Women and their parents choose partners who don’t match what they say they want for themselves or for their daughters, according to new research. Both women and their parents tend to say that a potential partner’s ambition and intelligence is more important than his physical attractiveness. But they often contradict their stated preferences when asked to choose between two potential long-term partners. The study was published in the Evolutionary Behavioral Science.
Historically, parents directed or determined mate choices of their offspring. In some cultures, this is still the case. Parents are more likely to attempt to control mate choices of their daughters than of their sons.
In Western countries most women choose their own partners, but even in these countries, parents often try to influence their daughters’ choice of mates. Due to this, when choosing a long-term mate, women face potential conflict with their parents over the choice.
Evolutionary theory suggests that, when choosing a mate, both men and women value characteristics that signal genetic quality, such as physical attractiveness. Research suggests that individuals value these characteristics more than their parents value them when choosing a mate for their offspring.
Parents, on the other hand, tend to value traits such as social status, family background, religious and ethnic background, and the potential to invest in future offspring. Theory also predicts that mate preferences of parents and their offspring will be similar.
The authors of the current study wanted to explore how women and their parents make long-term mate choices (in the case of parents – mates for their daughters), what characteristics of potential mates they value, and how much parents and their daughters agree in these choices.
“Mate preferences/choices is an especially relevant topic that is readily applicable to everyday life, and it is exciting to contribute such relatable research to the field,” said study co-author Noelle Ciccarelli of Eastern Connecticut State University. “As a college undergraduate, it is incredible to have had the chance to participate in the opportunities presented throughout the process. I additionally had a lot of fun talking with my friends about this research who quickly connected with the topic and who were eager to hear the results!”
The researchers conducted an online experiment. Participants were 150 women from a small liberal arts university in the Northeastern United states and their parents. Daughters were asked to recruit their mothers for participation in the study. However, when mothers were not available, researchers accepted fathers and other parental figures as participants. When a participant recruited both parents, responses of the mother were analyzed.
The women and their parents they were shown 16 personality traits and asked to rate the importance of these traits when considering a long-term romantic partner for themselves or for their daughters.
The researchers prepared two photographs of white men with brown hair and minimal facial hair for the experiment. They were pretested for physical attractiveness. One picture was determined to represent a more physically attractive man than the other.
Each of these photographs was paired with two sets of personality descriptions – one describing the man in the photograph as ambitious and intelligent and another describing the same man as disorganized and physically fit. In this way, four stimuli were created.
One of the four stimuli was shown to each woman and their parent. They were then asked to rate the attractiveness of the person shown, how favorable they see his personality description to be, and how desirable that person would be as a long-term partner.
After this, participants were shown the same picture again, but paired with the picture of the other man with the other personality description. They were then asked to choose which of the two men would make the best long-term mate for themselves or for their daughters.
Results showed that both women and their parents rated ambition and intelligence as more important than physical attractiveness. They also rated the same man as more attractive when he was described as intelligent and ambitious compared to disorganized and physically fit.
When they were asked about dating desirability, both women and their parents rated the less physically attractive man described as intelligent and ambitious as a bit more desirable date than the more physically attractive man described as disorganized and physically fit.
However, when they were given two pictures and asked to choose the best long-term mate, both women and their parents chose the more physically attractive man most often, regardless of personality descriptions ascribed to him. The more attractive man was chosen by 69% of daughters and 63% of parents.
The difference in percentages was much smaller when the more attractive man was described as disorganized and physically fit and the less physically attractive one as intelligent and ambitious, but even in this situation both parents and their daughters more often chose the more physically attractive man. Daughters and their parents were in agreement in most cases.
“While parents and daughters report personality traits as fundamental to dating choices, when actual mate choice occurs, both daughters and parents were more likely to choose the more attractive man as the most desirable long-term mate for daughters,” Ciccarelli told PsyPost. “Additionally, while past research has emphasized conflict in mate preferences of parents and daughters, this difference may be overstated, and perceived conflict may be greater than actual conflict.”
The study sheds light on an important aspect of romantic relationships. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, the choices were made solely based on single static pictures of men. This is profoundly different from how mate choice functions in real life.
“Although this is our third study testing similar hypotheses and using different photographs, we can’t really be sure that women and their parents are choosing men as the best partners for daughters based solely on the men’s level of physical attractiveness,” explained co-author Madeleine Fugère, a professor of psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University.
“Prior research shows that we expect individuals who are more attractive to also have more pleasing personalities, so it may be that women and their parents are choosing the more attractive men because they are more attractive and because they expect these men to have more favorable personality characteristics, regardless of the characteristics which the men have been ascribed.”
“We are currently collecting data to address this possibility, looking at which personality characteristics women and their parents expect from men with differing levels of physical attractiveness,” Fugère said.
The study, “The Importance of Physical Attractiveness and Ambition/Intelligence to the Mate Choices of Women and Their Parents”, was authored by Madeleine A. Fugère, Noelle C. Ciccarelli, and Alita J. Cousins.