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Mate Selection

Sociocultural And Historical Factors

Taking still another step back from the isolated individual, some researchers have focused on the cultural and historical context of mate choice (e.g., Crook and Crook 1988; Hatfield and Rapson 1996). Adopting this perspective, one can ask both: How do human societies differ with regard to mate choice, and how are they similar? The range of differences is, at first glance, rather dazzling. As Gwen Broude (1994) noted, exclusive monogamy, the legally sanctioned form of mating in Europe and North America, is preferred in less than 20 percent of 238 cultures worldwide. Polygyny (more than one woman sharing the same husband) is practiced in most of the remainder (over 80%), and polyandry (more than one man sharing the same wife) is found in four societies. Although personal choice is emphasized in Western societies, males marry women chosen for them by third parties in 29.3 percent of 157 societies worldwide, and marriages are arranged for females in 44.1 percent of 161 societies (Broude 1994). Furthermore, there are cultural variations in norms about desirable features in mates, including amount of body fat desired, preferred size and shape of breasts, and other overt characteristics such as body markings (Anderson et al. 1992; Ford and Beach 1951; Broude 1994).

Looking across recent history, survey data on mate preferences among North American college students in 1939, 1956, 1967, 1977, 1985, and 1996, reveals regional as well as temporal variations. For example, students in Texas were more interested in chastity, religious background, and neatness than were students in Michigan. Over time, the value placed on chastity by both sexes dropped, and the value placed on mutual attraction and love increased (Buss et al. 2001).

In addition to cultural and historical variations in mate choice, there are many commonalities found across human societies. These range from preferred overt characteristics such as clear skin and lack of disfigurement to personality traits making for good parents and agreeable companions (Broude 1994; Ford and Beach 1951). A general preference for similarity in a mate is also widespread (Botwin, Buss, and Shackelford 1997). Moreover, a number of sex differences found in Western society are found across cultures and time periods, including the tendency to judge men on the basis of physical strength, social position, and economic worth, and to place more emphasis on a woman's physical attractiveness (Broude 1994; Buss 1989). The preference for older versus younger partners across the lifespan is also found across numerous societies and historical time periods (Otta et al. 1999; Harpending 1992; Kenrick and Keefe 1992).

It is sometimes suggested that, in Western societies, the relative emphasis on status and power in men and physical attractiveness in women might be related to women's relatively lower economic status, and that if opportunity and wage disparities were rectified, women would not prefer a man with higher socioeconomic status (Eagly and Wood 1999). Within the United States, however, there is evidence that women who gain social status do not shift to male-like preferences for relative youth and attractiveness, but instead continue to prefer older and higher status partners (Kenrick and Keefe 1992; Townsend 1987).

Due to warfare, migration, and random historical and geographic variations, there are sometimes relatively more available females than males in the pool of eligible mates, or the converse. Marcia Guttentag and Paul Secord (1983) found that a surplus of women (putting men in a "buyers' market") is associated with later marriage, more divorce, and more permissive sexual norms. A surplus of men, on the other hand, is associated with more stable relationships and male willingness to commit to monogamous relationships. Other research suggests that polyandry, though rare, is associated with conditions of extreme resource scarcity (as found in the high Himalayas in Nepal) under which survival rates for children of single males and their wives are low. In Nepal and a few other places, several brothers often combine their resources and marry a single wife, increasing survival rates for resultant children (Crook and Crook 1988). On the other hand, extreme polygyny (harems) is correlated with ecological conditions including a steep social hierarchy, a generally rich environment allowing higher status families to accumulate vast wealth, and occasional famines so lower-status families face possibilities of starvation (Crook and Crook 1988). Under these circumstances, a woman who absorbs the cost of sharing a wealthy husband reaps a survival insurance policy for herself and any resultant children.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelationshipsMate Selection - Factors Within The Individual, Factors In The Relationship, Sociocultural And Historical Factors, Evolutionary Factors