Psychology professor talks human mating strategies

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If it seems like men and women want different things out of a relationship, it’s because they do. In psychology professor David Buss’ recently published fourth edition of “The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating,” he discusses differences in mating strategies and preferences between men and women as shaped by evolutionary pressures. 

This recent edition has been updated to include new studies and research. The findings of the book are based on hundreds of studies analyzing mating behaviors of people from various cultures and age groups.

In a 1990 international study, Buss and other researchers set out to discover the qualities that men and women desire in long-term partners. Buss said the study, which included 37 different cultures, found that both sexes valued the same traits: mutual compatibility, dependable character, kindness, emotional stability, intelligence and similar political and religious views. Beyond that, women were found to place a higher importance on traits such as good job prospects, high social status and slightly older age, that indicate an ability to provide resources. Men valued characteristics that may signal reproductive ability, such as body shape, physical attractiveness, clear skin and slightly younger age.

“Sex differences or gender differences are highly focused in a few narrow domains — the domains in which the sexes have faced different adaptive problems recurrently over human evolutionary history,” Buss said. “These differences stem from fundamental differences in reproductive biology.”

Buss writes about a 50-year study in the United States which found that men valued attractiveness more than women from generation to generation. In his book, Buss said that although the importance of attractiveness has increased for both men and women with the rise of the media, the gap between the sexes has not changed over time. 

A 1999 study by Northwestern University psychology professor Alice Eagly and Wendy Wood, University of Southern California professor of psychology and business, found that, as indexes indicating gender equality increased, men put less weight on women’s youth and home-making skills and women put less weight on men’s older age and economic capacity as factors used to determine long-term partners. 

“In countries where women are closer in economic power to men, like the United States or United Kingdom, you find those differences don’t really hold as true,” said Brian Bishop-Wilkey, alumnus of UT’s graduate human development and family sciences program. “Men and women both like attractive mates, and men and women both like people who have some ability to provide.” 

When it comes to short-term mating, men tended to have lower standards than they would for long-term mates, while women maintained high standards, Buss said. He added that men were found to seek out casual sex more often — for instance, the majority of people who use Tinder are men, with 30 percent of them being married.

Despite men showing more interest in casual sex, similar percentages of men and women have both had at least one hook-up, said Jennifer Shukusky, graduate student in UT’s human development and family sciences program.

“There is evidence … that shows that when you remove the stigma, women are just as interested in casual sex as men are,” Shukusky said. “That means that it’s not an evolutionary drive that is holding women back from hooking up. Rather, it’s a social construct which dictates women’s behavior and preferences.”

Although there are general differences in mating strategies between men and women, Buss said preferences and behaviors differ on the individual level. 

“There are huge individual differences within each sex,” Buss said. “Many women lust after short-term sex just as much as men, and some men would not dream of having sex outside of a long-term relationship. So these ‘on average’ sex differences have to be qualified by the huge within-sex variability.”