Rich, good-looking, intelligent: What do we value most in a partner?

What kind of characteristics do you look for in a partner? Do they need a good sense of humour? Does it matter if they’re physically attractive? Do you value wealth, ambition, gregariousness, fidelity, honesty, good parenting skills, or intelligence?

There are lots of things we want in a partner, and it’s difficult to find all of those things in one person. If we really want a rich partner, we might be willing to compromise on physical attractiveness, or vice versa. How we compromise depends on which traits we value most highly, and it might also depend on whether we have desirable traits of our own with which to bargain.

One way to work out what people value most in a partner is to have them to play a simple game. Ask them to design the perfect partner. That’s what John Edlund of the Rochester Institute of Technology did in a recent study.

He had 171 students assign a minimum and an ideal level of 22 characteristics they would like to see in a mate. The traits were subdivided into categories, such as family orientation, health, friendliness and attractiveness. At first there were no limits as to how high participants could set their minimum and ideal criteria. But then Edlund had them repeat the task three times, each time with a different sized budget.

Participants had 20, 40 or 60 points to allocate amongst the different traits. To design a partner who was as physically attractive as the top 10% of the population, participants had to allocate 10 points to that trait, and the same for the remaining traits, so even with a large budget it wasn’t possible to design a perfect partner in the top 10% for all traits. Finally, participants completed a questionnaire that tapped how attractive they thought themselves to be. Those who received a high score thought they were a catch, and those with a low score considered themselves to be nearer the bottom of the heap.

The results showed that people who thought they were more attractive tended to specify higher minimum and ideal criteria, even in the unbudgeted task when they could theoretically have set their preferences as high as they wanted.

There were some predictable differences between men and women. Men wanted partners who were more physically attractive, for example, while women valued yearly income more highly. When given a small budget, men allocated a greater proportion of their points to friendliness than when they had a larger budget, which implies that friendliness is a necessity for men, rather than a luxury.

There was also a moderately reliable effect of a person’s own attractiveness on how many points they allocated to physical attractiveness in their ideal partner. Men who thought they were a catch spent more on physical appearance than did men who thought they were personally less attractive. This was especially true in the smaller budget conditions, which suggests attractiveness is a necessity for attractive men, but not for unattractive men, who are content to trade it off against other desirable traits.

Similarly, women who thought they were more attractive tended to design a mate with a higher yearly income, presumably because they felt that their own mate-value gave them greater buying power when it came to snagging a rich partner.

To sum up, attractive people tend to want a partner who has attractive traits, but the type of traits a person values most depends on how attractive they are themselves.

Edlund, J. E., & Sagarin, B. J. (2010). Mate value and mate preferences: An investigation into decisions made with and without constraints. Personality and Individual Differences, 49(8), 835–839. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the September & October 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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