Published on 13 February 2019
Can our evolutionary origins predict whether your Valentine’s Day date will break your heart this year?
Dr Helen Driscoll, Principal Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Sunderland, tells us exactly what we should be looking for this February 14.
Imagine you have swiped right on someone on Tinder and have a Valentine’s Day date this week.
You find them physically attractive, yet you know that many Tinder dates don’t work out despite this. What influences whether your date will be a success?
Humans are a sexually reproducing species. In many ways it would be easier to clone ourselves as some species do, but sexual reproduction introduces more variation into the genes of offspring, enabling adaptation and resistance to disease.
However, sexual reproduction requires finding a suitable partner to mate with, and mate quality varies. Dating provides a means of displaying our mate quality to potential partners, and in turn, evaluating their mate quality.
There are a number of characteristics which are typically preferred by men and women in a potential partner and may therefore influence how attractive we find them on a date. This is because, during our evolutionary history, they were reliable indicators of mate quality.
So, what do women want?
Women tend to be sensitive to indicators of good genes in men, because these are passed on to offspring and in turn affect their health and attractiveness.
A number of good genes indicators are signalled by physical attractiveness. Symmetry of the face and body is preferred because it suggests fewer mutations and a good developmental environment.
Muscularity also tends to be attractive in men. It signals strength and, in the ancestral environment, would have indicated an ability to provide and protect.
Masculine features more generally, such as a square jaw, are often attractive, but only when paired with signs of health. This is because masculine features require high levels of testosterone and testosterone is a double-edged sword – it supports masculine features, but it is also an immunosuppressant, which may be one reason men, on average, have shorter lifespans.
Masculine men who are healthy are signalling that they have a strong enough immune system to withstand the harmful effects of testosterone.
However, we know that women don’t always choose the most physically attractive men, particularly as long-term or marriage partners. Instead, women often prioritise indicators of high status and financial prospects.
In the modern world, women don’t need to rely on men for investment, but these ancient preferences still carry some weight. This means that sometimes women will choose man with a high status job who is perhaps older over someone physically attractive.
Ideally women would choose men who are physically attractive as well, but men with all of these features are likely to be in demand and so there are compromises made in mate choice.
What do men want?
Men do not have the constraints of pregnancy and lactation and can reproduce many times.
Psychological research suggests that men on average would prefer to have more sexual partners than women and would be more likely to say yes to a one night stand.
However, we also know that many men don’t prioritise high numbers of partners. Many men form a long-lasting relationship with a single partner. Things which influence this may include a man’s own mate quality (is he able to attract many partners?), whether their partners insist on commitment, and the benefits of long-term relationships.
For men, the competing evolutionary pressures to both provide for offspring and to reproduce many times has resulted in what has been termed a tension between the urge to provide and the urge to philander. So even if an initial date goes well, these tensions can surface later and result in incompatibility between what men and women want from a relationship.
In terms of the kinds of characteristics men prefer in a partner, like women, men have a preference for indicators of good genes, indicated by features of physical attractiveness such as symmetry, clear skin and facial beauty.
Because men can potentially reproduce many times and because fertility varies more in women than men, men are interested in cues to female fertility. This is difficult because ovulation is hidden. Therefore the best proxy to fertility is youth, and this is why men often prefer younger women.
We often hear the cliché that beauty is only skin deep, suggesting that physical attractiveness doesn’t matter and doesn’t tell us anything.
From an evolutionary perspective, this isn’t true. Physical attractiveness does provide information about mate quality.
Female body shape can provide information about health, fertility and mate quality. A curvaceous figure - a slim waist paired with wide hips - is attractive and has been linked to optimal health and fertility.
Findings suggesting that curvaceousness indicates health and fertility and predicts attractiveness were taken by some as suggesting that body weight does not matter. However, later research suggested that whilst curvaceousness matters, body mass index - how fat or thin you are - is a better predictor of attractiveness.
But the relationship is not a simple case of thin is attractive. Increasing body weight is associated with a gradual decline in attractiveness - presumably because it has a gradual impact on health and fertility - but becoming extremely thin can be more detrimental to attractiveness, presumably because when women become extremely thin, they may become completely infertile.
Does this mean that your Valentine’s Day date will only go well if you and your date are conventionally attractive?
The truth is more complex. There are a lot of idiosyncrasies in human mate choice, and a lot of traits which may be attractive, and we have only just begun to study.
For example, sense of humour tends to be attractive, probably because it requires a high level of intelligence.
Sometimes we may like someone because they make us laugh, even if they are not physically attractive. Personality has an impact on mate choice, and we tend to choose people more similar to ourselves; this is associated with relationship satisfaction.
So, a few pieces of advice for a successful Valentine’s date:
•Don’t expect photos on dating apps to be honest – people want to present themselves in the best light possible and the reality may well be different.
•Choose someone you have things in common with. The idea that opposites attract is not supported by research, and relationship quality is typically better for partners who are similar to one another.
•Although it may not be popular to suggest that looks matter, it is true that beauty provides useful information about mate quality.
•Don’t expect to marry James Bond. He may be attractive and a lot of fun, and may make a good short-term mate, but that’s it.