Men seek youth and beauty, while women focus on wealth and status — evolutionary psychologists have long claimed that these general preferences in human mating are universal and based on biology. But new research suggests that they may in fact be malleable: as men and women achieve financial equality, in terms of earning power and economic freedom, these mate-seeking preferences by gender tend to wane.
The idea behind the evolutionary theory is simple: biologically, sperm are cheap — men make 1,500 sperm per second on average. In contrast, eggs are expensive; typically, women release just one egg a month and each baby girl is born with her full lifetime’s supply of egg cells. (Yes, this means that the egg from which you sprang was formed inside your maternal grandmother.) What’s more, pregnancy costs a woman nine months, while the initial male contribution to parenthood generally requires no more than a few minutes.
As a result, evolutionary theorists argue, women will be far more selective than men about their sexual partners, and they will tend to seek those with the most resources to invest in their children. Men, on the other hand, can afford to be less choosy. They’ll care far less about a woman’s ability to provide and far more about her basic signs of fertility, such as her youth and the symmetry of her facial features — a characteristic associated with beauty and good health.
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But while these mate-seeking preferences may have made sense when humans first evolved — and subsequently shaped our unconscious desires — the world has changed since our species dwelled in caves. And so, researchers at the University of York in the U.K. wanted to know whether factors that characterize modern-day society, such as women’s increased earning power and status, made a difference.
In a study published in Psychological Science, researchers looked at two large samples of people who were surveyed about the qualities they most wanted in a mate: one survey was conducted in the late 1980s and included 8,953 people from 37 different cultures; the second survey was more current, administered to 3,177 people from 10 nations via the Internet.
Noting prior research finding that women who expect to be employed full-time on their own put less emphasis on a man’s “provider” qualities, the authors write: “As the positioning of men and women in societal roles changes, gender differences in mate choice criteria should change because people look for mates who fit into their anticipated future lives under prevalent societal circumstances.”
To figure out if that’s true, the researchers ranked nations according to a new measure of gender equity introduced by the World Economic Forum in 2006. Within various societies, they looked for relationships between the gender gap and how much of a difference there was between male and female mate preferences. And indeed, the researchers found, the greater the equality of power between the genders, the more similar were the traits that both men and women sought in potential mates. In Finland, the country with the greatest gender parity among the 10 countries included in the more current of the two surveys, there was a far smaller difference between male and female preferences than in Turkey, which had the biggest gender gap.
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That means, basically, that the more equal men and women became, the less emphasis men placed on youth and beauty, and the less emphasis women put on wealth and power. These findings were borne out by the 37-culture survey as well; although it showed a definite gender difference in mate-seeking preferences, it also showed that these gender-based differences narrowed in countries with more equality. Further, it found that the top few most desired traits were shared by both men and women: most people first look for intelligence, kindness and sense of humor, even before men mention beauty or women mention wealth and status.
Other supposedly biologically based gender-based differences — such as gaps in math performance between men and women — have also been found to recede in gender-equal societies, suggesting that the role of culture in these variations has been underestimated.
In case you’re wondering, America ranks 17th in the world in gender equity. The top four most gender-equal nations are all in Scandinavia, and the bottom of the ranking is dominated by Middle Eastern and African countries.
However, the authors note that even the most egalitarian countries in the world are equally as far from perfect equality as they are from the level of inequality seen in the countries that score worst on this measure. The authors conclude: “As long as gender inequality prevails even in ‘egalitarian’ nations, an erosion of gender differentiation in mating preferences cannot be expected.”
(MORE: The Math Gender Gap: Nurture Trumps Nature)
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer at TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.