New research on women’s mate preferences reveals intriguing insights into how health, risk-taking, and relationship contexts influence their choices in potential partners. The study, published in Evolutionary Psychological Science, suggests that women’s attraction to risk-takers is influenced by their own health and the general health of their societies, shedding light on the complexities of human mate selection.
Risk-taking is often associated with masculinity, and prior research has indicated that women tend to be more attracted to men who engage in risky behaviors. However, this new study aimed to provide a deeper understanding of the dynamics at play, exploring the influence of individual and societal health on women’s preferences for risk-taking partners.
“Risk taking is a ubiquitous human behavior and it is most prevalent among young men. Using an evolutionary perspective, it has been argued that men take risks to advertise their (genetic) quality to women (similar to the Peacock’s elaborate tail display). We wanted to uncover if women prefer risk-taking men over their more careful counterparts and what environmental factors influence preferences for risk takers,” said study author Cyril C. Grueter, an associate professor at The University of Western Australia.
“Risk-taking is often associated with young males, and we were interested in why this behavioral association exists. Additionally, we wanted to know which ecological factors drive the attraction certain females have to risk-taking males,” explained co-author Hannah Goodman.
The study involved surveying a diverse group of individuals from 47 different countries. A total of 1,304 participants, comprising both heterosexual and bisexual females aged 18 to 40, were recruited for the study. This participant group allowed the researchers to explore a wide range of perspectives and experiences.
The research questionnaire was designed to gather essential information from participants, including their country of residence, age, relationship status, sexual orientation, household income, and self-reported health status. Additionally, participants were presented with a vignette describing a male engaged in risk-seeking activities, such as rock climbing and outdoor adventures. They were then asked to rate how attractive they found this male as both a short-term and long-term mate on a 5-point scale, ranging from “very unattractive” to “very attractive.”
Heterosexual women who reported better individual health were more attracted to high risk-taking males, particularly in the context of short-term relationships. Interestingly, the influence of individual health on mate preferences was moderated by country-level life expectancy. Heterosexual women from countries with lower life expectancy found high risk-taking males more attractive as short-term mates.
“Women in healthier countries may have greater control over whether they become pregnant in a short-term relationship – through contraceptives and abortion – and therefore can afford to choose a risk-prone male partner,” Grueter told PsyPost.
“The security provided by access to health care and having good personal health may allow women to capitalize on the genetic quality offered by risk-taking males, whilst buffering the negative effects of reduced paternal investment characteristic of short-term relationships,” Goodman added. “Alternatively, females in healthier countries may have greater control over whether they become pregnant or not in a short-term relationship – through access to contraceptives and abortion – and can therefore afford to choose a risk-prone partner.”
Surprisingly, variables related to development, wealth, income, and inequality showed no significant influence on women’s preferences for risk-takers. Despite previous research suggesting a potential link between these factors and mate preferences, the current study did not find substantial evidence to support these associations. The risk of contracting COVID-19 also did not significantly influence preferences for risk-takers.
The study also revealed that bisexual women exhibited a greater likelihood of preferring male risk-takers as both short-term and long-term mates compared to heterosexual women. This indicates that sexual orientation may play a role in shaping mate preferences and suggests a more open-minded approach to partner selection among bisexual individuals. “We speculate that this is because bisexual women may have less conservative perceptions about relationships,” Grueter said.
“This wasn’t a major focus of the paper but an interesting finding that deserves more attention in future research,” Goodman told PsyPost.
Participants’ self-reported enjoyment of physical risk-taking activities was a robust predictor of their attractiveness ratings for high risk-takers. This suggests that individuals who themselves enjoy risky activities may be more inclined to find risk-prone partners attractive, both in the short-term and long-term contexts.
“We showed that ‘adrenaline junkies’ were more attracted to risk-takers than were risk-avoiders,” Grueter explained. “This is an example of homophily whereby the pairing of similar-minded couples may bring greater relationship satisfaction.”
While this study provides valuable insights into the complex interplay of individual health, societal conditions, and sexual orientation in mate preferences, there are some limitations to consider. One limitation is the reliance on self-reported health ratings, which can vary culturally.
Future studies might benefit from using more standardized measures of health. Additionally, the study focused on stated preferences, which may not always align with actual mate choices. Future research could also explore how risk-taking behavior relates to other aspects of attractiveness, such as physical appearance and personality traits.
“One assumption of our study was that male risk taking represents a quality signalling device,” Grueter said. “While this is supported by some indirect evidence, future studies could attempt to generate more direct evidence for a functional link between male physical risk taking and quality indicators such as strength and immunocompetence.”
“Whilst our sample was globally diverse, many of our participants were from ‘WEIRD’ (Western, Educated, Industrial, Rich, Democratic) societies,” Goodman noted. “This could be addressed in future research by using an alternative method of collecting data that is more globally accessible (we used Amazon Mechanical Turk). Additionally, our study used a series of vignettes to describe male risk-takers but did not consider the masculinity of these males, a factor that has the potential to affect mate preferences. Adding a visual component to the vignettes by associating photos of males with varying masculinity may assist in determining whether masculinity influences the attractiveness of risky behaviors.”
The study, “Preference for Male Risk Takers Varies with Relationship Context and Health Status but not COVID Risk“, was authored by Cyril C. Grueter, Hannah Goodman, Nicolas Fay, Bradley Walker, and David Coall.