In one illustrious study of love (“human sexual selection”) in 1986, psychologists David Buss and Michael Barnes asked people to rank 76 characteristics: What do you value most in a potential mate?
The winner wasn’t beauty, and it wasn’t wealth. Number one was “kind and understanding,” followed by “exciting personality” and then “intelligent.” Men did say they valued appearances more highly than women did, and women said they valued “good earning capacity” more highly than men did—but neither ranked measures of physical attractiveness or socioeconomic status among their top considerations.
People, though, are liars. Experiments that don’t rely on self-reporting regularly show that physical attractiveness is exquisitely, at times incomparably, important to both men and women. Status (however you want to measure it: income, formal education, et cetera) is often not far behind. In real-life dating studies, which get closer to genuine intentions, physical attractiveness and earning potential strongly predict romantic attraction.
While people tend to prefer people similar to themselves in terms of traits like religiousness or thriftiness, when it comes to beauty and income, more is almost always seen as better. On these “consensually-ranked” traits, people seem to aspire to partners who rank more highly than themselves. They don’t want a match so much as a jackpot.
The stereotypical example of that is known in sociology as a “beauty-status exchange”—an attractive person marries a wealthy or otherwise powerful person, and both win. It’s the classic story of an elderly polymath-billionaire who has sustained damning burns to the face who marries a swimsuit model who can’t find Paris on a map but really wants to go there, because it’s romantic.
All you need is money or power, the notion goes, and beautiful lovers present themselves to you for the taking.
When Homer Simpson once came into a 500-pound surfeit of sugar, his id instinct was to turn it into fortune and sexual prosperity. “In America,” he said—half dreaming after a night spent guarding the mound in his backyard—”First you get the sugar, then you get the power, then you get the women.” That’s an homage to Scarface (in the movie the quote was “money” instead of “sugar”), and it’s where both Simpson and Tony Montana went emphatically astray.
University of Notre Dame sociologist Elizabeth McClintock has done exhaustive research on the idea of people exchanging traits. Her work waspublished last month in American Sociological Review, looking at data from 1,507 couples in various stages of relationships, including dating, cohabiting, and married. “Beauty-status exchange accords with the popular conception of romantic partner selection as a competitive market process,” McClintock wrote, “a conception widely accepted in both popular culture and academia.” She referred specifically to the gendered version, “in which an economically successful man partners with a beautiful ‘trophy wife,'” as commonplace.
But McClintock found that outside of ailing tycoons and Donald Trump, in the practical world it basically doesn’t exist. Where it does, it doesn’t last. The dominant force in mating is matching.
What appears to be an exchange of beauty for socioeconomic status is often actually not an exchange, McClintock wrote, but a series of matched virtues. Economically successful women partner with economically successful men, and physically attractive women partner with physically attractive men.
“Sometimes you hear that really nice guys get hot girls,” McClintock told me, “[but] I found that really nice guys get really nice girls. [Being nice] is not really buying you any currency in the attractiveness realm. If the guys are hot, too, then sure, they can get a hot girl.”
Because people of high socioeconomic status are, on average, rated as more physically attractive than people of lower status, many correlations between one partner’s appearance and the other partner’s status are spurious and misconstrued.
“Women spend a lot more time trying to look good than men do,” McClintock said. “That creates a lot of mess in this data. If you don’t take that into account then you actually see there’s a lot of these guys who are partnered with women who are better looking than them, which is just because, on average, women are better looking. Men are partnering ‘up’ in attractiveness. And men earn more than women—we’ve got that 70-percentwage gap—so women marry ‘up’ in income. You’ve got to take these things into account before concluding that women are trading beauty for money.”
The study concludes that women aren’t really out for men with more wealth than themselves, nor are men looking for women who outshine them in beauty. Rather, hearteningly, people really are looking for … compatibility and companionship. Finding those things is driven by matching one’s strengths with a partner who’s similarly endowed, rather than trying to barter kindness for hotness, humor for conscientiousness, cultural savvy for handyman-ship, or graduate degrees for marketable skills.
At least partly because physically attractive individuals are treated preferentially by the world at large, they enjoy improved school performance, greater occupational success, and higher earnings. So these variables can be hard to isolate.
“It would be very hard to separate out class and attractiveness,” McClintock said, “because they’re just so fundamentally linked. I can’t control for that—but I don’t see how anybody could.”
Past research has found that both physical attractiveness and education “help a woman achieve upward mobility through marriage (defined as marrying a man of higher occupational status than her father),” McClintock noted in the journal article, “and help her marry a man of high occupational status, in absolute terms.” But these studies regularly excluded any evaluation of the men’s physical attractiveness, and so didn’t address the simple fact that it might just be two attractive people being attracted to one another, probably in attractive clothes in an attractive place, both perpetually well slept. Any “exchange” was an illusion.
McClintock has also found that the pervasive tendency toward rating higher-status people as more attractive seems to perpetuate itself . “Because of that,” she said, “there’s a bias toward seeing women who are married to high-status men—who are themselves high-status—as being more attractive. It creates this self-affirming circle where we never even stop to ask if we perceive the man as good-looking. We just say she’s good-looking, he’s high status—and she’s good-looking in part because the couple is high-status.”
“Assuming that the importance of beauty and status is gendered may cause researchers to overlook men’s attractiveness and women’s socioeconomic resources,” Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern University, told New York magazine, praising McClintock’s work. In so doing, scientists misidentify matching as exchange.
“Scientists are humans, too,” Finkel claimed, “and we can be inadvertently blinded by beliefs about how the world works. The studies that only looked at men’s (but not women’s) income and only looked at women’s (but not men’s) attractiveness were problematic in that way, as was the peer review process that allowed flawed papers like that to be published.”
“Controlling for both partners’ physical attractiveness may not eliminate the relationship between female beauty and male status,” McClintock wrote, “but it should at least reduce this relationship substantially.”
Even as its pervasiveness in popular culture is waning, the gendered beauty-status exchange model is harmful in several insidious ways, McClintock said. “It trivializes the importance of women’s careers in a social sense: It’s telling women that what matters is your looks, and your other accomplishments and qualities don’t matter on the partner market. The truth is, people are evaluating women for their looks, and they’re evaluating men for their looks. Women are as shallow as men when it comes to appearance, and they should focus on their own accomplishments. If women want an accomplished guy, that’s going to come with being accomplished.”
So this is just one more place where upward mobility is, it seems, a myth. But in this case, no love is lost. Within the gendered beauty-status exchange model, physical attractiveness “might enable class mobility for women,” yes, McClintock wrote, but not without ensuring the women’s economic dependency on her husband and anachronistically ignoring her valuation of his physical attractiveness.
“It also sets up this idea of marriage being mercenary,” McClintock said, “which doesn’t fit with our usual conception that we kind of like our spouse and we want someone that we get along with. It’s not just this trade of his money for her beauty, and he’s going to dump her as soon as she starts to get some wrinkles around her eyes.”
*Article originally published on The Atlantic.
In the land that came up with the phrase “Thank God it’s Friday,” and a restaurant chain to capitalize on the sense of relief many feel as the work week ends, researchers made an unusual finding in 2012.
Moms who worked full time reported significantly better physical and mental health than moms who worked part time, research involving more than 2,500 mothers found. And mothers who worked part time reported better health than moms who didn’t work at all.
Working and juggling family responsibilities can be stressful. But can work, despite its demands, be less stressful than the alternative?
Mothers who worked longer hours had more juggling to do. They had more demands on their time and more stress. How could they possibly be in better physical and mental health?
One answer, of course, is self-selection. Mothers who were in better health to begin with may have chosen to work regularly. Researchers Adrianne Frech andSarah Damaske, who conducted the 2012 study, also found that moms who worked steadily had other advantages. They were more likely to have grown up with two married parents, more likely to have completed high school and more likely to be in a stable relationship before the birth of their first child.
But in new research, Damaske argues that another factor might have been at play. It’s a factor that sociologists such as Arlie Hochschild and psychiatrists such as Sigmund Freud have examined in the past. Hochschild, for one, found that many people find work to be less stressful than their home lives. Work was, in fact, a haven. Freud once said work and love were two wellsprings of emotional satisfaction in life.
In a study of 122 working men and women, Damaske had volunteers collect samples of saliva throughout the day. The samples were later tested to measure the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.
Cortisol levels didn’t spike when the volunteers were at work. They soared when the volunteers were home.
“When we looked at the difference between home and work in terms of their cortisol levels — that biological marker of stress — we found that people’s cortisol levels were significantly lower at work than they were at home,” Damaske said. The results “suggested to us that people — at least biologically speaking — had lower levels of stress … at work,” she said.
Low-income people and those without children were especially likely to report lower levels of the stress hormone when they were at work.
The idea that work might be less stressful than home life for many people is mirrored in a nationwide poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health: Health problems, the death of loved ones and juggling busy family schedules often scored among the top sources of stress in people’s lives.
Damaske said there was an important difference between the kind of stress people experience at home and the kind of stress they experience in the workplace.
“No matter how urgent something is at work, you are not as attached to that urgency as you would be to, say, a health scare or the death of a loved one, because we are emotionally entangled at home in a way that we aren’t at work,” she said in an interview.
Besides, she added, most workers have a trump card to play at work, which they may not feel they have in their personal lives.
“You still know that you can quit, you can look for something else, that you can leave — leave your boss and your bad day behind,” Damaske said. “Those aren’t exactly strategies that you have for home, right? Most of us aren’t going to up and leave our families because they’re stressful, although most people’s families are stressful from time to time.”
Damaske said the study offered a different window into why women who work steady jobs might experience better physical and mental health than those who work part time, or not at all. It is still possible that women who are healthier to begin with are more likely to hold steady jobs, but Damaske said it might also be the case that work had positive effects on women’s health.
So why do we hear so much about stressful jobs, bad bosses and difficult demands at work?
One reason could be that people might find it easier to talk about problems at work than to talk about problems and challenges in their personal lives. Social norms, Damaske said, make it acceptable to complain in public about our work lives, but make it difficult to talk publicly about health problems and other stressors in our personal lives.
All this points to one thing. There is pent-up demand in the United States for a new restaurant named “TGIM” — Thank God it’s Monday!
*Article originally posted on NPR.
This weekend I had a good wholesome time being out & about! Saturday morning was full of running errands like picking up my dry cleaning, paying some bills, grocery shopping & going to the store. I also did some light cleaning around the house and even folded some laundry (gasp!).
Saturday evening a friend & I went to a get-together where men and women alike openly discussed different relationship topics. The beauty of this forum was that any talk of sex was not allowed. There are too many topics pertaining to dating & relationships that talking about sex just wasn’t necessary. I liked this rule! Every topic was clean & pertained to men, women and general dating advice. The topics were preselected and pretty interesting. We discussed things like whether or not you would sign a prenup, things that turn you on or turn you off, and whether dating someone should be dependent on their employment status or not. There was some pretty lively conversation and quite a few people actually learned something new about the opposite gender that they didn’t know before. And to top it off, there was plenty of food to eat while all of this was going on!
After the ‘relationship forum’ was over, the evening turned into a good ole fashioned fish fry! Between the good food, wine and conversation I had a pretty nice time! My friend & I then decided to head over to a café to hear some live music. We listened to a band that played old school hits like “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly & Maze, Jackson 5 songs and even some Barry White. People were up dancing and having a great time as the band entertained us all. We stayed until the lights were shut off & the owner put us out. Fun times!
On Sunday I went to church (as usual) and ended up talking to some people after service. We all discussed going out after church but decided to postpone hanging out until later in the evening. We needed time to eat, change clothes & get rested. I went to my church’s evening service (which starts at 7:00 pm) and afterwards we all went bowling across town from the church. There were 6 of us in total but only 4 bowled. Nobody did exceptionally well but we just blamed our poor performance on the lanes in the bowling alley. I think I should always get a strike when I bowl! (The floors must’ve been uneven) The best part of the evening was that we all talked smack to each other, booing & cheering after each turn. We shut the bowling alley down and didn’t leave until just after midnight.
All in all I had a really nice, clean weekend. It didn’t cost a lot of money and I even made some new friends. I look forward to many more like it!!