We've heard the clichés: "It was love at first
sight," "It's inner beauty that truly matters," and
"Opposites attract”. But what's really at work in selecting a romantic or
University of Notre Dame Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock
studies the impacts of physical attractiveness and age on mate selection and
the effects of gender and income on relationships. Her research offers new
insights into why and when Cupid's arrow strikes.
In one of her studies, "Handsome Wants as Handsome
Does," published inBiodemography and
Social Biology, McClintock examines the effects of physical attractiveness
on young adults' sexual and romantic outcomes (number of partners, relationship
status, timing of sexual intercourse), revealing the gender differences in
Finding the right mate
"Couple formation is often conceptualised as a
competitive, two-sided matching process in which 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,"
McClintock says. "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, but it is easily extended to
explain partner selection in the young adult premarital dating market as
McClintock's study shows that 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.
Among her findings:
• Very physically attractive women are more likely to form
exclusive relationships than to form purely sexual relationships; they are also
less likely to have sexual intercourse within the first week of meeting a
partner. Presumably, this difference arises because more physically attractive
women use their greater power in the partner market to control outcomes within
• For women, the number of sexual partners decreases with
increasing physical attractiveness, whereas for men, the number of sexual
partners increases with increasing physical attractiveness.
• For women, the number of reported sexual partners is tied
to weight: Thinner women report fewer partners. Thinness is a dimension of attractiveness
for women, so is consistent with the finding that more attractive women report
fewer sexual partners.
Another of McClintock's recent studies (not yet published),
titled "Desirability, Matching, and the Illusion of Exchange in Partner
Selection," tests and rejects the "trophy wife" stereotype that
women trade beauty for men's status.
"Obviously, this happens sometimes," she says,
pointing to Donald Trump and Melania Knauss-Trump as an example.
"But prior research has suggested that it often occurs
in everyday partner selection among 'normal' people … noting that the woman's
beauty and the man's status (education, income) are positively correlated, that
is, they tend to increase and decrease together."
Higher status, more attractive
According to McClintock, prior research in this area has
ignored two important factors:
"First, people with higher status are, on average,
rated more physically attractive — perhaps because they are less likely to be
overweight and more likely to afford braces and nice clothes and trips to the
dermatologist, etc.," she says.
"Secondly, the strongest force by far in partner
selection is similarity — in education, race, religion and physical
After taking these two factors into account, McClintock's
research shows that there is not, in fact, a general tendency for women to
trade beauty for money.
"Indeed, I find little evidence of exchange, but I find
very strong evidence of matching," she says. "With some exceptions,
the vast majority of couples select partners who are similar to themselves in
both status and in attractiveness."