Sexual Selection: How We Choose Our Partners
Darwin's Theory of Sexual Selection
Darwin's theory of sexual selection explains how humans choose a mate in order to pass on their genes and why certain characteristics in men and women are considered more desirable than others. There are two types of sexual selection: intersexual and intrasexual.
- Intrasexual selection - one gender (typically men) must outcompete each other in order to gain access to the opposite gender. The 'winners' who successfully reproduce with the females are able to pass on their genes including useful characteristics such as strength or cunning. This way human reproduction allows characteristics that help with reproduction and survival be inherited by offspring, and unwanted or 'weak' characteristics die out as individuals with them fail to reproduce.
- Intersexual selection - the idea that certain characteristics are more desirable than others. For instance, men are likely to look for young and attractive women as this is a sign of fertility. Women will seek men who can provide resources to ensure they and their offspring are protected.
- Intrasexual competition in females: evidence for sexual selection? | Behavioral Ecology | Oxford Aca
In spite of recent interest in sexual selection in females, debate exists over whether traits that influence female-female competition are sexually selected.
Research into Sexual Selection: Buss (1989)
Buss wished to study what males and females were looking for in a long-term partner. His study included over 10,000 participants from 37 different cultures. Participants rated 18 characteristics (i.e. attractiveness) on importance when finding a partner.
He discovered that women wanted men who could provide financial support and resources and men wanted young and attractive women. Both men and women wanted partners who are smart and kind. These findings support Darwin's theory of sexual selection.
Criticisms of Buss and The Theory of Sexual Selection
A limitation of Buss' study is that it ignores the cultural effects on mate choices. Bernstein argues that women from more patriarchal societies are likely to want men who can provide financial support because women have limited options to earn their own money and are expected to be dependent on a husband. This is supported by research conducted by Kasser and Sharma who analysed 37 cultures and found that women who wanted financial support were mostly from cultures where women's financial and educational opportunities are limited. This could imply that partner choice isn't necessarily an evolutional choice but a societal one.
Another limitation of Buss' study is that it is criticised for lacking validity - this is because what a person says in a questionnaire may not reflect real life. However, Buss combats this criticism using an analysis of real marriages in 29 cultures. He found that men do tend to choose younger women. Some psychologists support Buss, arguing that his study is actually more valid as individuals may be more willing to open up in a questionnaire - especially if they are from cultures where arranged marriages are the norm.
A criticism of evolutionary psychologists is that female preferences for high-status men is not universal. Buller points out that the majority of studies into the theory of sexual selection are conducted on female university students. Such women have high educational aspirations and probably also expect to have successful careers. Perhaps the reason so many of these women want men who can offer financial support is because they want a partner with similar high aspirations in education and career. Buller concludes that this desire for high-status men is not universal, just a common preference in women who also have high aspirations and that there is little to no evidence for a universal desire for high-status men.
Support for The Theory of Sexual Selection
Support for the evolutionary explanation for partner preferences stems from research conducted by Penton-Voak et al who found that women's preference for men changed depending on their menstrual cycle. They found that typically, women choose men with a slightly feminised face for a long-term relationship as their appearance implies they will be good parents and will look after them. However, when women are most fertile, they often prefer more masculinised faces. This is because a masculine face implies that the man has high levels of testosterone (which suppresses the immune system) and is a valuable trait to pass on to offspring. This research shows that although female preferences for mates change, they still seek men who can protect or provide resources useful for themselves and their offspring.
Darwin argued that the inheritance of certain genes can prove to be a reproductive advantage, but not necessarily a survival one. Peacocks have large tails to attract females, the more colourful and large, the more likely they will attract the females (yet large tails can be a survival disadvantage when trying to run away from predators). Darwin argued that humans also have a metaphorical peacock tail. Nettle and Clegg found that British poets had more sexual partners than men from a non-creative profession. This shows that women are attracted to creativity and ingenuity which are valuable characteristics to pass on to offspring.
- Menstrual Cycle and Facial Preferences Reconsidered
- Sex Differences in Mate Preferences: a Replication Study, 20 Years Later | SpringerLink
A replication of Buss' study suggests stable sex differences in long-term mate preferences in line with an evolutionary framework. However, we also found evidence for narrowed sex differences for preferences with regard to ethnicity and education.
Darwin's theory of sexual selection proposes that men must compete against each other in order to successfully reproduce with women to pass on their genes. However, recent research has discovered that women can be equally competitive with each other as men are.
Buss discovered that men seek young and attractive women, whilst women prefer men who can protect and provide.
However, this does not mean that if you are not young, attractive or financially stable you cannot find a partner. A theory does not always reflect or predict real life. There are thousands of influences on partner choice, Darwin's theory of sexual selection is just one of many.
Cardwell, M., Flanagan, C. (2016) Psychology A level The Complete Companion Student Book fourth edition. Published by Oxford University Press, United Kingdom.
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