Nice guys, it turns out, don’t finish last - at least not where romance is concerned.
In the never-ending search for what women really want, researchers at Texas A&M; University have found that, when women select men, niceness appears to count for more than the macho traits that evolutionary psychologists group under the term “dominance.”
“Nice guys finish first,” psychologist Bill Graziano said, and it only figures. “In the ancestral environment, what did it matter if a powerful male could be the premier hunter-gatherer if he wasn’t willing to share?”
Graziano and graduate student Lauri Jensen-Campbell are part of a new push in behavioral psychology to explain better how human beings pair off.
Most of the work in recent years has found that attractiveness, once thought to vary from one race and culture to the next, has a surprising universality.
For instance, men from all parts of the world agree in general on the essence of a pretty face. A computer composite of a female face is judged more appealing the more symmetrical it is - or, interestingly, the more faces that are blended to form it, thereby ironing out imbalance and imperfection.
Asian, black and white men showed the same inclinations. It is strong evidence that the game of love is rooted in evolutionary history.
One of the more controversial tenets of this new evolutionary psychology has been the tendency of women worldwide to prefer strong, healthy, aggressive, competitive, high-status, successful men. It suggests that women share responsibility, in an evolutionary sense, for the macho traits that feminists denounce.
But the study by Graziano and JensenCampbell, published in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has forced some of the leading researchers in the field to rethink their ranking of women’s priorities.
The study asked 115 female volunteers to evaluate the appeal of two men who, unbeknownst to the women, were scripted, coached and made up to exemplify either dominant or passive traits. After watching videotapes that showed these men acting in either selfish or altruistic ways, the women were asked to rate their feelings about them.
The results showed that while dominance was an important part of what makes a man attractive to women, it was not as important as such characteristics as altruism and a pleasant personality.
These findings have reordered some of the priorities described by University of Michigan psychologist David Buss in his 1994 book “The Evolution of Desire.” In 1989, Buss conducted a landmark international study that found that women in every one of the 37 cultures examined placed a higher value than men on a potential mate’s financial status or prospects.
Evolutionary psychologists like Buss use the word “dominance” to summarize those male traits likely to lead to resources and status. In his book, Buss notes that women’s judgment in mate selection is exceedingly complex and weighs many factors, including kindness, love and commitment. But dominance, he says, carries the most weight.
The theory goes like this: In the age-old struggle to pass on genes, men profit by impregnating as many women as possible. Women, on the other hand, have more complex, long-term needs. They must bear and nurture a child to adulthood in order to pass their inheritance to the next generation.
Buss’ finding seemed to confirm that women have evolved with preferences for dominant men, those with social status or the promise of obtaining it, the better to provide a secure environment for child rearing.
Understanding human behavior in such Darwinian terms is gaining ground in academia after nearly a half-century of behaviorism, which says human beings are primarily shaped by life experience.
The influential writings of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead in the 1920s and ‘30s argued that sexual politics - long considered universal - in fact varied widely from culture to culture. Mead claimed to have found a society of strict sexual equality in Samoa, where such “Western” male-dominant failings as sexual jealousy, competition and status hierarchies were absent.
Most of Mead’s observations have since been disproved by more careful field work, but her writings powerfully influenced Western thought. In the years since, cultural determinism has viewed Darwinian theory as an elaborate scheme to justify male supremacy and chauvinism.
In that light, modern Darwinists, who cite dominance as the male trait of primary importance in mate selection, have encountered entrenched resistance - much of it from feminists. It conjures up “Me Tarzan, you Jane” images and implies that traditional sex roles are inevitable, opponents say.
Buss said the essence of male attractiveness has always depended on a mix of dominant traits (including intelligence, size, strength, status and good health) and such things as a man’s compatibility and willingness to commit.
Still, he said, “dominance does remain a key factor. Of course, it depends on how you define it.”
In the traditional definition, dominant men are those whose physical and mental skills are clearly displayed and whose strength and social ease not only help them to get what they want but also prompt others to let them have their way.
In ape societies, dominance is established by size and aggressiveness. In human social groups, status is signified in a wide variety of ways that may differ from one society to the next, but the qualities of daring, strength and intelligence that accord respect and social standing are universal - and, the theory holds, the essence of male attractiveness.
“Men strive to control resources and to exclude other men from resources to fulfill women’s mating preferences,” Buss wrote in “The Evolution of Desire.” “In human evolutionary history, men who failed to accumulate resources failed to attract mates. Men’s larger bodies and more powerful status drives are due, at least in part, to the preferences that women have expressed over the past few million years.”
Graziano and Jensen-Campbell have no quarrel with the general thrust of this theory, but they balk at the stress placed on dominance.
“I was skeptical,” Jensen-Campbell said.
On the basis of her own experience and observations, she felt that such factors as kindness and agreeableness played more important roles.
She also noted that though women are the choosier sex, and therefore play the most important role in deciding who mates, there have been far more studies of what men look for in women than vice versa.
“I wanted to put the dominance notion to the test,” she said.
“We’re real sympathetic to evolutionary approaches here, but with reservations,” Graziano said. “We’re willing to go out on a limb, but we’re not ready to jump off the tree.”
In the study they designed, one student posed as “highdominant.” He pulled his chair close to the interviewer and assumed a confident, relaxed posture, legs crossed, leaning slightly back in the chair. He spoke loudly, clearly and fluidly.
The “low-dominant” student pushed his chair away from the interviewer and slouched forward, his head bowed. He spoke softly, slowly and hesitantly.
In each videotaped interview, the man was given a choice of two films to watch, one a popular, newly released comedy, the other a tedious old film about insect-control problems in the cotton industry.
In one of the videotapes, the “highdominant” male was shown quickly volunteering to watch the comedy, leaving the less desirable task for a woman who had not yet arrived. In the other, he was shown generously volunteering to view the boring film, leaving the treat for the woman. The same two scenarios were prepared for the “low-dominant man.”
“We were careful not to simply equate dominant with being a jerk,” Graziano said. “The differences were clear but not outrageous. As far as possible, we stuck to some of the classical studies of nonverbal cues, and we gave the more dominant role a more confident manner of speaking.”
To place physical attractiveness in the mix, they deliberately blurred the videotapes so that the men’s features were unclear. They then had make-up artists either enhance or detract from the men’s appearances.
“Altruistic men were rated as more physically attractive, more sexually attractive, more socially desirable and more desirable as a date, relative to nonaltruistic men,” JensenCampbell and Graziano wrote.
Buss has been persuaded. He said last week that his own findings supported Graziano’s and Jensen-Campbell’s.
“I didn’t stress kindness as much as I should have in the book,” he said. “In fact, my own studies show that women all over the world rate it right at the top.”
Michael Cunningham, a researcher at the University of Louisville whose studies of facial attractiveness have made an important contribution to the field, said he believed the new studies were helping refine our understanding of human mating.
“What it says to me,” he said, “is women may be attracted to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but when Arnold doesn’t smile, they don’t like him as much. I’ve been looking at honesty as a valued feature and finding some of the same results. What’s important is the mix. And dominance is just a part of it.”
xxxx STRONG OR KIND? The study asked 115 female volunteers to evaluate the appeal of two men who exemplified either dominant or passive traits.