Women’s fear of crime influences their mate preferences

Women’s mate preferences influenced by their own attractiveness, their relationship status, and the kind of relationship they’re seeking. But there’s also evidence that mate preferences are drive by outside influences, too. In a paper published recently in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, Jeffrey Snyder of UCLA reports on one such outside influence: the dangerousness of the environment.

At first glance, the type of man to whom you find yourself drawn seems to have little to do with your neighbourhood crime statistics, but it’s not as bizarre a notion as all that once we start dig a bit deeper.

The idea goes like this. Women and men probably pair up for a number of different reasons, and one of the things a woman might look for in a partner is the ability to provide protection. Over the course of our evolutionary history, women likely faced recurrent physical intimidation from men because men tend to be larger and stronger than women. By pairing up with a dominant guy, a woman could guard herself against unwanted advances from other men, or from potential thieves.

Of course, bringing a tough guy into the home—or the cave—likely had its own disadvantages. These men may have made good protectors, but perhaps their surfeit of testosterone made them harder to get along with. This is why it might make sense for women to snag themselves a dominant man when the threat of violence is high, but instead go for someone more easy going and reliable when the environment is less threatening.

This was Snyder’s hypothesis, and he tested it by recruiting a sample of over 1000 women over the internet. Women provided their postal codes, which the researchers used to determine local crime statistics. The women then rated how important various characteristics were to their choice of partner, characteristics that included dominance, strength, and fighting ability. Afterwards the women gave an indication of how vulnerable they felt to crime.

As expected, the researchers found that women who felt more vulnerable to crime, and who lived in high crime areas, tended to prefer stronger, more dominant men. We don’t know for sure that this was because they were looking for protectors, but it’s a reasonable assumption.

So if you’re a man who wants a date but can’t fight his way out of a paper bag, the advice is clear: move somewhere with an extremely low incidence of crime. Like the North Pole. Santa Claus knows what he’s doing.

Snyder, J. K., Fessler, D. M. T., Tiokhin, L., Frederick, D. A., Woo Lee, S., & Navarrete, C. D. (2011). Trade-offs in a dangerous world: women’s fear of crime predicts preferences for aggressive and formidable mates. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(2), 127–137. Read summary

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