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Mate choice, mate preference, and biological markets: The relationship between partner choice and health preference is modulated by women’s own attractiveness

Abstract: Although much of the research on human mate preference assumes that mate preference and partner choice will be related to some extent, evidence for correlations between mate preference and mate choice is mixed. Inspired by biological market theories of mate choice, which propose that individuals with greater market value will be better placed to translate their preference into choice, we investigated whether participants’ own attractiveness modulated the relationship between their preference and choice. Multilevel modeling showed that experimentally assessed preferences for healthy-looking other-sex faces predicted third-party ratings of partner’s facial health better among women whose faces were rated as more attractive by third parties. This pattern of results was not seen for men. These results suggest that the relationship between mate preference and mate choice may be more complex than was assumed in previous research, at least among women. Our results also highlight the utility of biological market theories for understanding the links between mate preference and partner choice.

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Alex’s Notes: For the most part (depending on where you live), mate choice for us humans is mutual. Many experimental studies have been conducted in attempts to figure out what we find attractive, but preference for certain characteristics in the laboratory may not necessarily predict choices in real-life. On reason being the constraint of availability of potential partners. According to biological market theories, this constraint is lessened by “high-market-value” (attractive) individuals, who may be better able to translate their preferences into actual choice.

The study at hand tested whether the relationship between participants’ face preferences and mate choices is modulated by their own market value. To do so, the researchers examined the relationship between participants’ preferences for healthy-looking surface characteristics in other-sex faces and the apparent facial health of participants’ current partners. If participants’ own market value modulates this relationship, it will be stronger among facially attractive participants (i.e. individuals with high market value) than among relatively unattractive participants (i.e. individuals with low market value).

Setting up the test

In order to conduct such a test, several loops must be jumped through to prepare. First, 100 full-color images of white males and females averaging 24 years of age were ranked for healthiness by 200 heterosexual men and women of the same average age. The researchers then selected the 15 least healthy men and created a prototype face using the average shape, color, and texture of the choices. They also did this for the 15 healthiest men, 15 least healthy women, and 15 healthiest women.

Next, the researchers randomly selected 10 individual male and 10 individual female faces from the original set of 100 images and manufactured two versions of each of these faces using the prototypes: on version with increased apparent health and one with decreased apparent health.

The test

For the main study, 51 heterosexual partners from a university population that did not partake in the initial tests to set up the study were recruited to participate. All the subjects were white with an average age of 22 years. There were shown the ten pairs of attractive/unattractive faces for the opposite sex and were asked to choose the face in each pair that they thought to be more attractive. For each participant, the percentage of trials on which they chose the healthier face was calculated.

The researchers then took a full-face picture of each of these participants and had them rated for attractiveness by a separate set of 40 heterosexual men and women. This allowed for calculation of each main study participants’ average health and attractiveness.

The outcome

As would be expected, both sexes show a significant preference for healthy faces when assessing other-sex faces for attractiveness. There was no difference between men and women in this regard. However, for males, there was no interaction between their health preference score, their own attractiveness, or their partner’s facial health rating. In other words, the attractiveness of males does not influence their mate preference or choice.

Conversely, the females’ health preference score did interact with their own attractiveness such that the relationship between health preference and partner’s facial health rating was stronger for more attractive women. Thus, more attractive women desire more attractive men and are better able to translate that desire into reality, confirming the biological market theories, at least for women.

Of course this study did not measure other aspects of market value such as wealth or resource-holding potential, personality, body shape or fitness level, and so forth, all of which may have (and likely do have) a moderating effect on mate choice.

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