The power of love is an enduring mystery, but recent research has led to heated debate over whether wealth is a root cause of attraction.
A major study earlier this year on the link between wealth and attraction appeared to settle the question unequivocally. The results confirmed perhaps unflattering stereotypes about both men and women: “Women really DO fancy rich men more” announced one newspaper with apparent glee.
The research published in the prestigious journal Evolution and Human Behaviour, showed that: “A man can move himself two points higher on the attractiveness scale we used if his salary increases by a factor of 10,” author John Speakman told The Times newspaper. “For a female to achieve the same two-point effect, her salary would need to increase by 10,000 times.”
Academics reached this conclusion after asking men and women to rate pictures of the opposite sex based on attractiveness. Income was then added to the images, and participants asked to rank them again. Women rated men with greater income as more attractive, with researchers concluding that women are significantly more sensitive to income information when considering a partner compared than men.
Separate studies found men pictured with a Silver Bentley were perceived as significantly more attractive than those pictured with a Red Ford Fiesta
The study argues the results are driven by the different sexes’ evolutionary mating strategies, the so-called Parental investment hypotheses. This hypothesis suggests males tend to be drawn in by beauty and youth which, evolutionarily speaking, signals health and fertility.
However, females are more sensitive to resources that can be invested on themselves and their offspring. This is because they are vulnerable during pregnancy and in the early stages of nurturing.
These claims tally with a much broader corpus of scientific work which found high-status men were considered more attractive by women. For example, Separate studies found men pictured with a Silver Bentley were perceived as significantly more attractive than those pictured with a Red Ford Fiesta. Another rated men as more attractive if they were pictured in luxury flats. Clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson explained the phenomena as: “Men tend to mate across and down dominance hierarchies” while “women prefer men who are 4-5 years older than them and they marry across and up dominance hierarchies”.
Complimentary research showed how men were especially sensitive to their social status when they had mating on the mind, suggesting they were men were consciously or unconsciously aware of women’s preferences. To attract the opposite sex they spent more on luxury goods and donated more money to charity if they knew they were in the presence of an attractive woman.
Sexual strategies did differ significantly depending on the pursuit of short or long-term relationships. For a short-term relationship women tended to prefer a comely partner, but in a long-term relationship, they might be willing to trade-off that comeliness for resources and commitment. On the other hand, men might prefer a sexually open partner in a short-term relationship, but to ensure paternal certainty they will seek out a faithful partner instead.
Taken together such research confirms a stereotypical and arguably unattractive side to human nature: men seeking out youth and beauty in partners, and women seeking out wealth and security.
But critics aren’t convinced that biology can so easily explain individual behaviour, noting that such claims place a heavy emphasis on average preferences and ignore social context. “The biggest problems with identifying reproductive patterns in human behaviour is the high degree of variability within and across populations,” says Harry Schlinger, of California State University. “Human behaviours are much more variable within social contexts, historically in societies, and across cultures.”
Sociologist Elizabeth McClintock goes further, arguing that relationships, where women exchange their beauty in return for wealth, are very rare and don’t last. Rather she argues the dominant force in mating is matching, and that economically successful women partner with economically successful men, and physically attractive women partner with physically attractive men.
Her studies concluded that women weren’t really out for men with more wealth than themselves, nor were men looking for women who outshine them in beauty. Rather, both males and females really are looking for compatibility and companionship.
Rather than seeking out wealthy men, women were drawn to people from similar backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, politics, and religion
This is in part because desirability was found to be more critical early in a relationship and once a man passes the first screen of physical attractiveness, a woman is likely to pay more attention to personality characteristics, intelligence, and general suitability.
Indeed rather than seeking out wealthy men, women were drawn to people from similar backgrounds in terms of ethnicity, politics, and religion. Researchers also found that married couples were remarkably similar in about every measurable trait, from intelligence to relative height for gender.
What’s more, age also matters a lot. For men and women aged 18-25, qualities like being good looking, having a slender body, and having a successful career were more essential than any other age bracket. But older people, whether male or female, had weaker preferences across the board and traits shifted to things such as shared values, financial responsibility, and companionship.
Taken together, this suggests that while higher economic status can offset lower physical attractiveness in men much more easily than in women, it cannot make up for character flaws in the longer term.
But the debate about the role of wealth and attraction is not yet over by a long shot. The situation is more complicated than even the data suggests because there is an increasing division in academic circles.
The conflict is most heated between those who believe gender is underwritten by biological and evolutionary factors, such as Peterson, and sociologists such as McClintock who believe gender is a “social construct’.
This division has become bitterly divisive. With one side claiming that unflattering views of female sexual preferences are driven more by sexism that science, while the other claims that the data speaks for itself and the views of male preferences are no less flattering.
Increasingly, such views have become part of the wider cultural wars now rampant in North America, arguably dependent more on political outlook than scientific fact. But whatever your outlook we can but hope that, in the end, love will conquer all.