, these findings reflect the reality that when it comes to reproduction, men display and women select. From the male viewpoint taking as many shots as possible is sound strategy, even if women find it annoying at times.

Parental Image Theory

The Parental Image theory strikes me as sort of wacky, and readers frequently proclaim that their mate looks nothing like their opposite sex parent. But there’s strong evidence to back it up. In How Your Parents’ Appearance Affects Who You Marry, Eric Barker highlights several key findings.

The single best predictor for partners’ eye colour is the eye colour of the parent of the opposite sex. Thus, if a woman’s mother had blue eyes and if her father had brown eyes, she would be most likely to be partnered to a guy with brown eyes, just like her father. Likewise, if a man’s mum had blue eyes and his dad had brown eyes, then his partner was likely to have blue eyes, just like his mum.

The mother’s hair colour is the single best predictor of a male partner’s hair colour. Men are more likely to date women with the same hair color as their mother.

Women are more likely to be attracted to men who look like dad– only if they had a good relationship with their father…The imprinting of a daughter on her father’s face shape depends on a positive emotional bond between the two.

The strongest similarity has been found in the resemblance between a guy’s spouse and his mother.

Market Theory

Ariely’s study focused primarily on Market Theory, attempting to understand whether less attractive people assume a “sour grapes” attitude or delude themselves regarding their dating partners’ attractiveness. There is a robust body of research demonstrating that innate physical attractiveness carries many benefits, including economic and dating advantages. They even fare better in the justice system. Yet physically attractive people are not any happier. The process through which the less attractive wind up as happy as anyone else is known as Hedonic Adaptation.

“One plausible mechanism underlying how people cope with attractive options that are beyond their reach: when faced with a range of options (e.g. potential partners) or life situations (e.g. states of health) of varying hedonic value, instead of adopting a “sour grapes” mindset and deluding themselves that what is unattainable isn’t as great as what it looks, people divert their focus to the merits of options that are attainable to them.

From an evolutionary perspective, such motivated changes in dating preferences can potentially increase one’s pool of potential mates, reducing the likelihood that physically unattractive people will end up without partners, and supporting assortative mating.”

Looking around, it’s obvious that marriage is hardly just for the most beautiful among us. If that were true, homo sap would have died out long ago.

The Pitfalls of Beauty

Those of us mortals who occasionally enjoy indulging in a bit of schadenfreude may be interested to learn that according to psychologists, the most attractive women frequently experience bias. They encounter prejudice in the workplace, where they are less likely to be promoted to positions of authority. They also engender a lot of jealousy from other women, a problem when HR is mostly female. Beautiful women often fail to get the job.

Doctors have been found to give a lower quality of care to very good looking people – they find it more difficult to credit reports of feeling unwell or being in pain. People also give a wide berth physically to the gorgeous – they move a greater distance to the other side of the path, for example. As a result, beautiful people are more prone to feel isolated from their peers.

And OKCupid has found that the best looking women get asked out less. We find perfection intimidating, and it often makes us feel bad about ourselves. Beautiful people pay the price.

I know, I know, cry me a river. Just saying. We all have our troubles. In the end, those women will pair off with men as attractive as they are. So will you all!