Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Half Century of Mate Preferences: The Cultural Evoltion of Values

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

A Half Century of Mate Preferences: The Cultural Evoltion of Values

Article excerpt

The qualities people believe are important in selecting a marriage partner afford one domain for assessing human values. We examined the cultural evolution of these values over more than half a century. Building on existing data on mate preferences collected in 1939 (N = 628), 1956 (N = 120), 1967 (N = 566), and 1977 (N = 316), we collected data using the same instrument in 1984/ 1985 (N = 1,496) and in 1996 (N = 607) at geographically diverse locations. Several changes in values were documented across the 57-year span. Both sexes increased the importance they attach to physical attractiveness in a mate. Both sexes, but especially men, increased the importance they attach to mates with good financial prospects. Domestic skills in a partner plummeted in importance for men. Mutual attraction and love

climbed in importance for both sexes. The sexes converged in the ordering of the importance of different mate qualities, showing maximum similarity in 1996. Discussion speculates about causes of the cultural evolution of values.

Key Words: cultural evolution, mate preferences, sex differences.

The 20th century has witnessed changes more radical and irretrievable than any previous century in the history of the human species. Cars became commonplace during the first half of the century, and computers became commonplace during the second half. Internet dating, virtual sex, and the specter of AIDS altered the landscape of human mating. Women have entered the work force at levels and scales unprecedented, perhaps changing forever the nature of the work environment. Heightened awareness of sexual harassment, date rape, wife battering, and dozens of more subtle forms of sexism have forced people to reevaluate assumptions about men and women. In the context of these cultural changes, a core question for social psychology is: Have human values-the things we consider to be important-changed and, if so, in what ways? Have we witnessed the cultural evolution of values?

Values in human mating offer one arena within which these questions can be posed, and several considerations suggest that it would be astonishing if mate preferences had remained impervious to cultural changes. One clear example pertains to the widespread use of birth control, and particularly oral contraceptives. Birth control reduces one important risk of sex-unwanted or untimely pregnancy. On this basis alone, we might predict that the importance of chastity in a potential partner might diminish, relative to the importance of other traits. On the other hand, the widespread fear of AIDS, emerging in the mid-to-late 1980s, should have the opposite effect of increasing the relative value people place on a chaste potential partner. Precisely how these conflicting forces affect the cultural evolution of values surrounding chastity is best resolved empirically.

A second change pertains to the influx of women into the work force, with the consequence of greater personal access to economic resources. It has been well documented that women more than men value economic resources in a long-term romantic partner, an apparent universal across cultures (Buss, 1989). According to the "structural powerlessness" hypothesis (Buss & Barnes, 1986), the importance women place on a man's economic resources should diminish as women gain greater personal access to such resources. The value women place on a potential mate's financial prospects, on this hypothesis, occurs because marriage has traditionally been the primary means by which women can secure access to resources. As women's personal access to resources increases as a result of their own labors, according to this hypothesis, the relative importance they attach to a mate's resources should diminish commensurably. Recent research conducted at a single time period with a single sample in the United States failed to support the structural powerlessness hypothesis (Buss, 1994; Wiederman & Allgeier, 1992), but a cross-cultural study, also conducted at a single time period, found some support for the hypothesis (Kasser & Sharma, 1999). …

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