How important to you are each of the following characteristics when choosing a partner?
Before you fill in the questionnaire, ask yourself this: would your partner – if you have one – give similar or very different answers? If you would like to find out, why not ask them to fill in the questionnaire too (without looking at each other’s answers!)?
Please give each characteristic a rating between 1 – completely unimportant – and 4 – very important.
1. Good sense of humour
2. Ambitious and hard-working
3. Similar taste in music, films, books etc.
4. Good looks
6. Neat and tidy
7. High earning potential
8. Wants children
9. Similar politics and religion
10. Few previous sexual partners
11. Similar attitude to yourself re: smoking and alcohol
Finally, would your idea partner be: (a) the same age as you, (b) older or (c) younger. If (b) or (c), by how many years ……
Although all of the characteristics listed above probably have some influence on people’s choice of partner, for our purposes in this section most were red herrings. We are actually interested in your answers to just five questions
How did your ratings compare? The cliché, of course, is that men choose partners who are younger, good-looking and have had few sexual partners, while women choose older, ambitious high-earners. But is any of this true?
The answer is an emphatic ‘yes’. While psychology studies often show that many of our ‘common-sense’ intuitions are entirely wrong, this is one cliché that is basically true.
When over a thousand Americans were given a questionnaire similar to the one you have just completed, men really did place more importance than women on youthfulness, good looks and chastity, while women placed more importance than men on ambition and earning potential, as well as preferring older partners. (You can find out exactly what counts as ‘good looks’, in the section What’s in a Face?, in the book version of Psy-Q).
I know what you’re thinking: surely there is no culture on earth that places a higher value on physical attractiveness in females and on earning potential in males than America? There must be some cultures in which older women are prized for their wisdom and have their pick of good-looking virgin toyboys?
Nope. Or, at least, if such societies do exist, they were not represented among the thirty-six other cultures that were also included in this survey. In every single group, good looks were rated as more important by men than women, with high earning potential showing the opposite pattern. Sex differences were not quite so apparent with regard to ambition and hard work, but, nevertheless, only three cultures failed to show the predicted pattern: Spain, Colombia and South African Zulu (in the latter case, perhaps because Zulu women traditionally build the family home and perform other strenuous tasks, such as fetching water). The issue of previous sexual partners is complicated by cross-cultural differences. In many of the societies studied, it is considered important for both partners to remain virgins before marriage, often for religious reasons. Nevertheless, in every country where a significant gender difference was observed, virginity of a partner (this questionnaire asked about the importance of the partner having no previous sexual partners) was more important to males than to females.
With regard to age differences, in every country men preferred women younger than themselves, with the biggest preferred age gaps observed in Zambia and Nigeria (six to seven years) and the smallest, by far, in Finland (about five months). In every country, too, women preferred older men, with the biggest preferred gap in Iran (five years) and the smallest in French-speaking Canada (just under two years). On average, men like women who are 2.66 years younger than themselves, while women like men who are 3.42 years older.
So why do men like attractive young virgins, while women like older, ambitious hard-workers? Most people are at least vaguely familiar with the theory of parental investment and sexual selection put forward by the biologist Robert Trivers in the 1970s. The idea is that having a child is very ‘costly’ for females, who must invest not just nine months of their lives but all of the effort, discomfort and missed opportunities that go along with it. If the child does not survive, all of this investment is wasted. So it is very important, from the female’s point of view, to choose a sexual partner who is willing and able to protect, feed and generally provide for the child, in order to ensure its survival. In the modern world, this basically translates into someone ambitious with high earning potential, which usually means someone older.
For men, creating a child involves only a few minutes of effort, usually entirely pleasurable. So, in purely evolutionary terms, if one particular child does not survive, very little investment has been wasted. This means that there is no particular incentive for men to look for women who will be able to protect and provide for their young. A better strategy (again, speaking in purely evolutionary terms) is to mate with a large number of women who are young and fertile. How can men tell who is young and fertile? By looking for youthful traits such as smooth skin, shiny hair, big glossy lips, and so on. So – the theory goes – men find these traits attractive purely because they are indicators of youthfulness and fertility.
But why do men historically value not only youthfulness but also virginity? Well, generally speaking, men’s investment in their children does not end at the point of conception; most invest time and resources in caring for their children after they are born. What is an absolute disaster, in evolutionary terms, is pouring all of this investment into another man’s offspring rather than your own. Before paternity tests came along, the only way for a man to be sure that a child was his own was to mate only with women who were demonstrably virgins.
Now, you might think that all of this was true way back in the days of Fred and Wilma Flintstone but has no relevance to the world of today. If a woman has a good job, why does she need a high-earning man to provide for her children? And if she is using contraception, the merits of the man as a potential father are irrelevant anyway; she may as well just have sex with the best-looking man possible. Similarly, if a man is using contraception, why would he be attracted to women who show signs of fertility?
These objections misunderstand how evolution works. The idea is not that men today deliberately pursue women who are more fertile. Men pursue women whom they find physically attractive. It is just that – thanks to evolution – the women that men happen to find physically attractive are those who look young and fertile.
But are we really such slaves to evolution, unable to overrule our genetic impulses? Are we really still stuck in the caveman era? Well, yes and no. On the one hand, recent surveys of this type show that women place more importance than they used to on physical attractiveness, while men place more importance than they used to on earning power. On the other hand, differences remain. A large internet survey published in 2007 found that men still ranked ‘good looks’ and ‘facial attractiveness’ as more important than did women, while women ranked dependability, honesty and kindness (and also humour) as more important than did men. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Let us end, however, with a heart-warming finding from the same survey. Despite these differences, all groups – men and women, gay and straight – placed intelligence, humour, honesty and kindness among the top six most important traits. Awww!
You can complete more tests of your preferences in a partner, as well as tests of your intelligence, personality, moral values, thinking style, impulsivity, capacity for logical reasoning, susceptibility to visual and mental illusions and musical taste in Ben Ambridge’s forthcoming book: Psy-Q
 Although most of the research discussed here was conducted with heterosexual male and female participants, the study described at the end of this section found that gay and heterosexual men actually give very similar answers (e.g., both tend to rate good looks as relatively important in a partner), as do lesbians and heterosexual women (e.g., both rate good looks as relatively unimportant).
Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 12, 1–14.
Buss, D. M., Shackelford, T. K., Kirkpatrick, L. A., & Larsen, R. J. (2001). A half century of mate preferences: The cultural evolution of values. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63, 491–503.
Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man: 1871–1971 (pp. 136–79). Chicago: Aldine.
Lippa, R. A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(2), 193–208.