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Sexy Headlines & Skimpy Science: 'Why Women Shouldn't Pick Attractive Husbands' Needs a Second Look

06/23/2011 02:49 pm ET | Updated Aug 23, 2011

I'm not an expert on beautiful women and "hot or not" men. And I really don't have much interest in the question that Vicki Larson explored here at the Huffington Post, which is, "how a smart, accomplished, beautiful woman like Huma Abedin got herself involved with a guy like Weiner."

Yet, the wide interest in this story has made me take a second look; at last glance over 18,000 people seem to have 'liked' it and even Whoopi Goldberg opened a discussion of it on The View. I agree that, as Larson said in her recent conversation with The Good Men Project's Tom Matlack, social media is spreading stories "faster, farther and wider than before."

I am interested in how stories are created and spread. I am a social science researcher who writes about how knowledge is constructed and about gender relations (including issues of masculinities). Throughout her piece, Larson kept referring to "researchers" and "the research." So I was keen to know what research evidence was being used to support this claim that "attractive women shouldn't pick attractive husbands."

Vicki Larson is a wonderful writer who addresses topics of particular importance to women, and her points on divorce in this piece are excellent. As for the issue of beautiful women and "hot or not" men, the evidence that allegedly supports this claim comes from selected branches of scientific knowledge, mainly evolutionary biology/psychology and experimental psychology. The evidence within and between these fields is complex and continually contested. Moreover, I would argue that Larson's piece, which draws on a slim range of research, misrepresents many of the research findings she claims to use.

The end result? What Larson calls a "tongue-in-cheek" argument that women should "go ugly" when they look for a mate is a provocative, and personal, interpretation. But it is not an argument that is backed by sound scientific evidence. It is still a topic that is worthy of discussion, and kudos to Larson for putting it on the table. But, before this turns into a set of "truths," I think that we need to be clear about the scientific research that presumably informs three key points in Larson's piece.


Financially independent women prefer "hotties ... making the big bucks"

Larson points out that, as a former Cosmo bachelor, Weiner "is the kind of man that many, many women are drawn to." And then she says:

"And that's where Abedin and other smart, beautiful, accomplished women often make their mistake. The more financially independent women become, the more they prefer good-looking men. But they don't just want their partners to be hotties; they want them to be masculine, physically fit, loving, educated, a few years older and making the big bucks. Oh, and they also have to really want to be a hubby and daddy."

For this point, on how women want macho men, she cites an article in the Wall Street Journal which is, ironically, titled "Why Women Don't Want Macho Men" and, from what I can discern, three studies that are reported on in that article.

The first study mentioned in the Wall Street Journal is faceresearch.org, an ongoing study (composed of seven different sub-studies) run by two experimental psychologists at the University of Aberdeen, UK; its aim is to "carry out tests to assess the characteristics people find attractive in faces and voices." This "face research," which I actually tried out, is based on rating faces according to degrees of attractiveness (with attractiveness measured as both masculine and feminine).

Although Larson cites this study directly, it is not at all clear how it supports her arguments. For example, results from the most relevant sub-study, "masculinity techniques," indicate that "women tend to prefer male faces that are less masculine than average, although there is a considerable amount of individual variation."

Keep in mind that in this study masculinity is defined only in terms of facial features such as "shorter, broader faces and stronger eyebrows, cheekbones and jawlines." Nevertheless, what seems clear is that women desire both feminine and masculine faces in their male partners.

The second relevant study cited by Larson (via her link to Pincott's Wall Street Journal article) is by Professor Fhionna Moore and colleagues at the University of St Andrews, UK. In a nutshell, Moore argues that as women increased their financial independence, they also increased their preference for physical attractiveness in potential partners. On the other hand, women "who had low levels of control over their cash rated the financial status of a man over his looks."

This study does not make the connection between beautiful women and hot men. But it does make the connection between women's financial independence and hot men. That is, while Larson lumps together women's preferences for, in her words, "hotties making the big bucks," this study treats them as separate preferences by different groups of women. That is, Moore's findings indicate that rich women choose "hotties," while poorer women choose men "making the big bucks."

It appears that the main evidence for Larson's arguments comes from a third study which is also mentioned in the Wall Street Journal. This is a study by researchers David M. Buss and Todd K. Shackleford in their 2008 peer-reviewed article in the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Once again, a central point is misconstrued.

What Buss and Shackleford argue, in a complex argument that tests several hypotheses with a small group of 107 women, is that most women desire the following four characteristics in a male mate:

  • good gene indicators (e.g. attractive and intelligent)
  • good investment indicators (e.g. education and income)
  • good parenting indicators (e.g. home and children)
  • good partner indicators (e.g. loving and loyal)

There is nothing surprising about this. What women would not want all of those things?

Yet, while most women desire all four qualities, two points are clear. First, highly attractive women express higher standards on all four indicators; they do this because, according to the authors, their "high mate value" means that they have high choice options. Again, this makes sense. Think: Angelina Jolie.

Second, most women soon realise that they cannot get all four characteristics from one man and thus "they lower their standards across all four set of indicators" and seek to secure the best combination of characteristics from one man. Put simply, according to these authors, women learn to compromise. It is not a matter of "going for ugly" but of adjusting our expectations. That is, some choose a less attractive man who is a loyal partner; others choose a highly attractive man who also loves children but has low earning potential.

Does this apply to Abedin and the question of how she chose Weiner? I would say no. Larson's point here is not only about beautiful women, but about financially independent women. This particular study, however, deals only with women's attractiveness and not with financial independence.


Hot women and ugly guys

The second point that jumps off the page for me in Larson's article is this one: "We'd be smarter if we sought out guys who are uglier than we are because researchers have found that couples in which the woman is hotter than the guy are happier than if this situation is reversed."

Here Larson cites the NY Daily News, which in turn mentions a peer-reviewed article "Beyond Initial Attraction: Physical Attraction in Newlywed Marriage" by James K. McNulty, Lisa A. Neff, and Benjamin R. Karney in the Journal of Family Psychology. This study makes several arguments, including this one: "The relative difference between partner's levels of attractiveness appeared to be the most important in predicting marital behaviour, such that both spouses behaved more positively in relationships in which wives were more attractive than their husbands."

I contacted the authors of the study to see what they thought about their article being used as evidence (albeit in a roundabout way through referencing a newspaper that cites it).

They noted that their study looked at how attractive a man-woman couple is in relation to one another -- not in absolute terms for other people. Thus the fact that, as Larson points out, "quite a few women have been telling Weiner how 'hot' he is," is not important here. Rather, the issue is how 'hot' the couple is relative to one another. According to lead author McNulty, "In order for our study to be relevant here, there would need to be a reference to how attractive Abedin is" in relation to Weiner. That is an open question, at least for some.

McNulty also notes, "We also report in our paper that more attractive men were less satisfied with their relationships than were less attractive men. That could be relevant here, as it suggests Weiner may be relatively less likely to be happy in his relationships (if indeed he is attractive)."

My final point on hot women and ugly guys is that Larson contradicts herself when she makes the point that "hottie women can also optimize their looks to find other partners if she's unhappy." Here she cites the UK popular tabloid newspaper, The Mail Online, which actually says the opposite of what Larson is putting forth; that is, if women do "go ugly" in their mate selection, there can be a problem. According to the headline of this article, "If a woman's more attractive than her man, the relationship may be doomed."

Drawing on the work of Professor Rob Burriss at the University of Chester (UK), the Mail Online article argues: "We tend to pair up with people whose facial features have a similar level of symmetry -- a sign of beauty -- to our own." In other words, "Our ideal partner is one on our own kind of level."

"Attractive men don't make the best husbands"

Perhaps the most controversial point, and the one that engaged a response from The Good Men Project, is the one with sparse or negligible evidence for it. The only article cited, again, is Pincott's Wall Street Journal article and a brief mention of one small study of only 29 women as well as a study of 2100 Air Force veterans. Apparently, the latter study argued that men with testosterone levels one standard deviation above the norm were 43% more likely to get divorced, 38% were more likely to cheat on their wives, and 13% admitted to partaking in domestic violence.

I am not sure what this has to do with the Weiner-Abedin case. There is no mention about attractiveness nor about being a good husband. Testosterone is viewed as synonymous with masculinity for a small group of men working in a male-dominated environment and connections are then drawn between military men, testosterone, and indices of divorce as well as violence.

How does one know (or measure) if their man has just a tad too much testosterone? And how does this then link to the point that "more attractive men don't make the best husbands"?

Widening the discussion

Vicki Larson's provocative piece brings evolutionary biology/psychology and experimental psychology into popular debate. As an academic who likes to connect with the "real world," I'm always glad to see journalists bringing scholarly research into popular debates. But her misuse of science backfires and in the end does not help her to answer her question of how Abedin ended up with a man like Weiner.

Even if this attempt at using scientific research had been well done, it is important to add that there are many other ways to understand human behavior and male-female relationships. In my world of social science scholarship, we make sense of human life not only in terms of biology, facial features, brains, hormones, and what Larson calls explanations from "caveman days." Rather, we engage explanations that include family and cultural background, social class, ethnicity and race, sexuality, national contexts, changing ideologies, and a rich diversity of shifting gender expectations and preferences.

Moreover, the conceptions of masculinity which are central to this piece are drawn from studies that equate it mainly with a set of facial physical features and/or testosterone. There are wider definitions, including this one from a leading scholar of masculinities, Michael Kimmell:
"Masculinity... is not a constant, universal essence, but rather an ever-changing fluid assemblage of meanings and behaviors that vary dramatically. Thus we speak of masculinities, in recognition of the different definitions of manhood that we construct. By pluralizing the term, we acknowledge that masculinity means different things to different groups of men at different times."

It is also worth noting that the main piece of evidence used for this piece, Pincott's Wall Street Journal article, ultimately concludes in a way that contradicts Larson and in fact supports Tom Matlack's arguments about broadening our definitions of manliness - and what it means to be a good man or a good woman. That is, Pincott cautions against relying too much on studies from evolutionary psychology: "No longer as reliant on men's genes or jobs to ensure the health and wealth of their children, women may come to value other qualities in a mate. It may become evolutionarily adaptive to prefer men who are cooperative, communicative, caring and better parents over traditional 'manly men.' "

The question of how and why Hamu Abedin "got herself involved with a guy like Weiner" is clearly something that people are very interested in. When I look at Ms. Adebin, who is several months pregnant and seems to be a private, brilliant, accomplished, and, yes, beautiful woman, I remain uninterested in her choice of a "hot" or "ugly" mate. But I am interested in widening the debate about what 21st century women desire in men. And I also want to defend the time-consuming and rigorous work of research scientists from being misconstrued into sexy (pardon the pun) headlines.

This article appeared originally at The Good Men Project.

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