Adam didn’t know. Freud didn’t know. Ladykiller movie stars don’t know. Evolutionary psychologists know they don’t know. Honestly, women don’t know either. Why is it so hard for women to describe what they want?
Women vary enormously in their sociosexuality, or attitudes about casual sex. In an era where women control reproduction, the “cost” of casual sex is lower than ever (though still high in many ways). That means women have a menu of different mating strategies available to them.
There is far more difference among women than there is between women and men overall. A woman inclined toward promiscuity and sexual variety is likely to avoid commitment. A woman hoping to meet her life partner will approach sex very differently. (Unless she’s Hooking Up Not So Smart.)
James Taranto, writing in the WSJ, describes the work of Heather Remoff:
In the 1970s, anthropologist Heather Remoff studied the mating habits of American women. She published her findings in “Sexual Choice: A Woman’s Decision” (Dutton, 1984). “What does a woman want?” Freud famously asked. Remoff conducted in-depth interviews with a demographically diverse group of 66 women to come up with an answer.
Remoff looked at 261 male sexual partners (an average of 4 partners per woman) to discern what sparked sexual attraction for the women. Women described 45 different traits, 23 of which were common. But Remoff found two very different sets of criteria for male mating success.
Reproductive Success: Top 8 Traits of the 43 Men who Fathered Children with Subjects
Good income potential
Control of material resources
Male dominant toward female
Good with children
Female’s parents approved
The guys with Reproductive Success traits trigger sexual attraction among women who prefer “dads” over “cads.” A new study demonstrates this rather dramatically:
“A male confederate sat near college-aged women who were alone in public. His “sister” (a female confederate) and her baby then joined him. The male either interacted with the baby by talking, playing, smiling and giving kisses, or ignored the baby. After his sister left, the male struck up a conversation with the female participants, complimented them, and then asked for her digits.”
When the guy was attentive to the baby, 40% of women gave him their phone number – not a bad hit ratio! In contrast, when he didn’t pay attention to the baby, he got the number 12% of the time.
II. We all want a lot of things.
Psychologist Roy Baumeister, writing about Attraction and Rejection, notes that scholars still have not reached consensus on what constitutes attraction. Generally speaking, attraction is described as an attitude that includes “the desire to initiate contact or to establish intimacy with another person.” Many attraction triggers are shared by both sexes, others are of particular importance to women.
Good looks are the #1 predictor of attraction. Research shows that even 3 month old babies will gaze for considerably longer periods at attractive individuals. Women have specific ideals:
Waist Hip Ratio of .9
Broad shoulders with trim waist
Circumstances play a large role. Women are more likely to be attracted to:
A familiar male
Men who self-disclose
Who becomes attracted?
Less attractive people are attracted to more individuals
People inclined toward comparison are attracted to fewer individuals, though this is most common among men:
A study showed that men who had just viewed Playboy centerfolds rated their wife as less attractive and even rated themselves as less in love with her than did men looking at magazines that did not depict beautiful women; these effects did not emerge for women’s evaluations of their husband just after they had viewed Playgirl.
People are most strongly attracted to similar individuals:
Attraction is a linear function of attitudinal similarity: As the proportion of similar to dissimilar attitudes increases, so too does attraction to the target.
The similarity-attraction effect exists not only for attitudinal similarity, but also for demographic similarity, personality similarity, and, remarkably, even similarity in the letters in the perceiver and the target’s names.
Furthermore, similarity effects are not limited to positive characteristics; antisocial individuals tend to be attracted to other antisocial individuals, and depressive individuals tend to be attracted to other depressive individuals.
Both sexes are influenced by social proof, though women experience it more strongly than men:
“Perceivers experience greater attraction to a given target to the degree that members of their social network approve of the relationship although some evidence suggests that the effect of perceivers’ social networks on their relationship with a given target is stronger for female perceivers than for male.
Indeed, female perceivers appear to be more influenced than male perceivers by the opinions of others, even when these others are strangers.”
In societies where a power imbalance between the sexes is smaller, women focus less on earning potential and are less likely to seek a man older than themselves. (In contrast, men focus less on physical attractiveness and youth.)
Buss’ Evolution of Desire
Buss states that women evolved a complex set of attraction cues in order to make the best possible choice:
“Men differ from each other in their holdings and willingness to invest them in a woman. Advantages of being with one man outweighed advantages of being with several men.”
He lists the following key attraction triggers women experience in mating (in no particular order):
Ambition and industriousness
Dependability and stability
Size and strength
Good health (good looks are the key indicator of this)
Ability to demonstrate love and commitment
“Because sex is one of the most valuable reproductive resources women can offer, they have evolved psychological mechanisms that cause them to resist giving it away indiscriminately. Requiring love, sincerity and kindness is a way of securing a commitment of resources commensurate with the value of the resource that women give up to men.
…Given the tremendous costs women incur because of sex, pregnancy and childbirth, it is reasonable for them to require commitment from a man in return. Resources can be directly observed, but commitment cannot be. Gauging it requires looking for cues that signal the likelihood of fidelity in channeling resources. Love is one of the most important cues to commitment.”
The recipe for female attraction is highly complex. Individuals vary the ingredients to suit their personal tastes. Those preferences reflect their genetic makeup, their life experiences, and the environment in which they live.
Women want a whole bunch of stuff in varying degrees. Freud’s question can never be answered with a soundbite. Any attempt to simplify or codify what women find attractive in men necessarily zeroes in on one small subset of women.
Applying any one principle broadly is useless in the sense that a woman who wants a high status and dominant male will likely be less attracted to a high status male who self-discloses. The antisocial woman will be attracted to an antisocial bad boy. The anxious or depressed woman will be drawn to the brooding loner. Etc.
Whether you are male or female, the strategy most likely to increase your pool of attractive options and odds of a successful match is to seek out partners very much like yourself.
What’s your recipe for attraction? What are your must haves? Where are you willing to compromise?