Monday, September 10, 2012

Today's Bowl of Gender Science Granola

It comes from researchers at York University, England.  They decided to have a look at the old evo-psycho saw about men seeking beauty and women being gold-diggers, when it comes to mating.  The popularizing writeup of that research prepares us with a few paragraphs of the usual pseudo-science:

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.
Once again, I must remind you, my sweet readers (was going to type "sweet dreamers") that what meant "wealth" in the imagined nomadic African tribe or family group many thousands of years ago is most likely the same thing as youth and health in a man, just as "beauty" in a woman is youth and health.  Because groups on the go in that world could not amass wealth as such. 
Or put in other terms, to argue that something is based in biology without any actual genetic evidence or the ability to time-travel to whatever the Era and Area of Evolutionary Adaptations might have been is simply speculation, especially if the actual differences in women's and men's ability to acquire wealth in general are not taken into account.

Never mind.  What this new research appears to have found suggests the importance of culture in these mating customs:

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.

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.

So.  It's possible that the ten-nation survey, at least, may have suffered from a self-selection bias if the respondents selected themselves into the study on the net.  But I find it difficult to see in what direction that bias might go.  People who like to respond to studies of that kind tend to hold stronger views on the questions.  Whether those views are of the EP type or not is unclear to me. 

I'd like to draw your attention to the part in the above quote I have bolded.  In fact, the early evo-psycho studies arguing for innately different mating preferences  by gender also found that other aspects of the potential partner mattered more than beauty or money.  Which is nice, given the cartoonish nature of so much being published under that label.