Posted on 5 September 2012
The classic explanation for these differences has been that men and women’s brains have evolved to make certain choices. However, a new study by University of York researchers in Psychological Science - an Association for Psychological Science publication - suggests that evolution is only part of the answer.
These findings challenge the idea proposed by some evolutionary psychologists that gender differences in mate-preferences are determined by evolved adaptations that became biologically embedded in the male and female brain
Dr Marcel Zentner
The study by Dr Marcel Zentner and Klaudia Mitura, from the University’s Department of Psychology, found that increasing gender equality reduces gender differences in mate preferences. They say this indicates that the strategies men and women use to choose mates may not be as biologically rooted in our evolutionary past as scientists originally thought.
To be a ‘success’ in evolutionary terms, women need to have access to resources to raise offspring, and men need to have access to fertile females. Researchers have previously argued that women tend to prefer partners who have an ability to invest resources in their children (i.e. wealthy men), and men tend to prefer partners who appear fertile (i.e. young women) because evolutionary adaptations have programmed these preferences in our brains.
But in the modern world, ‘success’ is not necessarily tied to offspring. Dr Zentner and Klaudia Mitura hypothesized that the influence of evolutionary biases on mate choice would decline proportionally with nations’ gender parity, or the equality between men and women.
Dr Zentner said: “There was accumulating evidence that gender differences in mental abilities, such as math performance, vanish in gender-equal societies.” But he and his fellow researchers wanted to see if they could observe the same trend for selecting sexual partners.
The researchers had 3,177 respondents complete an online mate preference survey from 10 countries ranking from a low (Finland) to a high (Turkey) gender gap in terms of the Global Gender Gap Index (GGI) – a measure that was recently introduced by World Economic Forum to iron out shortcomings of earlier gender parity measures. The participants were asked in their native language whether certain criteria (such as ‘financial prospect’ and ‘being a good cook’) were important in choosing a mate.
Dr Zentner says what they found was that the gender difference in mate preferences predicted by evolutionary psychology models “is highest in gender-unequal societies, and smallest in the most gender-equal societies.”
They confirmed their results in a second study based on mate preferences reported by 8,953 volunteers from 31 nations. Again, the researchers found that there were fewer differences between men and women’s preferences in more gender-equal nations compared to less gender-equal nations.
Dr Zentner said: “These findings challenge the idea proposed by some evolutionary psychologists that gender differences in mate-preferences are determined by evolved adaptations that became biologically embedded in the male and female brain.”
However, he also adds evolutionary roots shouldn’t be ruled out entirely. “Indeed, the capacity to change behaviours and attitudes relatively quickly in response to societal changes may itself be driven by an evolutionary programme that rewards flexibility over rigidity,” he says.