Hookup or commitment? Study finds relationship intentions influence women’s memory of men

After a woman meets a man for the first time, what does she remember most about him? That was the question posed in research conducted by psychologists at the University of Michigan — and the answer depends on whether the woman is looking for a hookup or a long-term relationship.

The study, published online in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in June, found women remembered more about a man’s physical features when considering him as short-term partner. But women remembered more about a man’s verbal statements — his description of himself — when considering him as a long-term partner.

The research suggests that reproductive goals and intentions influence people’s memory.

“Our findings are in line with theorizing about the role of evolutionary processes — specifically mating strategy — on women’s preferences for specific cues to a man’s potential mate value,” Terrence Horgan and his colleagues wrote in their study. “Women may ideally prefer, as partners, men who are both physically attractive/masculine (i.e., good genes) and have high status/resources (e.g., his stated occupation and ambition). Yet the relative importance of each cue (good genes and status) appears to change somewhat depending on environmental threats and the type of relationship women are seeking with men.”

In the study of 125 undergraduate women, half of the participants were asked to evaluate a man as a one-night stand while the other half were asked to evaluate him as a committed relationship partner. Then, the participants watched a video of the man introducing himself.

The man in the video — who was 28 years old, white, tall (6’4″), and average in build — was judged to be average in attractiveness by a different group of study participants. During his introduction, he spoke directly to the camera and explained his personal likes, interests, traits, exercise habits, education, and career aspirations. He also shared some information about his personal background and family.

After watching the video, the women in the study were given a surprise memory test that examined how much they could recall about the man’s physical features and verbal statements.

The researchers found that the women who were asked to evaluate the man as a committed partner had better memory for what the he had said. The women who were asked to evaluate a man as a one-night, on the other hand, had better memory for what the man’s physical features looked like.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to demonstrate that the hypothesized trade-offs in women’s preferences for cues to a man’s mate value are reflected in women’s memory for a man,” the researchers wrote. “Women showed superior memory for a man’s physical features than for his verbal statements when they were thinking about him as a short-term partner, which is consistent with the notion of preferential (albeit nonconsciously driven) attention on their part to physical-based indicators of his genetic health.”