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  • Writer's pictureKirk Hartley

Science and Romance – A Valentine’s Day Special

For Valentine’s Day, no law but some insights on the science of romance drawn from this full text online article by University of Notre Dame Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock. She studies romance as a science, and researches stated preferences against actual actions. In one of her studies, "Handsome Wants as Handsome Does," Ms. McClintock examines the effects of physical attractiveness. Some of her findings follow – see the online article for more.

The bottom line? Good looks matter, even if we deny the importance of good looks.


"Prettiness and the Partner Market

Couple formation is often conceptualized as a competitive, two-sided matching process (Choo and Siow 2006; e.g.: Burdett and Coles 1999; Burdett and Coles 2001). 1 In this market-based model, 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. 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 (for example, see Burdett and Coles 2001; Elder 1969; Stevens, Owens, and Schaefer 1990; Murstein 1972; Coles and Francesconi 2007; Taylor and Glenn 1976), but it is easily extended to explain partner selection in the young adult premarital dating market. 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.

Indeed, prior research suggests that physical attractiveness might impact the distribution of power within relationships. Physically attractive people are perceived and treated more favorably by both strangers and close acquaintances (Langlois et al. 2000; Dion and Berscheid 1972; Mulford, Orbel, Shatto, and Stockard 1998). Physical attractiveness has been shown to matter in marriage markets, and both absolute and relative physical attractiveness continue to matter in established relationships, particularly with respect to men’s interactions with their female partners (McNulty, Neff, and Karney 2008; Taylor and Glenn 1976; Byers and Lewis 1988; Coles and Francesconi 2007; Elder 1969; O’Sullivan 1995; Margolin and White 1987). Given that physical attractiveness influences interactions with strangers and spouses, it likely influences interactions between dating partners.

Gender Differences in the Valuation of Physical Attractiveness

Compared to women, men are generally assumed to place more importance on their partners’ physical attractiveness, and men are thought to value appearance very highly (e.g., Elder 1969; Taylor and Glenn 1976). When asked to rank the traits most important in a potential mate, results generally indicate that men value physical attractiveness more highly than do women (Buss and Barnes 1986; Sprecher, Sullivan, and Hatfield 1994; Townsend and Levy 1990; Furnham 2009; Hansen 1977; Coombs and Kenkel 1966; Kenrick, Sadalla, Groth, and Trost 1990; Fletcher et al. 2004; Sprecher 1989a; Nevid 1984; Howard et al. 1987). However, this gender difference may be disappearing (Buss et al. 2001), and some recent studies of reported partner preferences among adolescents and young adults have found no gender differences (Regan and Joshi 2003; Regan 1998). In addition, many studies indicate that neither men nor women attach much importance to physical attractiveness. For example, in a study asking individuals to rank the importance of 76 traits, none of the measures of appearance made the top ten (Buss and Barnes 1986), and this low ranking of physical attractiveness is consistent with other similar studies (Howard et al. 1987; Furnham 2009; Nevid 1984; Hansen 1977).

In contrast, in experimental studies designed to measure individual’s acted preferences (as opposed to stated preferences), physical attractiveness is highly valued by both genders. For example, when undergraduates were given varying budgets to purchase an assortment of desirable characteristics and “design” a mate, both women and men prioritized physical attractiveness, spending enough to obtain an acceptable level of good looks, and then allocating their remaining funds among secondary characteristics (Li and Kenrick 2006). Similarly, in another experimental study in which undergraduates rated their attraction to stimulus persons, both men and women were more influenced by physical attractiveness than by high earning potential or high expressivity (Sprecher 1989a). Still, when these same undergraduates were asked to rank the importance of these three traits, women valued men’s earning potential and expressiveness over physical attractiveness, implying an inconsistency between their stated preferences and acted preferences. The author suggests that women and men may not be aware of the traits that attract them to a potential partner and instead use culturally provided “implicit causal theories” to explain their attraction responses. It is also plausible that the undervaluation of physical attractiveness in reported preferences is a result of social desirability bias: Respondents may feel that attaching too much importance to appearance is a sign that one is shallow or superficial."

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