"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Cupid’s arrow: research aims to illuminate laws of attraction

Feb. 8, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Notre Dame
and World Science staff

We’ve heard the clichés: “It was love at first sight,” “it’s in­ner beau­ty that truly mat­ters,” and “op­posites at­tract.”

But what’s really at work in se­lect­ing a ro­man­tic or sex­u­al part­ner?

So­ci­ol­o­gist Eliz­a­beth Mc­Clin­tock of the Uni­vers­ity of Notre Dame in In­di­ana stud­ies how phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness, age and in­come af­fect mate se­lec­tion and rela­t­ion­ships. Her re­search aims to of­fer new in­sights in­to why and when Cu­pid’s ar­row strikes.

In one of her stud­ies, pub­lished in the jour­nal Bio­de­mog­ra­phy and So­cial Bi­ol­o­gy, Mc­Clin­tock ex­am­ines the ef­fects of phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness on young adults’ sex­u­al and ro­man­tic out­comes.

“Cou­ple forma­t­ion is of­ten con­cep­tu­al­ized as a com­pet­i­tive, two-sid­ed match­ing pro­cess in which in­di­vid­u­als im­plic­itly trade their as­sets for those of a mate, try­ing to find the most de­sir­a­ble part­ner and most re­ward­ing rela­t­ion­ship that they can get giv­en their own as­sets,” Mc­Clin­tock said. 

“This mar­ket met­a­phor has pri­marily been ap­plied to mar­riage mar­kets and fo­cused on the ex­change of in­come or sta­tus for oth­er de­sired re­sources such as phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness, but it is easily ex­tend­ed to ex­plain part­ner se­lec­tion in the young adult pre­mar­i­tal dat­ing mar­ket.”

Mc­Clin­tock’s study indicates that just as good looks may be ex­changed for sta­tus and money, at­trac­tive­ness may al­so be traded for con­trol over the de­gree of com­mit­ment and pro­gres­sion of sex­u­al ac­ti­vity.

Among her find­ings:

  • Very phys­ic­ally attrac­tive wom­en are more likely to form ex­clu­sive rela­t­ion­ships than to form purely sex­u­al rela­t­ion­ships; they are al­so less likely to have sex­u­al in­ter­course with­in the first week of meet­ing a part­ner. Pre­sum­a­bly, this dif­fer­ence arises be­cause more phys­ic­ally attrac­tive wom­en use their great­er pow­er in the part­ner mar­ket to con­trol out­comes with­in their rela­t­ion­ships.

  • For wom­en, the num­ber of sex­u­al part­ners de­creases with in­creas­ing phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness, where­as for men, the num­ber of sex­u­al part­ners in­creases with in­creas­ing phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness.

  • For wom­en, the num­ber of re­ported sex­u­al part­ners is tied to weight: Thin­ner wom­en re­port few­er part­ners. Thin­ness is a di­men­sion of at­trac­tive­ness for wom­en, so is con­sist­ent with the find­ing that more attrac­tive wom­en re­port few­er sex­u­al part­ners.

Anoth­er of Mc­Clin­tock’s re­cent stud­ies, not yet pub­lished, tests and re­jects the “tro­phy wife” ster­e­o­type that wom­en trade beau­ty for men’s sta­tus. “Ob­vi­ously, this hap­pens some­times,” she said, point­ing to Don­ald Trump and Mela­nia Knauss-Trump as an ex­am­ple.

But “the vast ma­jor­ity of cou­ples se­lect part­ners who are si­m­i­lar to them­selves in both sta­tus and in at­trac­tive­ness.”

Ac­cord­ing to Mc­Clin­tock, pri­or re­search in this ar­ea has ig­nored two im­por­tant fac­tors. “First, peo­ple with high­er sta­tus are, on av­er­age, rat­ed more phys­ic­ally attrac­tive — per­haps be­cause they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to af­ford brac­es and nice clothes and trips to the der­ma­tol­o­gists, etc.,” she said.

“Sec­ondly, the strongest force by far in part­ner se­lec­tion is si­m­i­lar­ity — in educa­t­ion, race, re­li­gion and phys­i­cal at­trac­tive­ness.”

* * *

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We’ve heard the clichés: “It was love at first sight,” “It’s inner beauty that truly matters,” and “Opposites attract.” But what’s really at work in selecting a romantic or sexual partner? Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana studies how physical attractiveness, age and income affect mate selection and relationships. Her research aims to offer new insights into why and when Cupid’s arrow strikes. In one of her studies, “Handsome Wants as Handsome Does,” published in the journal Biodemography and Social Biology, McClintock examines the effects of physical attractiveness on young adults’ sexual and romantic outcomes (number of partners, relationship status, timing of sexual intercourse), revealing the gender differences in preferences. “Couple formation is often conceptualized as a competitive, two-sided matching process in which individuals implicitly trade their assets for those of a mate, trying to find the most desirable partner and most rewarding relationship that they can get given their own assets,” McClintock said. “This market metaphor has primarily been applied to marriage markets and focused on the exchange of income or status for other desired resources such as physical attractiveness, but it is easily extended to explain partner selection in the young adult premarital dating market as well.” McClintock’s study shows that just as good looks may be exchanged for status and financial resources, attractiveness may also be traded for control over the degree of commitment and progression of sexual activity. Among her findings: Very physically attractive women are more likely to form exclusive relationships than to form purely sexual relationships; they are also less likely to have sexual intercourse within the first week of meeting a partner. Presumably, this difference arises because more physically attractive women use their greater power in the partner market to control outcomes within their relationships. For women, the number of sexual partners decreases with increasing physical attractiveness, whereas for men, the number of sexual partners increases with increasing physical attractiveness. For women, the number of reported sexual partners is tied to weight: Thinner women report fewer partners. Thinness is a dimension of attractiveness for women, so is consistent with the finding that more attractive women report fewer sexual partners. Another of McClintock’s recent studies, not yet published, titled “Desirability, Matching, and the Illusion of Exchange in Partner Selection,” tests and rejects the “trophy wife” stereotype that women trade beauty for men’s status. “Obviously, this happens sometimes,” she said, pointing to Donald Trump and Melania Knauss-Trump as an example. “But prior research has suggested that it often occurs in everyday partner selection among ‘normal’ people … noting that the woman’s beauty and the man’s status (education, income) are positively correlated, that is, they tend to increase and decrease together.” According to McClintock, prior research in this area has ignored two important factors: “First, people with higher status are, on average, rated more physically attractive — perhaps because they are less likely to be overweight and more likely to afford braces and nice clothes and trips to the dermatologist, etc.,” she said. “Secondly, the strongest force by far in partner selection is similarity — in education, race, religion and physical attractiveness.” After taking these two factors into account, McClintock’s research shows that there is not, in fact, a general tendency for women to trade beauty for money. “Indeed, I find little evidence of exchange, but I find very strong evidence of matching,” she said. “With some exceptions, the vast majority of couples select partners who are similar to themselves in both status and in attractiveness.”