Even if a guy has a great personality, a woman looking for a date still hopes he’s at least a little cute, a new study suggests.
Researchers asked young women (ages 15 to 29) to choose potential dates from a series of photographs and descriptions, while the women’s mothers (ages 37 to 61) were asked to select possible boyfriends for their daughters using the same information. Results showed that a man’s looks influenced both groups of women more strongly than his personality profile. This held true even if a man’s profile was filled with highly desirable personal qualities, such as being respectful, honest and trustworthy.
Both daughters and mothers rated the attractive and moderately attractive men as more desirable dating partners than unattractive men, said the findings, published online in March in the journal Evolutionary Psychological Science.
The study suggests that women value physical attractiveness in a potential mate far more than they say they do, said study author Madeleine Fugère, a professor of social psychology at Eastern Connecticut State University in Willimantic.
Previous research on this subject has given conflicting results. Some studies have suggested that both parents and their adult children (especially daughters) may say that personality is more important than looks in a potential mate, with these individuals typically ranking physical attractiveness lower on a list of personality characteristics. However, in real life, that’s not how people seem to make these romantic decisions, Fugère told Live Science. For example, data from speed-dating research shows that a man’s physical attractiveness has a strong impact on women’s mate preferences, Fugère said.
So, this new study attempted to put the looks-versus-personality decision to the test in women.
Minimum level of attractiveness
In the new study, researchers looked at 80 daughters and 61 mothers. In one experiment, each woman was shown color photographs of three men. One of these men was considered “attractive”; one was considered moderately attractive,” and one was “unattractive,” as determined based on data from previous research.
Each photograph came with one of three trait profiles, which included personality characteristics and attributes that prior studies had determined to be one of three different levels of attractiveness to women looking for potential romantic partners. These were “highly desirable,” “desirable” and the lowest-rated category, which the researchers called “moderately desirable.”
The profile of the highly desirable traits contained three qualities: respectful, trustworthy and honest. The traits for desireable were friendly, dependable and mature, while the moderately desirable traits described the man as having a pleasing disposition and being ambitious and intelligent.
After looking at the three photographs and personality profiles, the women were asked to rate how attractive they found each man, how favorable they thought his personal description was and how desirable he was as a date (or, for the moms, how desirable he was as a date for their daughters).
The results showed that as long as a man was considered attractive or moderately attractive, both mothers and daughters would pick the guy who had the most desirable personality traits. But when an unattractive male was paired with the most highly desirable personality profile, neither daughters nor mothers rated him as favorably as a potential romantic partner, compared with better-looking men with less desirable personalities.
Both young women looking for men and mothers seeking boyfriends for their daughters consider a minimum level of attractiveness to be an important criterion in a potential mate, the researchers concluded.
Looks matter to women
The study suggests that if a man is considered at least moderately attractive, then his personality matters to women, Fugère said. If a man is viewed as less than moderately attractive, it doesn’t seem to matter as much to women what his personality is like, Fugère explained.
But Fugère also added that “different people have different perceptions of what they consider to be moderately attractive.”
In addition, the findings demonstrated that “a moderate level of attractiveness is a necessity to young women and to their moms, and they are not willing to give that up in favor of personality,” Fugère said.
She explained that physical attractiveness appears to act as a gatekeeper for potential mates. If a man meets a required level of physical attractiveness, then women are willing to consider his personality characteristics, the study revealed.
However, the new findings, combined with previous research in which women have reported that personality is more important to them, suggest that women tend to underestimate the true importance they place on a man’s physical attractiveness, Fugère said.
This is not true of men, she said. Men are more consciously aware — or more willing to admit — that good looks in a woman are more important to them than personality, Fugère said. Men’s emphasis on looks in a mate choice may have a biological basis, because men may associate a woman’s physical attractiveness with her fertility, Fugère said.
In the next stages of her research, Fugère will do a similar experiment with fathers and sons as participants (and using women’s photos) to see if this study produces similar findings, she said. She will also conduct another trial with mothers and daughters and include both positive and negative personality characteristics in the personality profiles of potential mates, because her current findings included only positive attributes, she said.