Not so long ago society was abuzz with the discovery that women preferred more feminine features in male partners - think Brad Pitt. Researches found that women associated less masculine features in a man - rounder face and fuller lips - with being a good husband and provider, a good parent, and emotionally supportive.

On the flip side, men with square, chiseled jaws and well-defined brow ridges (a.k.a Marlboro men) were considered to be good choices for flings. Also, women were more likely to link these features with risky and competitive behavior, less parental effort, and a greater likelihood of fighting, challenging bosses and cheating on spouses.

But a more recent study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin reveals that a woman's preference when choosing a long-term partner may be influenced by her own attractiveness. David Buss, psychology researcher at the university, published the findings in "Attractive Women Want it All: Good Genes, Economic Investment, Parenting Proclivities and Emotional Commitment" in the journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Buss and Todd Shackelford, a psychology professor at Florida Atlantic University, found women ideally seek partners who have all the characteristics they desire, but they will also adjust their standards based on their own desirability.

"When reviewing the qualities they desire in romantic partners, women gauge what they can get based on what they got," Buss said. "And women who are considered physically attractive maintain high standards for prospective partners across a variety of characteristics."

The researchers identified four categories of characteristics women seek in a partner:

  • Good genes, such as masculinity, sexiness, physical fitness
  • Financial resources or potential income
  • Good parenting abilities (desire for a home and children)
  • Being a loving and devoted partner

While attractive women expressed higher standards across all four key clusters of traits, there was one significant exception: intelligence. Attractive women did not express a stronger preference than less attractive women for intelligence in a mate.

Also, researchers found the characteristics men looked for in a partner didn't vary based on their own physical attractiveness.

Are Women and Men Confused about They Want in a Partner?

But what men and women say they want from a partner, and how they actually choose a partner may be two different things. A Northwestern University study that used speed dating contradicted the notion that women choose partners for their earning power.

For a month the researchers monitored the romantic lives of the study participants, including their prospects within and outside the speed-dating event. "True to the stereotypes, the initial self-reports of male participants indicated that they cared more than women about a romantic partner's physical attractiveness, and the women in the study stated more than men that earning power was an aphrodisiac," said Paul Eastwick, lead author of the study and graduate student in psychology in the Weinberg School of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern.

In reality women were just as likely to be attracted by physical characteristics as men. They were also equally inspired by earning power or ambition. As Finkel puts it, the romantic dynamics that occurred at the speed-dating event and during the following 30-day period had little to do with the sex-differentiated preferences stated on the questionnaires.

The discrepancy between what people did and said in this dating situation fits with other research that shows that people often do a poor job explaining why they do things, often referring to accepted cultural theories to explain their own behavior.

"If you were to tell me that you prefer physically attractive romantic partners, I would expect to see that you indeed are more attracted to physically attractive partners," said Eastwick. "But our participants didn't pursue their ideal in this way. This leads us to question whether people know what they initially value in a romantic partner."

Study References:

Journal Name: Evolutionary Psychology, Vol. 6(1), 134-146
Study Date: February 2008
Study Name: Attractive Women Want it All: Good Genes, Economic Investment, Parenting Proclivities, and Emotional Commitment
Authors: David M. Buss, Todd K. Shackelford

Journal Name: Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 94(2), 245-264
Study Date: February 2008
Study Name: Sex Differences in Mate Preferences Revisited: Do People Know What They Initially Desire in a Romantic Partner?
Authors: Eastwick, Paul W.; Finkel, Eli J.