Meet the parents

The holiday season is a time when we bask in the warmth of family. But, I don’t know about you, by the time New Year arrives I’d be happy to chuck all my miscellaneous aunts and uncles in a crate and ship them off to Zanzibar. Family members are great, but cram too many into a single room and mix in a few bottles of sherry and some electronic toys that come ‘batteries not included’ and you’ve got the perfect recipe for Christmas conflict.

If only we could look forward to a harmonious household come January the first, but alas it seems that relatives can be reluctant to reach consensus on a number of non-seasonal topics, chief amongst which is the romantic behaviour of the younger generation. We have a very clear idea about the sort of person we most certainly wouldn’t want to bring home to mum and dad.

Carin Perilloux of the University of Texas at Austin recruited 300 undergraduate students for a study of partner preferences. She had these people rank a list of traits in order of how desirable they would be in a long-term partner, traits such as good earning capacity, intelligent, healthy, religious, and physically attractive. The researchers then contacted the parents of the participants and had them to rank the same list of traits according to how important they’d be in a partner for their offspring.

Perilloux found that parents preferred that their offspring had a partner with good earning potential and a college degree. Offspring also valued these traits, but not as much as their parents did. Offspring themselves tended to place greater value on physical attractiveness and a good personality.

Why should parents disapprove of their son’s and daughter’s choice of partner? After all, if someone’s the best match for you, why can’t your parents see that? Well, one theory is that parents and offspring reap different benefits from an offspring’s partner. When the offspring seeks a mate, they should care more about heritable benefits: advantages that can be passed on genetically to their offspring.

Parents, on the other hand, share fewer genes with their grandchildren than they do with their own kids so they’re less interested in a good genetic inheritance. Instead, they should be more concerned with social advantages, which can be spread throughout the family. Basically, if your partner is of high social standing, that might provide an advantage to all your relatives, but if he or she is good looking, that’s more of an advantage to you and your children, but not so much to your wider family.

Christmas might be over, but Valentine’s day is right around the corner. Brilliant.


Perilloux, C., Fleischman, D. S., & Buss, D. M. (2011). Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 253–258. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the January 2011 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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