Using data from 1.8 million online-daters from 24 countries, a study published in Human Nature, has found that “resource-acquisition ability” or “competency” (as indicated by levels of education and income), increases levels of romantic interest received. Resource-acquisition ability improved the romantic attention received by men by almost 2.5 times that of women, a sex difference that was found in each country studied. However, even highly competent men received less attention than women with low levels of competency, reflecting an attraction inequality between the sexes.
Although both sexes consistently value certain characteristics such as kindness and intelligence in a mate, a robust sex-difference in the mate-preference literature is that women value socioeconomic status in mates more than men do. Using a 45-country sample (N = 14,399), Walter et al. (2020) found that cross-culturally, women (compared to men) prefer mates with financial prospects, while men prefer attractive, younger mates, signaling cues of fertility. Females are also attracted to males with behavioral traits indicative of ‘’potential’’ resource-acquisition ability, such as ambition. If males become unemployed or lazy, females are more likely to end the relationship.
Researchers Peter Jonason (University of Padova) and Andrew Thomas (Swansea University) wanted to investigate how our evolved psychological mating mechanisms operate in online-environments, which are an evolutionarily novel and ubiquitous feature of modern dating. Upwards of 40% of US couples now report to have met online.
The researchers were given access to the huge dataset by the dating website Spark Networks Services. They then created a measure of how much attention each profile received, e.g., messages, likes, and winks, and called these “Indicators Of Interest,” (IOI). The measure of “competence” was comprised of the person’s income and level of education. Thomas highlighted that a depressing initial finding of the study revealed extreme inequality on the mating market, i.e., most users had few IOIs—often nothing at all, while others attracted hundreds of messages. The study also revealed stark sex differences, e.g., for a person of average competency i.e., some college education and earning approximately £30k a year, men received approximately eight IOIs, while women received more than three times this amount with 26.
Given the premium that women place on socioeconomic status when selecting a mate, we should expect that higher levels of competency would enhance the appeal of men’s profiles more than women. This is indeed what the research found. High competency men (Master’s degree-level earning around £76k) received almost 90% more IOIs on average compared to around 40% for women.
Why the sex difference?
Human females are typically more sexually selective than males due to greater obligatory parental investment in offspring. Although human males invest more heavily in offspring than most mammals, they do so far less than human females. Sex is a much riskier endeavor for females due to internal fertilization and gestation. In contrast, the absolute-minimum obligatory investment in offspring for men is the completion of just one successful sex act.
These are some of the biggest biological sex differences in our species, so we have evolved psychological mechanisms attending to those differences, e.g., greater male desire for short-term sex, and greater female sexual selectiveness, which is particularly true for short term mating. Short term mating is a sexual strategy generally favored more by men, who will often relax their standards for short term sexual opportunities. In contrast, women maintain or even increase their standards for short term mating.
All of this results in an online dating environment where females are inundated with attention, and as such, use these markers of competency as fast information about who to pay attention to.
The study does not analyze whether this greater online interest translates to offline success. However, other recent research analyzing which factors best explain the variance in human reproduction and mating found that in men, income has by far the strongest effect. Both sets of findings are in line with evolutionary assumptions, predicting that women should prefer men of higher social status for the sake of their offspring and themselves.
The research, “Being More Educated and Earning More Increases Romantic Interest: Data from 1.8 M Online Daters from 24 Nations“, was authored by Peter K. Jonason and Andrew G. Thomas.