Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures
David M. Buss
Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1989), 12 : pp 1-14
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Contemporary mate preferences can provide important clues to human reproductive history. Little is known about which characteristics people value in potential mates. Five predictions were made about sex differences in human mate preferences based on evolutionary conceptions of parental investment, sexual selection, human reproductive capacity, and sexual asymmetries regarding certainty of paternity versus maternity. The predictions centered on how each sex valued earning capacity, ambition— industriousness, youth, physical attractiveness, and chastity. Predictions were tested in data from 37 samples drawn from 33 countries located on six continents and five islands (total N = 10,047). For 27 countries, demographic data on actual age at marriage provided a validity check on questionnaire data. Females were found to value cues to resource acquisition in potential mates more highly than males. Characteristics signaling reproductive capacity were valued more by males than by females. These sex differences may reflect different evolutionary selection pressures on human males and females; they provide powerful cross-cultural evidence of current sex differences in reproductive strategies. Discussion focuses on proximate mechanisms underlying mate preferences, consequences for human intrasexual competition, and the limitations of this study.
This is a classic paper in Evolutionary Psychology that examines the validity of several predictions about mate preference across a large number of cultures. The predictions were that men would value youth, physical attractiveness and chastity, while women would value earning capacity and ambition–industriousness. With the exception of chastity, which was found to be highly culturally variable, these predictions were all strongly supported, with the differences almost universally being in the expected direction.
In some countries and for some preferences, the differences were not statistically significant, which reflects both varying sample sizes and lower levels of difference.
However, statistical significance in itself is a “just noticeable difference”. The results support the evolutionary psychology hypotheses, but may or may not be large differences. Results were rated on a scale from 3 (indispensable) to 0 (irrelevant). For example, the result for “good financial prospects” was one of the stronger differences, which males typically ranked about 1 and women about 2. The individual variation was large enough that it would be unremarkable for the preferences to be reversed in any given pairing. A statistical trend is a rigorous stereotype. It almost surely represents something real, but it makes only weak predictions about individuals.