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August 04, 2005

Hot or Not?


Although looks in mating still matter much more to men than to women, the     importance of appearance appears to be rising on both sides of the gender     divide. In a fascinating cross-generational study of mating preferences,     every 10 years different groups of men and women were asked to rank 18     characteristics they might want enhanced in a mate. The importance of good     looks rose “dramatically” for both men and women from 1939 to     1989, the period of the study, according to David M. Buss, an evolutionary     psychologist at the University of Texas. On a scale of 1 to 3, the     importance men gave to good looks rose from 1.50 to 2.11. But for women,     the importance of good looks in men rose from 0.94 to 1.67. In other words,     women in 1989 considered a man’s looks even more important than men     considered women’s looks 50 years earlier. Since the 1930s, Buss     writes, “physical appearance has gone up in importance for men and     women about equally, corresponding with the rise in television, fashion     magazines, advertising, and other media depictions of attractive     models.”

It'd be a fascinating sociological project to gether thousands of old wedding pictures and go through them to see if couples have become more or less matched in attractiveness levels as time's gone on and the social emphasis on attractiveness has increased.  Did folks in the 40's naturally sort by beauty despite not believing it was something they cared much about, or did the attractiveness correlation between partners lessen in times when other attributes were considered more important?  My question, I guess, is are we seeing a society freer to articulate what's really important, shallow as it may be, or have we really undergone a shift in the last 70 years?

August 4, 2005 in Life | Permalink


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» Looking good from The Ethical Werewolf
Women are far more financially independent now than they were back then, and they don't have to care as much about whether their man makes a lot of money. So they're able to focus less on earning potential and more on things like physical attractiven... [Read More]

Tracked on Aug 4, 2005 4:00:57 PM


But to paraphrase Albert Brooks in Defending Your Life: I try to find someone precisely as attractive as I am. Any excess can bring nothing but trouble.

Posted by: Chris R | Aug 4, 2005 3:48:26 PM

I wonder how much this increase relates to a general increase in standard of living? Beauty in one's mate is a luxery item, as we have become wealthier as a whole we are better able to afford such luxeries.

Just speculation...

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 4, 2005 3:55:24 PM


Not just a luxury item, but an uxory luxury (yikes, that's bad).

Posted by: TJ | Aug 4, 2005 4:01:42 PM

Ha-hah! Love those nearly unanswerable questions....

Let's expand the unanwerable questions a bit. If looking hot is really more important (as opposed to being just more candid), then when the hotness fades, as it does, inevitably, do the neglected other compatibility factors at the time of marriage become a more important over time and become the source for the huge increase in divorce, and multiple marriages - with perhaps different criteria after the first marriage?

If the evolutionary biologists are right, and they seem to have a lot of evidence, reproductory fitness is the key factor in pairing. Is 'hotness' at the time of first pairing a general evolutionary fact that extends to humans as well?

And, the female is far more often the selector than the selectee in a wide spectrum of species. But, countering that, the male still makes the approach and sustains it. So mutual hotness makes sense as a selector.

One wouldn't expect that (subliminal) evolutionary drives would change in less than a hundred years. But candor about what's hot surely could.

Since lifetime pairing isn't very extensive in the animal world, maybe homo sapiens still selects on 'hotness' (and is becoming more candid about it), but finds that inadequate for a lifetime pairing, so trial and error selection is becoming more predominant through multiple marriages.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 4, 2005 4:06:12 PM

Somebody should also say something about marital infidelity as part of this discussion, since there are indications that females are becoming more like males (or more candid about it) in out-of-pairing sex and social 'affairs'.

Is hotness the factor that drives infidelity, or just a need for variety? Or is infidelity just another aspect of evolutionary reproductory fitness being expressed?

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Aug 4, 2005 4:13:12 PM

The standard for what is attractive will change over time, and is already relative to other factors such as one's cultural background, ethnic origins, personal experience, etc. A few studies done while I was in grad school back in the 80's seemed to support the idea that the changeover for these standards is happening a bit more rapidly in recent history, probably owing to the fast pace of media and pop culture trends and whatnot. I'd be more interested to see how the subjects were evaluated for this study, this sort of thing is very tough to gauge.

Posted by: sprocket | Aug 4, 2005 4:34:21 PM

There's also the point that what exactly is considered attractive changes from decade to decade. (It wasn't all that long ago that being fat/plump was considered a good sign; it confirmed that you were getting enough food to eat...)

Posted by: Geoduck | Aug 4, 2005 4:36:15 PM

Along the lines of hotness and divorce, I wonder if availibility of divorce makes hotness more desirable? We all know that beauty fades, so focusing on beauty as an attribute for a lifelong mate is somewhat foolish.

If though, you can trade in for a newer model, focusing on beauty makes more sense.

Of course, I have never observed a lot of rationality in mate selection, so this may be over analyzing.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Aug 4, 2005 4:40:33 PM

"interesting" turns out to be The Wilson Quarterly, as picked up by Arts&letters and now posted here. But a good read no matter. Looks have always mattered. Money (power) matters in men; beauty, age in women...it has always been so...we muddied things when we did away with doweries, a useful way to maintgain proper class distinctions.

Posted by: david | Aug 4, 2005 7:04:59 PM

Honestly, a lot of this stuff depends on the ebb and flow of population. Ten years ago, the 18-25 age group was miniscule. Now it's big again. Thus the emphasis on looks, because there's an influx of people who are still pre-monogamous. I have little doubt that's what it is.

Posted by: Amanda | Aug 4, 2005 11:58:29 PM

Amanda, the study compares 1939 to 1989.

I suspect (without any proof) that the spread of television over this period explains a large part of this phenomenon. Since most televised people are hot, it raises one's expectations.

Now, at the same time, we are supposedly riding a wave of obesity (try not to read that literally). So, we are fatter than ever but expecting better looking mates than in the past. Sounds like a recipe for alot of disappointed wankers.

Posted by: quietstorm | Aug 5, 2005 1:34:25 AM

The thin-is-attractive anomaly of the last several decades is running into a fat epidemic. It seems sometimes that selection of the ideal can be attributed to "the grass is greener on the other side of the fence" ability of people to long for what they don't have. Those photos emphasizing facial similarities in couples are interesting (did you see the ones comparing pets and owners ?)

Posted by: opit | Aug 5, 2005 1:42:42 AM

Interesting question. I think first we need to know what exactly women (and men) mean when they talk about the importance of looks. It could be that they are describing qualities that were equally important to their grandparents and greatgrandparents but using different words. For example, good looks could include a nice smile and a nice smile might signal a personality trait that's attractive, but the women of 1940 would have listed the personality trait and women now might just think they're reacting to the looks without consciously making the connections.

Something else going on is that people are waiting longer to marry. When most people got married in their early 20s it meant that they were pairing off at the time of their maximum attractiveness. A certain degree of good looks could have been a given. Nowdays, with people waiting into their 30s, and even 40s to marry for the first time, when people have started to put on weight and men lose their hair etc., the contrast between your prospective mate and movie stars, magazine models, and your sister's boyfriend might be a lot more apparent and bothersome.

People are getting married at 35 but they are still looking for mates who look 22.

Posted by: Lance Mannion | Aug 6, 2005 10:24:45 AM

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