Do Men And Women Prefer Different Traits In A Romantic Partner?

Attractive woman in a bar flirting with a man

Media reports tend to suggest that men and women are polar opposites when it comes to romantic attraction. Many news articles boil the difference down to “men care about looks, whereas women care about status and resources.” However, this is an extreme oversimplification. While many studies have found that men value physical attractiveness more than women and women value status and wealth more than men on average, the fact of the matter is that the sexes actually have a lot in common in the arena of mate selection.

As evidence of this, let’s consider the results of an online survey that included a sample of 102,961 heterosexual men, 5,938 gay men, 82,819 heterosexual women, and 2,548 lesbian women [1]. This survey was conducted worldwide, and participants represented 53 different countries (although most were from the United Kingdom and United States). Participants were given a list of 23 different traits and were asked to select the top three traits they thought were most important in a potential partner. Afterward, researchers rank ordered the traits based upon how many participants put each trait in their top three.  The top 10 traits for men and women are listed below, collapsed across sexual orientation.

Table explaining men's and women's most desired traits in a romantic partner

Interestingly, 9 out of the top 10 traits were the same for men and women. The only exception was that partner age made it onto the men’s list, whereas ambition made it onto the women’s list. In addition, it is worth pointing out that 3 out of the top 4 traits were the same across the sexes: both men and women seem to want a partner who is intelligent, funny, and honest.

However, it is clear from this list that men do value physical attractiveness (both good looks and a pretty face) more than women, and this was by far the biggest sex difference to emerge in this study. Of course, this is not to say that looks were unimportant to women—attractiveness still placed high on the women’s list, but a few psychological traits appeared to be more important to women than looks.

It is also worth noting that neither money nor social status appeared among the top 10 traits for women, despite all of the talk about how women are primarily seeking partners with these characteristics. In fact, these traits were all the way down at numbers 20 and 21, respectively. Money and social status were almost equally low on the men’s list (numbers 21 and 22, respectively).

Further analyses revealed that sexual orientation did not appear to make a huge difference in what people valued in a partner; however, there were a few exceptions. For example, heterosexual men and women reported valuing their partners’ religion and parenting abilities more than gay men and lesbians. In addition, gay men reported valuing partner age more than heterosexual men, and lesbians reported valuing intelligence more than heterosexual women.

Regardless of sex and sexual orientation, this research reveals that we have a lot more in common when it comes to partner selection than most media reports lead us to believe. There are undeniably some differences in the relative value that different groups place upon a given trait (e.g., physical appearance), and we should not ignore that fact; however, what we should do is stop oversimplifying things and assuming that we know what someone else wants simply because of their sex.

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[1] Lippa, R.A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 193-208. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9151-2

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