Social Values: How to Attract a Long-Term Partner

Scientists have investigated the impact on attractiveness of the endorsement of personal vs social values.

I once attended a public lecture at which a psychologist presented a summary of recent discoveries about human physical attraction. At the end of the lecture, an attendee asked a question that I imagine many others were contemplating too: don’t humans choose their romantic partners for other reasons than beauty alone?

I agree that it can often seem that the psychology of attraction is dominated by the study of physical attributes, including face shape, skin texture, breast size, and even ankle symmetry (seriously). This can be dispiriting because physical appearance is difficult to alter without expensive and painful cosmetic surgery or (perhaps even more terrifying) intense physical exercise. And, perhaps because we know it’s wrong to give a job to an applicant, or our vote to a political candidate, because they’re good-looking, many of us share a vague feeling that it’s unfair to judge even potential partners on their physical traits.

But today we’re looking past these skin-deep qualities at the beauty within: is our attractiveness affected by the values we hold?

Values are cognitive representations of our needs. These might include freedom, knowledge, and prestige. Values are different to attitudes, which describe how we feel about other people, objects, institutions, or activities. Values describe what we care for. Psychologists who study how our values impact our lives identify two main types of value: personal values and social values. Those with strong personal values hanker after success, pleasure, and prestige. Those with strong social values are motivated by a desire to belong to a community, to adhere to tradition, and to express affection and obedience. We can each hold personal and social values, but research indicates that most people identify more strongly with one type of value than the other.

Guilherme Lopes, along with his colleagues at Oakland University in Michigan, decided to test whether endorsing personal vs social values would affect a person’s sex appeal.

The psychologists brought over 300 male and female volunteers to their lab. The volunteers, who were attracted to members of the opposite sex, were shown a series of descriptions of an opposite sex person. Two of these persons were described as highly physically attractive; another two as low in physical attractiveness. Two were described as endorsing personal values; the other two were described as endorsing social values.

The description of a person with strong personal values went like this:

Stephanie likes to live for the moment and to satisfy all her desires. She enjoys challenges and unknown situations and is always looking for risky adventures. She needs to have sex frequently to feel sexually satisfied. She tries to be efficient in everything she does and likes to have the power to influence others and to control decisions. She would be delighted if a lot of people admired her. She wants to receive respect for her contributions when she gets older.

And the description of a person with strong social values went like this:

John wants to have a deep and enduring affectionate relationship with someone with whom he can share successes and failures. He likes to feel that he is not alone in the world, to form part of a social group, and to have good neighborly relationships. He respects the traditions of the society he lives in, as well as his parents, superiors, and elders. He tries to follow the social norms and to fulfill his daily duties and obligations.

The volunteers rated the described persons for their attractiveness as a long-term partner on a 7-point scale.

The results of the study showed that persons with high social values were rated more attractive than those with high personal values: around 5 on the scale rather than around 3. But the ratings depended on the sex of the person being rated, and whether they were described as physically attractive.

Of course, physically attractive people were rated more appealing, but physical attractiveness boosted ratings more if it was paired with social rather than personal values.

Endorsement of social values was equally appealing in a man and a woman: around 6 if they were physically attractive, and around 3.5 if they weren’t. No sex differences at all. But a man with high personal values was less attractive than a woman with those same high personal values. A physically attractive woman with high personal values scored over 4 on the scale; an attractive man with high personal values scored less than 3.

Of course, it’s impossible to say whether the volunteers’ preferences were swayed by all aspects of Stephanie and John’s values, or if one or two aspects of their persona were more persuasive. You may have noticed that the person high in social values was described as seeking an “enduring affectionate relationship”. It’s perhaps unsurprising that the person who says they want a long-term relationship would be more appealing as a long-term partner. Likewise, it’s hardly a shocker that a person who values “satisfying all her desires” and who “needs to have sex frequently to feel sexually satisfied” might be considered less of a long-term catch if volunteers perceive these traits to be harbingers of sexual infidelity.

And is it possible that that the descriptions of high personal and social values used in Lopes’ study conflate values with a propensity for instant or delayed gratification? The high value person was described as “[living] for the moment” and “looking for risky adventures”, but I can imagine that a person motivated by personal values of achievement, glory, and prestige might be inclined to work hard to achieve their goals, for example by studying at university or training to excel at sport. A person who wants their personal desires to be gratified immediately is quite likely to be less appealing as a marriage partner than someone who is more patient about fulfilling those same desires.

In their paper, the psychologists suggest that:

future research may benefit from investigating the mediational role of perceived risk of infidelity on the effects of a person’s endorsement of personal and social values on that person’s desirability as a long-term partner,

and that it might be worthwhile to “investigate whether endorsement of certain values is associated with social stereotypes” because:

providing participants with information about a prospective partner’s values may trigger social stereotypes (e.g., “He likes to live for the moment and to satisfy all his desires” may trigger stereotypes of, e.g., bon vivant, which may bias some of the participants’ responses).

Lopes, G. S., Barbaro, N., Sela, Y., Jeffery, A. J., Pham, M. N., Shackelford, T. K., & Zeigler-Hill, V. (2017). Endorsement of social and personal values predicts the desirability of men and women as long-term-partners. Evolutionary Psychology, 15(4). Read paper

The content of this post first appeared in the 13 Feb 2018 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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