Across the world, what do people consider the most important quality in a partner?
The study is thought to be the largest and most diverse of its kind to date. The final sample comprised almost 2,500 participants, from countries including the US, UK, Australia and Norway, as well as Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Participants in the study were given a fixed budget of “mate dollars”, and asked to design their perfect partner by “buying” their preferred levels of desirable attributes.
People could spend “mate dollars” on the following qualities:
- physical attractiveness
- good financial prospects
- the desire to have children
By recording how participants chose to spend their “mate dollars” when so-called ‘money’ was tight, researchers identified the traits which most people considered “necessities.”
In contrast to “necessities”, “luxuries” were attributes that respondents were more likely to splurge on when they were given additional “mate dollars” to spend.
Overall, across countries, both sexes considered kindness the greatest “necessity” when choosing a mate. On average, when their budget was restricted, both men and women spent just under a quarter of their total “mate dollars” on this trait.
The study represents an interesting new development in mate selection research.
However, in the past, relatively little distinction has been made between “necessary” and “luxury” characteristics.
“How people prioritize their various preferences when choosing mates remains an underdeveloped area of psychology,” writes principal researcher Dr. Andrew G. Thomas. Moreover, existing data does not adequately represent diversity, since “studies that examine mate preference prioritization tend to use homogenous samples.”
By using an international sample to examine mate preference trade-offs, Thomas and his team hoped to better illuminate any universal patterns in prioritized traits.
Findings from the study revealed that overall, across countries, both sexes considered kindness the greatest “necessity” when choosing a mate. On average, when their budget was restricted, both men and women spent just under a quarter of their total “mate dollars” on this trait.
The impact of evolutionary psychology on preferred traits
To explain the results of the study, the researchers turned to evolutionary psychology, writing that people tend to favor attributes which “would have been important for successful reproduction in the ancestral past.”
Evolutionary psychology may also explain why, for men, physical attractiveness was the next most important characteristic — comprising 23% of their overall spend. Studies have demonstrated that men use facial attractiveness as a subconscious gauge of fertility.
Moreover, some evidence suggests that offspring produced with a ‘good-looking’ partner are more likely to grow up to be desirable mates themselves. It’s not surprising, therefore, that women in the University of Swansea study also treated physical attractiveness as a “necessity.”
Sex differences in the sample
As well as prioritizing physical attractiveness, women across the international sample spent a significant proportion of their total budget on good financial prospects. While men in the sample regarded this particular trait as more of a “luxury”, for women, it was more of a “necessity.”
In her book Why We Love, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher provides a possible explanation for such a sex difference — once again, rooted in evolutionary psychology. During difficult, stressful periods of pregnancy and childbirth, financially secure men are perceived as more capable providers.
Furthermore, Fisher explains that when humans first began to walk upright (some 3.5 million years ago), mothers ceased to carry babies on their backs, and instead began carrying them in their arms. Their hands were literally full, making it difficult to gather food for themselves. Therefore, in this context, it made sense to have a mate who could provide.
Cultural differences in the sample
As well as sex differences, there were some interesting cultural differences which emerged from the study. For example, compared to their Eastern counterparts, women in Western countries tended to place a greater emphasis on “the desire to have children.”
Thomas says this may be because contraception use is possibly more widespread in certain Western countries. In such environments, starting a family is often a conscious choice — as opposed to a natural consequence of beginning a relationship. This means that those who want to have children must actively seek partners who want the same.
Overall, despite some sex and cultural differences, there were multiple similarities in the way mate preferences were prioritized across the globe.
“Our results suggest the presence of a universal aspect of mate selection,” the researchers write. “…There is a tendency to prioritize traits fundamental to successful reproduction.”