Study on women and their moms finds physical attractiveness takes priority over personality

Both women and their mothers expect potential dating partners to meet a minimum level of physical attractiveness regardless of their personality, new research published in Evolutionary Psychological Science suggests.

In the study, 80 women and their mothers were presented with photographs of three men: an attractive man, moderately attractive man, and unattractive man. Each photograph was also paired with one of three personality profiles. The women were asked “how attractive do you find this person” and “how favorably do you rate his personal description.” They were also asked to rate the person as a potential dating partner for themselves or their daughters.

The researchers found that physical attractiveness took priority over the personality traits. Both women and their mothers preferred the attractive and moderately attractive men to the unattractive man. Even when unattractive men possessed the most desirable traits, the woman and their mothers rarely rated them as good dating partners. But while the women preferred the attractive man slightly more than the moderately attractive man, mothers preferred the moderately attractive man to the attractive man as a partner for their daughter.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Madeleine A. Fugère of Eastern Connecticut State University. Read her responses below:

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Fugère: I got interested in the topic of parent/offspring agreement about desired characteristics for a mate for the offspring while researching my book, The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Prior research on this topic has shown that men and women and their parents disagree about the importance of physical attractiveness in a mate for the offspring, with offspring rating attractiveness as more important than parents. Prior research also shows that both parents and offspring report valuing many other characteristics (such as respectfulness and honesty) more than physical attractiveness. We wanted to investigate those preferences experimentally to see if individuals accurately self-report their own preferences.

What should the average person take away from your study?

We experimentally manipulated the physical attractiveness and trait profiles of male targets and examined the effect of those variables on dating desirability to women and their mothers (mothers rated the men as potential partners for their daughters). We found that both women and their mothers preferred the moderately attractive and attractive men, especially when they were paired with the most favorable trait profiles. However, neither women nor their mothers ever chose the unattractive target as the most desirable mate, even when he possessed the most favorable trait profile.

Our findings suggest that we may not accurately detect the traits which are most important to us in a mate (for ourselves or for our offspring). Physical attractiveness more strongly impacts our dating decisions than the traits we say are most important to us in a potential mate. Alternatively, when we say that traits such as respect or honesty are more important than physical attractiveness, we may assume that a potential mate will be at least moderately attractive. If a mate is at least moderately attractive, personality traits seem to have a bigger impact on our mate preferences than physical attractiveness, but if a mate is unattractive, physical attractiveness has a bigger impact on our mate preferences than other traits.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

Yes, we performed this research using three positive trait profiles. In future research we hope to assess whether negative traits or unattractiveness plays a larger role in our dating decisions. Furthermore, we hope to extend this research to men and their parents as well. Finally, this research assesses first impressions based on physical appearance and trait profiles. Other research suggests that physical attractiveness may play a more minor role in relationships beginning after a long-term acquaintance.

The study, “The Importance of Physical Attractiveness to the Mate Choices of Women and Their Mothers“, was also co-authored by Caitlynn Chabot, Kaitlyn Doucette, and Alita J. Cousins. It was published online March 10, 2017.