How do Mating Preferences and Selectivity respond to changing Economic Conditions and Gender Ratios?

How do Mating Preferences and Selectivity respond to changing Economic Conditions and Gender Ratios?

by Aditya Gandhi

How do we know if we have found the right one, the one with whom we would like to share the fairy tale “happily ever after”? Is the right person supposed to be hot and smart, or is there something more to it? These questions prompt inquiry into why people are attracted to each other i.e. what are people’s mating preferences, and how selective people can be when making mating choices under certain conditions. Mating preferences and selectivity have become even more complex over time due to changing economic conditions and gender ratios. Evolutionary psychologists and rational choice theorists attempt to explain mating preferences and selectivity in times of economic flux and changing gender ratios using two very different approaches. Evolutionary psychologists argue that people’s mating preferences have been hardwired over time, and women being the more reproductively invested sex are more selective when choosing mates, always. However, rational choice theorists suggest that mate selectivity depends on the number of men and women in a given place at a particular time. While these theories can explain mating preferences in times such as the Gold Rush and maybe even the late 20th century, these theories can not explain mating preferences and selectivity in today’s world, due to changing lifestyles, economic conditions, gender ratios and technological advancements that provide people with an ever growing pool of potential mates to choose from.

Evolutionary Psychologists such as Kanazawa and Miller argue that humans have an innate nature, such that human behaviour is motivated chiefly by our evolved minds. Simply, our brains have evolved to like certain things and behave accordingly. This can be substantiated by the ‘one-week-old-baby experiment’ in which babies with no nurture (exposure to society) whatsoever chose to pay attention to mobiles if they were boys and make-up objects if they were girls. These observations conformed with the so called expectations of society: boys are more techy and girls are more into fashion. Evolutionary psychologists argue that these differences in gender expectations have resulted from differences in social and physical pressures that each sex had to face in primeval times, due to which each sex developed sex-specific evolved mechanisms, shaping their respective likes, dislikes and expectations.


Using this ‘evolutionary logic’, evolutionary psychologists suggest that our mating preferences –– the expectations in terms of characteristics that each sex has from its mating partner –– have been hardwired into our brains over time through evolution. As part of an experiment, women were asked to smell t-shirts belonging to certain men, and not surprisingly, women were attracted to the scents of men with different immune genes from their own, such that they could produce offsprings with “greater protection against viruses, parasites and other pathogens”. This experiment shows that there exist evolutionary mechanisms that subconsciously allow humans to identify which mate would be a good reproductive match to ensure the survival of their offsprings.

In terms of physical characteristics, evolutionary psychologists believe that men’s expectations from their mating partners are motivated largely by their interest to impregnate and have children. Men prefer younger women with fair skin, symmetric faces, thin waists and wide hips (low waist-to-hip ratio) because these characteristics indicate adequate estrogen levels to successfully give birth to a child; men do not necessarily care about the social status of their partner. Similarly, women’s expectations are motivated by reproductive considerations given that they prefer men with clear, unblemished skin, symmetric faces broad shoulders and narrower hips, all of which indicate sufficient testosterone levels for fertility (good genes). In a survey, people of different age groups were asked if they would go on a date with the people shown in the images below. A staggering 78% of the male and 72% of female respondents agreed to date the respective women and men in the images. Hames labels such physical characteristics –– symmetry, waist-to-hip ratio and skin color –– that were common amongst the men and women in the pictures as universal attraction traits that serve visually appealing and reproductive purposes.

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When it comes to assortative traits such as income, education, domestic care etc., women, unlike men, prefer older mates and care about financial stability, education and status in society so that their mates have enough resources to provide for their offspring. This appears to be why wives on average are three years younger than their husbands. Also, women, unlike men, have a limit on how many children they can have and a time limit on when they can bear children.

“The largest number of children that a man has ever had is at least 1,042; this record is held by the last Sharifian emperor of Morocco, Moulay Ismail the Bloodthirsty. In sharp contrast, the largest number of children a woman has ever had is 69; the record is held by the wife of an 18th-century Russian peasant, Feodor Vassilyev (Young, 1994, p. 10).”

Due to this, women are more strongly motivated to ensure that their offsprings have the required physical traits and resources necessary to survive. Moreover, women also have higher obligatory parental investment, since they have to bear the child in their womb for nine months. It is for the abovementioned reasons that women have to be more cautious when selecting mates, for if a mistake is made by having a child with the wrong mate, the consequences are costlier for women as they lose a greater proportion of their lifetime reproductive potential than men do. Based on a study, Clark and Hatfield found that if approached by an attractive stranger of the opposite sex, 75% of men immediately agree to have sex with the stranger, while none of the women do, suggesting that women are naturally more selective when it comes mate selection.

Adopting this line of reasoning, evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that women’s greater mate selectivity is impervious to the conditions such as operational sex ratios (number of men per woman). In other words, evolutionary psychologists argue that women have greater mate selectivity regardless of the number of men and women in a given place at a particular time. Rational choice theorists, on the other hand, adopt a market model, contending that mate selectivity of each gender depends on the supply and demand of men and women in a given place at a given time.  If there are too many women relative to the number of men, then the “supply” of women is high. Their “value” decreases, and as a consequence, women have to lower their standards and become less selective to find a mate. In contrast, the exact opposite happens to men in the same situation. This is best explained visually by David Friedman’s market model for monogamous marriages.


Based on this model, rational choice theory asserts that mate selectivity depends solely on the operational sex ratios, since there are no inefficiencies in the market i.e. no other factor other than the number of men or women in the market affects marriage. Specifically, rational choice theory suggests that women become less selective as the operational sex ratio decreases (more women) and become more selective as the ratio increase (more men).

The theories of evolutionary psychology and rational choice can be put to test by analyzing which of these can successfully explain mating preferences and mate selectivity for periods of economic flux and changing gender ratios, such as the Gold Rush (1848 – 55), Israel Emigrations (1970 – 2000) and the Tech Boom (2003 – Present).

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The California Gold Rush was a time period from 1848 to 1855 when gold seekers travelled over land and sea to attain the shiny metal. This period saw mass migration to California from within the US and foreign lands, especially China. What makes the Gold Rush a good subject to study and test the mating preference theories is the fact that 92% of the people involved in the Gold Rush were men and only 2% of the immigrants were women. The table below shows the operational sex ratios of available men per available woman for different age groups.

Sex Ratios - Gold rush.pngLooking at the operational sex ratios, there are on average two and a half single men per single woman in California during the Gold Rush. Rational choice theorists would thus argue that women were greatly more selective than men. This is evidenced by the high divorce rate in California at the time. Historian Carey McWilliams wrote that the divorce rate in California was highest in the world during the Gold Rush. This was accompanied by rise in the number of marriages during the Gold Rush, a popular topic in Levy’s book, They Saw the Elephant. All in all, this shows that women were more selective than men due to a higher operational sex ratio, just as the rational choice theorists would argue. The picture below shows men going wild when they saw a woman, visually attesting to what the rational choice theorists would argue.

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As discussed, the primary reason why the rational choice model could hold true is the rising divorce rate during the gold rush. But were these divorces fuelled simply because there were more men than women? Would the divorce rate still be as high if there were as many men as there were women, if not less? The answer to these questions requires insight into why women were divorcing men. Now, the unusually high frequency of divorce was in part due to the permissive divorce laws. A newspaper in California at the time reported that “Divorce has become of so easy attainment nowadays that men take wives with as much sang froid as they purchase a horse, knowing that if they become dissatisfied their bargain can as easily be unmade again.” Moreover, historian Carey McWilliams said that, “divorces were looked upon with favor and easily granted.” The ease of getting divorced sparked the evolutionary mechanisms in women to move on to richer, educated men with a high social status, which were abundantly available in the Gold Rush. As Levy said, “California gold seduced thousands of women.”giphy1.gif

It appears that money and status were the primary criteria of marriage for women. Abigael Tuck, a recently divorced school teacher married John Marsh, a rich educated gold rush pioneer. Her intent to marry John Marsh was made clear in a letter where she wrote that she married John Marsh because he was educated, had a cattle ranch worth half a million dollars and even had a mansion built for her as evidence of his esteem. Marriage was clearly a monetary institution for women to advance in the society. Women even went so far as to post marriage advertisements in newspapers, explicitly laying out their terms for potential husbands. A woman named Dorothy Scraggs posted the following advertisement in 1850:

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It is evident from the terms laid out in the advertisement above that women were marrying men during the Gold Rush because of their money and status. Women, not men, were the real gold diggers of the Gold Rush. Given the financial motivations behind why women were divorcing and marrying complemented by the ease with which they could get divorced, suggest that the demand and supply of men and women did not contribute to the skyrocketing divorce rate during the Gold Rush. The divorce rate would have been as high, regardless of the operational sex ratios during the Gold Rush. This is in line with the evolutionary psychology perspective, which asserts that women look for financial conditions, education and social status in their mates. Thus, mating preferences and mate selectivity are explained better by the evolutionary psychology in the case of the Gold Rush.

One could argue, however, that the Gold Rush was an anomaly as there was a large proportion of men gaining wealth at an increasing rate, which counteracted the effect of high operational sex ratio, and thus the evolutionary psychology theory might not explain mating preferences under normal conditions where there exists only a high or low operational sex ratio. The marriage conditions in Israel in 2000 serve as a good case study to evaluate if either of the theories can be used to explain mating preferences.

Israel, until 1970, had an operational sex ratio that was close to parity i.e. number of available men was approximately equal to the number of available women. In the 1970s, however, people, mostly men, started emigrating due to sociopolitical conditions in the country. Ever since, the operational sex ratio has only plummeted, so much so that in 2000 there were less than two available men for every three single women, resulting in what is called a marriage squeeze. These conditions make a good baseline to test both theories. Perez and Cohen, anthropologists teaching at Tel Aviv universities further examined these conditions. They analyzed data from a large commercial dating service in Tel Aviv that caters to men and women who are looking at long-term relationships, not just casual sex. While subscribing to this service, each new member had to fill out a survey with regard to 51 separate traits.

For each trait, a member answered three separate questions: 1) how important the trait is in a potential long-term mate (on a 5-point scale from 1 = does not matter at all, to 5 = very important); 2) what level of the trait is required in a mate (on a 5-point scale from 1 = lowest, to 5 = highest); and 3) what level of the trait the member believes she has (on the same 5-point scale).

They collected a sample of 3000 people with a sample operational sex ratio of 0.8, and compared men and women on the way they ranked traits. The results are depicted in the table below.

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Given the lower operational sex ratio, one would expect that women in Israel would be less selective; however, the results indicate otherwise. Women listed almost four times as many important traits than men did. Also, a majority of the traits that men considered more important are physical in nature, while women give more importance to socio-economic and personality traits. Despite the marriage squeeze, women in Israel appear to be more selective in their mate choice than their male counterparts, consistent again with the evolutionary psychology perspective.

Evolutionary psychology theory seems to be capable of explaining mate selectivity under normal conditions, but does it still hold true in today’s world where our lifestyle has changed dramatically and we are surrounded by technological wonders? Ansari in his book, Modern Romance, discusses how women in the late 1900s needed permission from their parents even if they wanted to get out their houses, let alone go socializing with people. Women were crippled by their parents and were restricted to their houses or their neighbourhoods. Moreover, women were often outright discouraged to work. Thus, most women at the time would get married straight after high school or college, and that too with people in the same neighbourhood if not the same building just to gain freedom from their parents, as Ansari finds out in his interviews with retirement home couples.

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Due to globalisation, the world economy grew exponentially, resulting in higher employment opportunities for both men and women. As women started occupying roles higher up in the corporate ladder –– Sheryl Sandberg was appointed as the COO of Facebook and Indra Nooyi took the helm of PepsiCo –– women were encouraged to look for jobs. The working woman image was no longer tainted. Thus, instead of staying in the neighbourhood, people, especially women, moved to new cities, spent time meeting new people in colleges or in workplaces, as seen by the rise in the marriage age (image above). This new stage of life in which people widened their mental horizons through further education, tried out different jobs, and with luck found the right person is what Ansari calls emerging adulthood. This phase of emerging adulthood has allowed people, especially women, to become more educated and financially independent, as seen by the figures below.

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Besides social lifestyle changes, globalisation also brought forth rapid advancement in technology. The online dating segment gained a major boost, with over 11% of the American adults using dating apps or websites in 2010. This expansion of the online dating industry gave people an almost infinite number of potential partners to choose from, making it even more difficult for women to choose from. Barry Schwartz describes this phenomenon as the paradox of choice, wherein it becomes more difficult to choose when there are more choices by making people more selective in their preferences. The same principle applies to dating. As the choices of potential mates have increased, people have become more selective in their mating preferences. This is further shown by the rise in the marriage age Ansari discusses the case of person who sought out dates using The unnamed man, whom we shall call x, was a white man with an average build, stable salary and decent educational qualifications and he was matched with a woman who was physically very attractive as per the evolutionary criteria of fair skin, blonde, thin waist and wide hips. Evolutionary psychologists would argue that x should have been falling head over heels for that woman, however, x refused to date her because she was not a Red Sox fan. This clearly shows that human preferences have transcended mere physical characteristics and entered the realm of personal hobbies and shared interests, disputing what the evolutionary psychology theory asserts. Thus, evolutionary psychology fails to explain mating preferences in today’s world.

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Since evolutionary psychology does not appear to explain mating preferences in today’s world, does rational choice theory stand up to the task? A good case to test this would be the dating scene in Silicon Valley right now. There is an apparent shortage of women in the workplaces, as seen in the figure above, and this is represented of the shortage of women. The operational sex ratio in places like Mountain View and San Jose is somewhere around 1.75 i.e. for every four single women there are seven single men. This is better seen in the ‘Bay Area Singles Map’ below.

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Given these statistics, rational choice theorists would argue that women would certainly be more selective than men, but the real world conditions suggest otherwise. A company called Dating Ring flew women from New York to San Francisco to date the “tech bros” of Silicon Valley. The reason why these women were flown in from New York is because there is a man shortage in New York and given the shortage of women in San Francisco, the company assumed that these dates would certainly work out owing to the difference in operating ratios of the two places. However, none of the dates worked out according to both parties.  It did simply “not click”, said some of the people in the experiment. Why – for reasons as arbitrary as not liking the color of the dress or not sharing an interest in Basketball; this is similar to the case of person x who did not go on a date with the physically attractive young woman he matched with because she was not a Red Sox fan.  Even rational choice theory seems incapable of explaining the mating preferences and selectivity in today’s world.

Neither the evolutionary psychology nor the rational choice models successfully explain mating preferences and selectivity in today’s world. It seems that our mating preferences have only now truly evolved by transcending traditional traits like physical appearance and financial status, as a result to changing lifestyles, economic conditions, gender ratios and rapid technological growth that have provided us with an almost infinite number of mating choices. The way forward now appears to be more advanced tech. With advancements in machine learning, social media platforms like Facebook have a good idea of our interests and hobbies (as we have seen with the targeted advertisements on our Facebook profiles), and online dating platforms like Tinder and should take advantage of this by making better predictions based on our likes, dislikes and interests rather than providing us with an infinite number of random partner recommendations.




One thought on “How do Mating Preferences and Selectivity respond to changing Economic Conditions and Gender Ratios?

  1. I really like the Israel example and how you have connected all three examples under the umbrella theme of economic growth and sex ratios.


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