Attractive men bring home the bacon

Women, more than men, place greater importance on a partner’s ability to acquire resources, a fact that’s been known to researchers for several years (and to novelists and playwrights for slightly longer).

The standard explanation is that our female ancestors faced the problem of having to raise offspring in what were often unpredictable environments, where food was difficult to find and the prospect of malnutrition and disease ever present. Given such circumstances, the most attractive men were probably those who could literally bring home the bacon.

But one of the stark differences between those ancient environments and the modern urban jungle is that, today, women have far greater opportunities to provide for themselves. So, does the preference for good hunter types persist despite the emancipation of women, or is it flexible to change? Are women less interested in men with money if they can go out and earn their own?

Christine Stanik and Phoebe Ellsworth of Penn State University and the University of Michigan recently published the results of a study in which they examined this very question. Because intelligence is strongly correlated with a person’s salary, and is easily measured, they elected to use verbal intelligence as a proxy for current and future earning power. They recruited 174 female students and had them complete two verbal IQ tests. The women were then asked to rate how much they valued particular traits in their male partners: traits such as ability to earn money, and social status. Because the task wouldn’t be very informative if women were able to say that all of these valued traits were indispensible to them, they were instead given 40 imaginary “mate dollars” which they could spend on their ratings. For example, if the women spent 10 of these dollars on a partner’s physical attractiveness, they would have less to spend on social status. This method allowed the researchers to find out how important each trait was to the women.

As predicted, the higher a woman’s intelligence score was, the less she valued traits in a man that indicated his ability to provide for her financially. Less intelligent women preferred men who were high earners.

But before all you brainiacs out there start to feel smug, it’s worth pointing out one of the limitations of this kind of investigation. As the researchers themselves acknowledge, it’s possible that more intelligent women feel it’s socially unacceptable to conform to standard gender stereotypes, but, when faced with a choice between a man with money and man without in the real world, they might still plump for the high earner. The only way to find out if this is true is to test women’s real life mate-preferences for a series of real men.

I think I know plenty of chaps who’d be happy to volunteer.

Stanik, C. E., & Ellsworth, P. C. (2010). Who cares about marrying a rich man? Intelligence and variation in women’s mate preferences. Human Nature, 21(2), 203–217. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the July 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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