Daughters view the physical attractiveness of their spouses as more important than their parents

New research from China indicates that daughters and their parents don’t always see eye-to-eye when it comes to their preferences for potential spouses. The study, published in the British Journal of Psychology, found that parents tend to prefer a high-income but less attractive man for their daughters.

“In evolutionary biology, there is a theory called the ‘parent-offspring conflict theory’: Because parents and offspring are not genetically identical, a conflict between parents and their offspring can arise, for example concerning the choice of a mate,” explained study author Jeanne Bovet of the Institute for Advanced Study in Toulouse, France.

“We wanted to test the predictions derived from this parent-offspring conflict over mate choice theory in a naturalistic context, here a Chinese so-called ‘marriage market’, where parents actively help their adult offspring to find a spouse.”

“Parents with unmarried children gather at public parks on weekends in many cities in China, so we went to one of these gatherings for our study,” Bovet explained.

For the study, the researchers surveyed 589 parents and young adults at the marriage market of Green Lake Park in the city of Kunming. They also interviewed 230 students at a local university. The parents and young adults were presented with hypothetical spouses who varied in their levels of income and physical attractiveness, and were asked which one they preferred.

People seeking a female partner — for themselves or for their sons — valued attractiveness over income.

“We found no evidence of a parent-offspring conflict in the case of a son, meaning that parents showed very similar preferences compared to sons when they had to choose a daughter-in-law/spouse: Both parents and young men have a strong preference for the more physically attractive profile, irrespective of the income of the potential mate,” Bovet said.

“However, we found a different pattern in the case of daughters. In particular, parents seemed to avoid the potential sons-in-law who are both well-off and physically attractive. Young women generally preferred the physically attractive profile but also valued income of the potential mate.”

In other words, daughters viewed the physical attractiveness of a potential spouse as more important than their parents.

But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.

“This is only one experiment which needs to be replicated with other profiles and characteristics, as well as in different settings,” Bovet said.

“Now, we want to understand why parents of daughters seem to avoid wealthy and physically attractive sons-in-law. We think this could reflect an aversion to the risk of divorce, but we need a follow up study to validate this intuition.”

“Our study is innovative because we are using an experimental approach in a naturalistic context,” Bovet added.” Participants had to choose between two profiles of hypothetical mates, representing conditions closer to reality than a survey where participants rate the importance of different spousal characteristics.”

“Our results replicate those of previous studies and open several interesting future directions.”

The study, “Parent–offspring conflict over mate choice: An experimental study in China“, was authored by Jeanne Bovet, Eva Raiber, Weiwei Ren, Charlotte Wang, and Paul Seabright.