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“Yes, but…” Answers to Ten Common Criticisms of Evolutionary Psychology
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David P. Schmitt
David P. Schmitt
is Founding Director of the International Sexuality Description Project, a cross-cultural research collaboration involving 100s of psychologists from around the world who seek to understand how culture, personality, and gender combine to influence sexual attitudes and behaviors.

A few years ago, I was giving an invited presentation to an audience of mostly sociologists and family studies professors on the topic of evolution and human reproductive strategies. I mentioned that some social scientists hold false beliefs about “evolutionary psychology,” such as the mistaken assumption that evolutionary psychologists think all men are interested in bedding as many women as possible (often called short-term mating), whereas all women are only interested in marrying a single man and staying faithful to him for a lifetime (i.e., long-term mating). When I tried to dispel this common misperception by noting, for instance, that evolutionary psychologists have hypothesized women are just as designed for short-term mating as men are—in some ways even more so such as women’s heightened desires for cues to genetic quality in short-term mates—an audible gasp swept through the conference hall. I kid you not, I could see rows of people who looked genuinely horrified. I was a little taken aback, so I asked an audience member near the front row who had her hand over her mouth if something was unclear, to which she proclaimed, “that’s not the evolutionary psychology I know.” When I tried to explain that women’s evolved short-term mating desires have been studied by evolutionary psychologists since the early 1990s and the topic remains a very active area of inquiry today, heads swiveled in disbelief. My subsequent Power Point slides chock-full of studies confirming women’s specially designed short-term mating psychology were falling, I feared, on an auditorium of deaf ears (or blind eyes, I suppose). Alas, this stereotype about evolutionary psychology wasn’t going to change anytime soon.

It seems to me many critics of evolutionary psychology cling steadfastly to false stereotypes of the field, both theoretical and empirical. This is partly because so much evolutionary psychological research has been produced over the last 25 years it is hard for even evolutionary-informed scholars themselves to keep up (for an up-to-date review, I recommend Buss’ new edition of The Evolutionary Psychology Handbook[1]). Add to that the methodological breadth of different techniques used by evolutionary scholars to test hypotheses about the adaptive design of the human mind, and it is understandably difficult to know what all evolutionary researchers have been, and currently are, up to as active Darwinian scientists. Perhaps more than other social scientists, evolutionary psychologists use an incredible variety of research methods, ranging from self-report surveys and behavioral field test experiments, to investigations involving genetics, hormones, and neuroscience, to cross-species and cross-cultural comparisons, to ethnographies of foraging societies and computer modeling of artificial intelligences[2] [3] [4]. To be aware of contemporary evolutionary psychology requires broad and deep knowledge of many scholarly disciplines, and a lot of evolutionary psychology’s critics simply do not know what they do not know about the field as it is practiced today.

Beyond simply not knowing about the empirical breadth and methodological richness of modern evolutionary science, many critics exhibit a certain kind of “empirical nihilism” toward any psychological findings even remotely portrayed as supporting evolutionary hypotheses. For instance, when one points to a set of studies that respond to a specific criticism, some critics reply with a “yes, but” attitude and set forth new criticisms requiring more evidence (sort of a serial “moving the goalposts” maneuver). Now, in science extreme skepticism is generally a good thing. For scientists, there are no capital “T” Truths, and every claim about reality is tentatively true with a small “t” and is always adjustable as more evidence is accumulated over time. Sometimes, though, this attitude is more than healthy skepticism about a particular empirical finding and is, instead, clearly an attitude of irrefutable empirical nihilism toward evolutionary psychology studies in particular. As an example of this type of unshakeable attitude of disbelief, I list below 10 of the more common “yes, but” criticisms of evolutionary findings on women’s long-term mate preferences. It’s an illustrative (not exhaustive) list of just how impenetrable some scholar’s beliefs are when it comes to considering evidence that our evolved human mind might be something more than a domain-general learning mechanism writing on an asexual, ungendered blank slate. 

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Women’s Long-Term Mate Preferences

Looking across the animal kingdom, one cannot help but notice that members of most species tend to mate non-randomly. Whether it is peahens preferring peacocks with more elaborate trains[5] or female common chimpanzees preferring males who possess higher social dominance[6], males and females of most species display adaptive forms of preferential mate choice. Evolutionary psychologists were among the first to propose similar sex differences might exist in human mate preferences. For instance, evolutionary psychologists hypothesized that women may possess specially-designed long-term mate preferences for cues to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources to her and their offspring[7] [8] [9]. Such cues include a man’s status and prestige which, depending on local culture, may involve hunting ability, physical strength, or other locally-relevant attributes, as well as his ambition, work ethic, intelligence, social dominance, maturity, and slightly older age[10] [11]. Not all women desire the highest value long-term mate at all times, of course, but it is expected that women’s long-term mate preferences should be marked by some degree of “special design” that is reliably observable using the methodological richness of modern evolutionary psychological science.

One way to evaluate whether women possess long-term mate preferences for cues to status-related traits is to directly ask people whether they prefer those attributes in long-term mates (via methods such as self-report surveys), and then compare the intensity of responses of women and men. When doing so, psychologists typically evaluate the degree of sexual differentiation using the d statistic, with an observed d value of ±.20 being considered a “small” sex difference, ±.50 is a “moderate” sex difference, and ±.80 is a “large” sex difference[12]. Negative d values typically indicate women score more highly on a particular preference, whereas positive values indicate men score more highly.

Buss and Barnes[13] were among the first to evaluate whether women (more than men) prefer cues related to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources. For instance, they found women more strongly prefer long-term mates who have a “good earning capacity” (a large sex difference, d = -0.82), “are a college graduate” (d = -0.60), and “possess intelligence” (d = -0.19). Obviously, these findings are not definitive proof that men and women differ in the evolved design of long-term mate preferences. The findings are merely tests of evolutionary-guided hypotheses, and the tests were supportive of specially-designed sex differences existing in human mate preferences. Still, some critics challenge these results, arguing yes, but…

1) Yes, but…that is just one study. One cannot trust the results of just one study. Evolutionary psychologists need to conduct many more studies before I am convinced these effects are legitimate, let alone evidence of evolved psychology. I’m sure many other studies wouldn’t find sex differences in mate preferences.

Actually, most investigations of sex differences in mate preferences have been supportive of these hypotheses (to be honest, virtually all studies have). In 1992, Feingold[14] meta-analytically reviewed the extant literature (including 32 independent samples) on self-reported mate preferences across college students and community samples and found women more greatly desired socioeconomic status (d = -0.69), ambition (d = -0.67), and intelligence (d = -0.30) in potential long-term mates. Numerous additional investigations have since replicated these basic sex differences in long-term mate preferences among college students[15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21] [22]. For instance, a recent study focused on women’s mate preferences for men with the ability to invest in them, revealing that college women desire a man who has earned his money (compared to other sources), ostensibly reflective of the aforementioned qualities (ambition, work ethic, intelligence), and that this effect is strongest in the long-term mating context[23].

2) Yes, but…those studies are mostly with college students. People in the real world (e.g., representative samples of adults) won’t display these stereotypical sex differences of youth.

Actually, yes they do[24] [25] [26]. For instance, Sprecher and her colleagues[27] examined sex differences in mate preferences across a nationally-representative sample of the United States and found women, more than men, valued a long-term mate who had a steady job (d = -0.73), earned more than they did (d = -0.49), was highly educated (d = -0.43), and was older by five years (d = -0.67). Young or old[28] [29] [30], gay or straight[31] [32], sex differences in long-term mate preferences for status-related attributes tend to reliably emerge.

3) Yes, but…many of those findings are from decades ago. Sex differences in mate preferences are probably not historically stable. They may have existed many decades ago (in the era of Mad Men), but sex differences in mate preferences are surely not present in more recent times.

Actually, yes they are. In a cross-generational analysis of the same mate preference questionnaire administered to Americans from 1939 to 1996, both men and women increased their valuing of good financial prospects and decreased valuing ambition/industriousness over time, but the degree of sex differences in these items largely persisted in strength across more than 50 years[33].

4) Yes, but…that is only when you have people self-report their ideal mate preferences from a pre-chosen list of traits given to them. If you ask them what they really want, say at a minimum, or maybe let them freely design their ideal potential partners, status-related traits aren’t emphasized by women more than men.

Actually, yes they are. Researchers have questioned people about their long-term mate preferences using a wide variety of self-report methodologies. Kenrick and his colleagues[34] asked people what the minimum threshold of possessing a particular attribute would need to be to agree to marry a person. Women, on average, required men’s earning capacity to be in the 70th percentile to be marriageable, whereas men required women to be in the 40th percentile (overall d = -1.41).

Using another nuanced form of self-report, Li[35] compelled men and women to engage in tradeoffs among various cues when intentionally designing a desirable long-term mate. Women devoted the most of their limited budget toward their mates’ social level (33%), whereas for men social level was of moderate budgetary importance (17%). Across a series of studies[36], researchers using this tradeoff paradigm concluded that women, but not men, consider a long-term mate’s social status a “necessity” and not a “luxury.” Indeed, when forced to make decisions with very limited budgets, sex differences in long-term mate preferences are stronger than with typical self-report surveys.

Self-report surveys also reveal men, more than women, appear effective at displaying status-related traits to the opposite sex[37]. Overall, self-report methods (via ratings, rankings, trade-offs, nominations, or open-ended questions[38]) consistently support the hypothesis that women possess long-term mate preferences for cues to a man’s ability and willingness to devote resources.

5) Yes, but…this is only because women are denied access to resources themselves. If women have higher status themselves, they would not prefer men with high status. It’s just basic rationality, not evolved psychology, causing these sex differences in mate preferences for status.

Actually, it is a compelling test of women’s long-term mate preferences for men’s status-related traits (including their ability and willingness to provide resources) to evaluate whether their expressed preferences disappear when women have ample resources of their own. It could be women only prefer cues to men’s ability and willingness to provide resources because women are structurally denied access to resources[39].

Addressing this alternative explanation, Townsend and his colleagues have found women in medical school[40] and law school[41] are more selective of a future mate’s financial status, not less. Similarly, Wiederman and Allgeier[42] found college women’s expected income was positively associated with their ratings of the importance of a potential long-term mate’s earning capacity. Regan[43] found as women’s mate value goes up, so does their insistence on men’s high status and resources (i.e., they “want it all”; see also[44]). Having higher personal status and resource-related traits appears not to attenuate women’s preferences for cues to men’s ability and willingness to provide resources. Instead, at least in the USA, women achieving high status themselves appears to make their long-term mate preferences for men’s high status even more intense!

6) Yes, but…that is only true in the United States. Americans happen to live in a culture with conspicuous gender stereotypes about mate preferences that the rest of the world does not share. If you look at more gender egalitarian cultures, in Scandinavia for instance, sex differences in preferences for status-related attributes “disappear” (as claimed by Marks[45]).

Actually, no, they do not. Numerous studies have found sex differences in mate preferences for status-related attributes are prevalent across cultures[46] [47] [48]. Lippa[49] conducted an internet sampling of 53 nations and Zentner and Mitura[50] conducted an internet sampling across 10 nations and both studies found 100% of cultures displayed expected sex differences, with women demonstrating especially heightened long-term mate preferences for good financial prospects, social status, ambition, and older age.

Some researchers have found the magnitude of sex differences in mate preferences for status-related attributes shifts from a large/medium effect size to a more moderate medium/small effect size in nations with higher gender egalitarianism. Zentner and Mitura found exactly this pattern of results after placing nations into three groups, low gender egalitarian cultures (within which women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more than men, d = -0.65), medium gender egalitarian cultures (women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more, d = -0.53), and high gender egalitarian cultures (women valued Ambition-Industriousness moderately more, d = -0.48). Hence, sex differences in the preference for Ambition-Industriousness in long-term mates were reduced (though not by much, and were still medium in terms of effect size) in nations with higher levels of gender egalitarianism.

Most other sex differences in status-related mate preferences also were attenuated from larger to more moderate levels in Zentner and Mitura’s sample of nations that were higher in gender egalitarianism (e.g., Good Financial Prospects went from d = -1.04, to d = -0.84, to d = -0.55; Favorable Social Status went from d = -0.67, to d = -0.42, to d = -0.31). In most cases, these reductions were caused by women preferring status-related traits less in high gender egalitarian nations, though in many cases men’s preferences for status-related attributes also were reduced in high gender egalitarian nations (which seems counter to the logic of men appreciating women’s status-related traits more as women enter the workforce in high gender egalitarian nations). One thing is clear, sex differences in long-term mate preferences for status-related traits do not “disappear” in gender egalitarian cultures. They may only be moderate in size, but we see them just fine.

Importantly, Zentner and Mitura also found in low gender egalitarian nations, men valued Good Looks only a little more than women, d = 0.24; in medium gender egalitarian nations, men’s valuation of Good Looks was higher still than women’s, d = 0.43; and in the highest gender egalitarian nations, men’s valuation of Good Looks was the most different from women’s, d = 0.51. Thus, contrary to the expectation that gender egalitarianism always reduces sex differences, Zentner and Mitura found sex differences in Good Looks are largest in nations with the highest gender egalitarianism. What!? Actually, these findings are not unusual, as high gender egalitarian nations also exhibit larger sex differences in Big Five personality traits and the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and psychopathy; in romantic attachment and love styles; in sociopolitical attitudes and personal values; in clinical depression rates and crying behavior; in tested cognitive and mental abilities; and in physical attributes such as height and blood pressure[51]. If the sociopolitical gender egalitarianism found in Scandinavian nations is supposed to produce smaller psychological sex differences, it’s not doing a very good job of it.

7) Yes, but…all these studies showing men and women want different things in potential partners are merely evidence of gendered narratives as measured by self-report surveys. If ever tested in the real world, women would not preferentially choose or be affected by a partner’s status-related attributes more than men.

Actually, there have been dozens of studies of real world mating and mating-related cognition, and almost all find that women do choose and are affected by a partner’s status-related traits more than men are.

Feingold[52] meta-analytically examined what women ask for and what men advertise in public, real-world personal advertisements and found, as expected, women more than men ask for cues to willingness and ability to provide resources (e.g., 27% of women ask for high socioeconomic status compared to 7% of men). Men who advertise such status-related cues actually receive more responses from women, as well. For example, in a study that experimentally manipulated real-life personal ads, ads placed by men noting they were financially successful elicited the most interest, whereas for women physical attractiveness was the key[53]. In a study of Polish personal ads, the top four cues displayed by men that received responses from women were good education, older age, high resource levels, and tall height[54]. In a study of mail order brides from Colombia, Russia, and the Philippines, women universally listed ambition, status, and wealth as among their most desired attributes in a future husband[55].

In another real-world test of women’s mate preferences for status, Guéguen and Lamy[56] conducted a naturalistic experiment to evaluate whether women’s reactions to a request for their phone number are affected by men’s apparent status (in this case, driving different types of cars). When a potential participant was a few yards away they had a male experimental confederate (one of six male confederates pre-selected for high physical attractiveness) open his car door and look the participant in the eyes and smile. Then he approached her and said: “Hello, my name’s Antoine. I just want to say that I think you’re really pretty. I have to go to work now, but I was wondering if you would give me your phone number. I’ll call you later and we can have a drink together somewhere.” Women approached by a man driving an expensive Audi A5 Ambition Luxury gave their number 23% of the time. Women approached by a man driving a mid-priced Renault Mégane gave their number 13% of the time. Women approached by a man driving a 15-year-old Renault 5 Super Campus (worth only a few hundred dollars) gave their number 8% of the time. Women’s preferences for resource-related cues appear to affect their real-world mating behavior.

Numerous studies of marital patterns also have found women tend to desire (and actually marry) men who are slightly older than they are, regardless of women’s own age[57] [58]. As men get older, in contrast, they tend to desire and marry younger and younger women[59]. Women have been found to preferentially marry higher status men across such diverse cultures as the Kipsigis of Kenya, the Hausa of West Africa, Trinidadians, and Micronesian islanders, among many others[60]. It is true that some speed-dating studies in urban settings find women do not choose higher status men more often as dates, but these studies are limited by having only high status men in their samples (no homeless men allowed) and potentially including those who are interested in short-term mating (women’s short-term mate preferences focus more on gene quality, not status). In speed-dating studies with low status men included, and when the context is explicitly long-term mating only, women do pick higher status men more often for dates[61].

There also are a wide range of cognitive studies that test for women’s desires for status-related traits without explicitly asking them what they want. For instance, as part of a study ostensibly helping a university develop a dating service, Kenrick and his colleagues[62] experimentally manipulated whether already-mated men and women were exposed to a target date either very high in dominance or very low in dominance. They found women, but not men, were less committed to their current long-term mating partner after being exposed to a high dominance member of the opposite sex. Merely being experimentally exposed to a man with very high dominance lowered women’s commitment to their current mate, and did so without consciously asking women about their preferences for dominance.

Similarly, exposure to physically attractive women appears to evoke in men desires to fulfill women’s evolved preferences, such as increasing men’s attention toward and desires to possess resources and to display ambition, creativity, independence, and risk-taking[63] [64] [65]. And when exposed to men who are high in dominance, men tend to rate themselves as lower in mate value[66] and men’s feelings of jealousy are more strongly evoked[67]. All of these cognitive processes occur differently in women and men without explicit, conscious awareness of why they are doing so. Surely, to an open-minded scientist these types of non-survey findings should buttress the view that women possess mate preferences for men’s status-related attributes…

8) Yes, but…even though evolutionary psychologists may study real life cognition, emotion, and behavior, they fail to study the most important Darwinian outcome…fertility. If women evolved mate preferences for status-related traits, then women who marry men of high status men should have more children. Evolutionary psychologists haven’t even bothered to look at these outcomes, lazy-headed daisies…

Actually, several studies by evolutionary psychologists have found women who marry higher status men tend to have more children, and to have children survive to an older age. In a study of pre-industrial Finland (from the 1700s), women married to wealthier men had more children and decreased child mortality[68]. In another study, marrying a man four years older was associated with maximum levels of fertility among women[69]. Bereczkei and Csanaky[70] conducted a study of 1,800 Hungarians over 34 years of age and found women who married older and better educated men tended to have more children. These are important findings, as it is critical that women’s mate preferences for status-related attributes lead to reproductive success, or at least likely did so in our evolutionary past[71] [72].

One may also look at the effects of high personal status on men’s versus women’s reproductive success. Nettle and Pollett[73] and many other scholars have found men’s higher level of personal status is related to higher fertility, but the same is much less true (or not at all true) for women’s higher level of personal status. In fact, modern women who have higher personal incomes themselves tend to have fewer children[74]. Jumping Jehoshaphat…yes, but…

9) Yes, but…ancestral men were foragers and could not accumulate wealth, so these mate preferences for “good earning potential” are largely irrelevant to evolved mating psychology. Evolutionary psychology findings are extremely limited because they only apply to modern materialistic cultures.

Actually, it is correct that large masses of “material wealth” were not present in our ancestral past when we lived as foragers, but it is likely ancestral men did accumulate social capital or “status” (from among other things, hunting ability). Several studies have documented this form of male status as being the subject of selective pressures (i.e., high status men—whether that status comes in the form of land, livestock, money, physical prowess, or hunting ability—have more offspring[75] [76]). Evidence of selection for men’s status has been found in many types of cultures, including studies of men’s hunting ability among the Aché, Hadza, and Tsimane[77]. Apicella[78], for instance, found men’s hunting reputation and upper-body strength both predicted reproductive success among Hadza hunter–gatherers.

Moreover, it is important to acknowledge that women’s preferences in modern nations do not seem to be calibrated on money, per se. Instead, women may view money as a proximal cue to the underlying qualities that they have evolved to care about, such as status, prestige, social dominance, ambition, work ethic, and intelligence[79]. So it is certainly true that ancestral men did not accumulate financial wealth, but focusing too much on the importance (or not) of money or wealth across all cultures is missing the adaptive forest for the trees.

10) Yes, but…I know so many people who strongly believe that sex differences in mate preferences simply cannot exist. The idea of evolved sexual desires of any kind are a theoretical impossibility from my point of view! Evolved sex differences in mate preferences have to be just a figment of the imagination of evolutionary psychologists bent on maintaining patriarchy. If the evidence is, on balance, supportive of women possessing long-term mate preferences for men with high status, why do so many post-modernists and social constructionists insist evolved sex differences are not, indeed cannot, be real[80]?

That’s a big question requiring several responses. First, the evidence of evolved sex differences in mate preferences is accumulating, but it is certainly not definitive. Evolutionary psychologists evaluate evidence of psychological adaptation in many ways[81], including cross-species, neurological, hormonal, genetic, and epigenetic evidence that has not been reviewed here (some examples of such evidence, see[82] [83] [84] [85] [86] [87]). Nothing in science is ever set in stone, and more evidence could emerge that would cast serious doubt about evolved sex differences in mate preferences (though it would take quite a lot to tip the scales against the existence of this particular set of mate preferences). Scientists are skeptical and open-minded, so anything is possible.

Second, it is a mistake to pit post-modernism and social constructivism against evolutionary psychology as though they are in an intellectual death match that only one side can win. This tribalistic, us-versus-them thinking isn’t helpful to science. Much like partitioning the causes of human behavior into nurture versus nature or culture versus biology or learned versus innate, social constructivism versus evolutionary psychology is a false dichotomy that may feel intuitively correct but should not be utilized very often by serious scientists (exceptions include behavioral genetics studies). As insightfully noted by Tooby and Cosmides[88], “To say a behavior is learned in no way undermines the claim that the behavior was organized by evolution because the behavior was learned through the agency of evolved mechanisms. If natural selection had built a different set of learning mechanisms into an organism, that organism would learn a different set of behaviors in response to the very same environment. It is these evolved mechanisms that organize the relationship between the environmental input and behavioral output, and thereby pattern the behavior. For this reason, learning is not an alternative explanation to the claim that natural selection shaped the behavior, although many researchers assume that it is. The same goes for culture. Given that cultural ideas are absorbed via learning and inference—which is caused by evolved programs of some kind—a behavior can be, at one and the same time, ‘cultural’, ‘learned’ and ‘evolved’.” Mate preferences in humans are certainly to some degree cultural, learned, and evolved. Ultimately, the adaptations of the human mind unearthed by evolutionary psychologists will likely play key roles in explaining precisely how and why human social constructionists have the mate preferences they do[89].

Third, some scholars believe, based on strict ideological commitments, that evolved psychological sex differences must not exist[90] or even if they do exist, studies of sex differences should be evaluated in ways that favor certain political ideologies over others, such as raising the evidentiary bar for evolutionary psychology hypotheses[91]. As a consequence of these political beliefs, many scholars chauvinistically dismiss or ignore much of the extant evidence accumulated by evolutionary psychologists. This is a mistake on several levels, not the least of which is that even if evolved sex differences in mate preferences do exist, that does not make them “desirable” or “good” or “inevitable” in any way. Thinking like that is fallacious, it is wrong. Even though humans have likely evolved to be omnivorous, that doesn’t mean we should eat meat. What is natural is not inherently connected to what is desirable and thinking that way is committing the so-called naturalistic fallacy (actually more related to the is-ought problem and appeal to nature fallacy). Instead of this false point of view, evolutionary psychologists take the position that by knowing what our evolved psychological adaptations are, and precisely how they are expressed (e.g., how they are specially-designed and which environments especially accentuate or attenuate their expression), we will be more capable of creating effective tools for altering human behavior in ways we do find desirable. This includes utilizing the socially-constructive psychological adaptations in our mental toolkit to do so. Evolved sex differences are not to be ideologically feared, they are to be scientifically evaluated and, if they exist, knowledge about their special design can be used to more efficiently create the healthy society within which we wish to live[92] [93].

Lastly, there are some scholars who are actively deceiving people about empirical findings in evolutionary psychology (e.g., claiming that sex differences “disappear” in egalitarian cultures[94]). Many of these thinkers spread doubt about evolved mate preferences by alluding to a highly popular study by Eagly and Wood[95]. People’s memories of Eagly and Wood’s study, however, are often quite at odds with what they actually found, and with the hundreds of empirical findings since.

Eagly and Wood related the size of sex differences in mate preferences for “good financial prospects” to sociopolitical gender equality measures across nations (actual mate preference data came from a large cross-cultural study by Buss[96]). Eagly and Wood examined four indicators of sociopolitical gender equality and found only one indicator (that’s right, only one of four tests) was significantly linked to smaller sex differences in long-term mate preferences for good financial prospects. Based on that rather meager empirical finding, a generation of scholars seems to have fallen for a “Jedi mind trick” (these aren’t the sex differences you are looking for) and have been convinced that sex differences in mate preferences completely disappear in more gender egalitarian nations. Indeed, Eagly and Wood’s study has been cited over 1,000 times and has led to many to believe all psychological sex differences disappear in gender egalitarian cultures. Not true then, not true now.

To the contrary, most cross-cultural studies find nations with the highest sociopolitical gender equality (e.g., Scandinavian nations) exhibit the largest psychological sex differences in the world. You read that correctly. Higher gender egalitarian nations tend to have larger sex differences in mate preferences for Good Looks, in Big Five personality traits and the Dark Triad traits of Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and psychopathy; in romantic attachment and love styles; in sociopolitical attitudes and personal values; in clinical depression rates and crying behavior; in tested cognitive and mental abilities; and in physical attributes such as height and blood pressure[97]. If sociopolitical gender egalitarianism is supposed to reduce sex differences to the point where they “disappear,” it’s doing a terrible job. In fact, it’s most often doing the exact opposite. Without the constraints of patriarchal sex role socialization, it appears men and women are freer to follow their evolved desires in ways that lead to even greater psychological difference[98].

In Sum

In this post, I’ve listed some of the more common “yes, but” criticisms of evolutionary psychologists and the evidence they employ to evaluate the existence of psychological adaptations. Many critics assert evolutionary psychologists rely solely on studies of college students, or unrepresentative samples, or out-of-date samples, or Westernized samples, or use only self-report methods, or ignore fertility outcomes, the list goes on. The focus here has been on evaluating these criticisms with regard to women’s long-term mate preference adaptations for men with status-related traits. In this case, these criticisms appear to be largely mistaken. Indeed, there are many other studies and findings that can be (and have been) used to fruitfully evaluate women’s long-term mate preference adaptations for status-related attributes, including important work on developmental and contextual factors that adaptively alter women’s expression of long-term mating desires[99] [100] [101] [102] [103] [104] [105]. For instance, evidence suggests high mate value women—feminine, agreeable, and attractive women—display the most marked preferences for men with status-related traits[106] [107] [108] [109] [110] [111] [112], and in some cultural contexts other psychological adaptations appear to overwhelm the expression of women’s evolved sexual desires[113].

It should be noted there also exists a very progressive research agenda into women’s evolved short-term mating strategies. Recall earlier that I mentioned many scholars fail to even acknowledge evolutionary psychologists expect women to have an evolved short-term mating psychology. In truth, there is quite a bit of support for several hypotheses about short-term seeking women particularly preferring men who possess cues to “good genes,” cues such as physical symmetry, facial masculinity, vocal masculinity, and other immunocompetence-related and testosterone-related indicators[114] [115] [116]. Whether it is comparing women who short-term mate versus women who long-term mate, contrasting when the same woman short-term mates versus when she long-term mates, evaluating women’s mate preference shifts across the menstrual cycle (women seem to express short-term mating adaptations more when nearing ovulation[117] [118]), or observing which men are the most successful at short-term mating, support for evolutionary-informed hypotheses about women’s short-term mating adaptations has been accumulating rapidly[119]. Indeed, since the 1990s there have probably been more supportive studies testing hypotheses about women’s short-term mating adaptations than long-term mating adaptations. Breaking stereotypes about evolutionary psychology is hard.

Overall, the breadth and depth of evidence for evolved long-term and short-term mate preferences in both men and women is, based on frameworks for evaluating evidence of psychology adaptation, rather strong[120] [121]. Even so, as I’ve noted earlier, psychological science might accumulate additional evidence that would tip the scales against thinking that mate preference adaptations have been sculpted into our evolved psychology. Inspired by Darwin himself, keeping an open mind and always on the lookout for new evidence (especially evidence against one’s own hypotheses) is what evolutionary psychologists do[122], no buts about it.

Endnotes

[1] Buss, D.M. (2015). The evolutionary psychology handbook, 2nd Edition (Ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

[2] Andrews, P.W., Gangestad, S.W., & Matthews, D. (2002). Adaptationism: How to carry out an exaptationist program. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 25, 489–553.

[3] Schmitt, D.P., & Pilcher, J.J. (2004). Evaluating evidence of psychological adaptation: How do we know one when we see one? Psychological Science, 15, 643–649.

[4] Simpson, J.A., & Campbell, L. (2005). Methods of evolutionary sciences. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 119–144). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

[5] Petrie, M., Tim, H., & Carolyn, S. (1991). Peahens prefer peacocks with elaborate trains. Animal Behaviour, 41, 323-331.

[6] Klinkova, E., Hodges, J.K., Fuhrmann, K., de Jong, T., & Heistermann, M. (2005). Male dominance rank, female mate choice and male mating and reproductive success in captive chimpanzees. International Journal of Primatology, 26, 357-484.

[7] Buss, D.M., & Barnes, M.L. (1986). Preferences in human mate selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50, 559–570.

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  1. Helga Vieirch says:

    I am not sure what to make of all this research on mate selection. All animals have mating behaviour suggestive of mechanisms that evaluate health. There is an enormous body of research of evidence for preferential mating with dissimilar genes involved in immune system function. (just google mast preference and Major HistoCompatibility Complex and you will find research on this one aspect has repeatedly shown how important this is, in everything from stickleback fish to humans).

    So humans are very much like other animals in seeking out healthy mates whose genes (or some of them anyway) would produce offspring more likely to survive.

    There is, furthermore, a huge amount of data now on female mating behaviour, in all kinds of different species, from those which pair off to parent (as many birds do) to ones where the female is extremely promiscuous, as is the case in many species of primates. In humans, the data on societies with polygyny tends to support the idea that adultery is often even more common than in societies which favour monogamy. ( for example adultery is rife among the Yanomamo)

    But I fail to see how this advances our efforts to understand human evolution. Sure, we have sexual and reproductive behaviour very similar to other species, especially to other social species. So what is it about humans that is different? What universal aspects of human behaviour is not like that of most other species of primates? What aspect of human behaviour is not like that of other social animals?

    The evolutionary perspective in understanding human behaviour has long been adopted in anthropology. I recall, during the seventies, sitting through lecture after lecture on human evolution, the comparisons between various fossil primates and very early possible hominid fossils. IN our primatology courses we looked at the ecological conditions where pair-bonding occurred, where co-parenting and allo-parenting occurred, and we had lectures on the kinds of environments in which primates excluded most males from their troops. THe main hypothesis at the time was that primates living in areas with abundant resources could “afford” to have a more equal sex ratio, while in regions with less dependable food supplies, males tended to be excluded more and so the sex ratio changed. This is seen in a number of other social animals too – the males surplus to reproductive requirements are often sacrificed to keep most of the available calories reserved for the females and youngsters in the main group. You see this in horses and elephants too.

    In order to keep gene flow between groups high, and avoid inbreeding depression, various strategies have been observed, such as females sneaking off to have clandestine sex with males in the next group, or regular ouster of the dominant males and takeover by new individuals.

    But when we zero in on humans, the evolutionary question is about why the human pattern of pair bonding developed. It was never suggested that this was strict monogamy, only that what was the interesting evolutionary question concerned the kind of species-specific adaptation could possibly explain differences – why humans reproductive behaviour differed from that of other social species. The idea that we have many of the same constraints in terms of energy balances and maintenance of behaviours favouring genetic variability.

    In short, we do not need to be shown over and over again that humans behave, in many ways, like most other social animals. What we need is research into the reasons why typical human behaviours developed… THAT could help us understand what was specifically going on during human evolution.

    Now evolutionary psychology seems to me to be missing this emphasis. The only coherent story I keep reading about is that females want males to provision them and their offspring, and select mates show characteristics that signal they are able to do so.

    But all the data relevant to the human evolutionary trajectory does not indicate that it was differential wealth or even hunting success that made men attractive to women. Looking at contributions of males to their own children’s diets among a number of hunter-gatherer groups found that it was the mother’s contributions that made the difference to childhood survival ( in a paper on “wealth transmission and inequality among hunter-gatherers” the authors are reduced to suggesting that men tended to favour marriage to women who were good gatherers, for example, after also finding so little material wealth being transmitted that they had to invent a new term “relationship wealth” to suggest that the most important thing about a potential mate was the size of their social network. link to ncbi.nlm.nih.gov )

    So too there is all this emphasis on the idea that comes up in some of the very earliest socio-biological material, placing an emphasis on the role of male aggression as responsible for ranking and mating success in human males. But the data on hunter-gatherers indicates that they do not rank men on this basis at all. If anything, they rank them according to reputation. Among most hunter-gatherers, as well as among most people in subsistence economies that developed after the domestication of plants and animals, generosity and cooperative sociability is far more important to reputation than aggression of any kind. And often the basis for reputation is multidimensional.

    Even among hunter-gatherers, a guy who is a poor shot can have a great reputation for generosity, good tracking skills, and being really good at trance healing or story telling. As long as a person’s reputation held, so would the network of people they shared with and had reciprocal visiting rights with. People with the highest reputations had the biggest networks. Men and women with good reputations always had the biggest camps, and had all kinds of rendezvous lined up to go visit other friends and relatives, often years in advance. The kids in these bigger camps had a better chance of surviving since they had more women out gathering, including grannies who were active well over age 70, and more men out hunting, including gramps. So the food supply in the camp was more likely to be consistently above mere subsistence requirements than in camps of grouchy, selfish, or lazy people. In fact they were much bigger than those who very aggressive people with poor impulse control, since most such people wound up ostracized or dead.

    Maintenance of a large network is no mean feat. It means careful arrangements to spend tome with other people, some of whom were over a 100 miles away. Since a man and wife would tend to have non-overlapping networks, this tended to result in a positive whirlwind of mobility over the whole landscape occupied by the community.. and such communities thus tend to involve a few thousand people, all variously interconnected (remember no individual’s network would ever be completely identical to anyone else’s) over 10,000 square miles.

    I could go on, but I think that the understanding we might develop about what selective pressures might have operated to develop the cognitive system that could cope well with such networks, and with becoming intimately familiar with going on regular walkabouts in areas this size, can be quite fruitful. I also suggest considering the strategic consequences of mate choice within such a matrix, given that each child needed to be taught to negotiate social relationships within both parental networks, plus all the skills involved in making a living by foraging over such a range.

    • Eli says:

      “Male aggression” is not responsible for ranking and mating success in human males. You might have misunderstood. It’s more about “male competitivenesss and risk-taking behaviours” (And why didn’t females develop more risk-taking behaviours themselves? There are evolutionary psychology studies on that topic, too. Read Anne Campbell). Both aggression and competitiveness have to do with testosterone. Studies show that testosterone increase aggression in animals but in humans it’s more complicated and increases competitiveness and rick-taking behaviours. It’s possible that first there were more aggressive behaviours (influenced by testoterone), then those with better control of their aggression (but still influenced by testoterone) got an evolutionary advantage. That probably explained why some branch of feminist theory tends to confuse masculinity with aggression.

    • GSTally says:

      A lot of what’s being described as evolutionary psych is really just deductive physiology and common sense with Evolutionary Theory (ET) as window dressing. Yes, I’ve no problem with are general conclusions about evolved behaviors based off of physical characteristics that appear to be consistently stable over our evolutionary history. You can look at the shape of the teeth (or beaks!) of dinosaurs and you can get a pretty good estimation of their feeding habits. I don’t think its radical to claim that because men have physically stronger and leaner bodies than women we can surmise some very basic facts about human behavior: more likely to see general male propensity towards aggression/fighting & a general female propensity towards childbearing/rearing small children. Now there’s a shocker! That concept would be par for the course common sense until relatively recently in human history. We know that when humans are raised in isolation they suffer shocking and debilitating developmental setbacks and forced social isolation is one of the cruelest tortures you can inflict on a person with long-term neurological damage. From that we can gather that people are naturally social animals. Again, big shocker!

      Again, the problem with Evolutionary Psychology is that those conclusions aren’t directly linked to a key application of (ET); we have broad generalizations that appear to be supported both by contemporary empirical observations as well as deductions from comparative anatomy. No serious scientist doubts whether or not we got where we are was through an evolutionary process or that the theory has both informed and placed the biological sciences on firmer footing than ever before (largely by weeding out bullshit). That said, or rather “yes, but”, many of the soundest observations that evolutionary psych purports to make can be inferred, and often were inferred, before evolution even entered the scene. Look at the work of Falconer, Cuvier, or even Lamarck and you’ll find that despite not knowing about Darwin’s Dangerous Idea™ they made keen deductive observations of the behavior of animals based off of physiology, anatomy, chemistry etc. I want to see ET applied to the psychological sciences in a way that doesn’t have it merely trotted out as window dressing for me to really take this seriously. I want to see them state that in relation to X events adaptive trait Y emerged.

      I’m not wanting to harp on Evolutionary Psych as really I see that these problems aren’t merely facing Evolutionary Psych but Psych in general. The reasons for why some women can’t stand the idea of children and some men love rearing kids, or why some men literally get off on being passive betacucks and some women are violent murdering psychopaths is genuinely unknown. We don’t really know why or how these variations exist. We don’t know, we don’t know if it’s bad socialization or a part of evolutionary randomness. We don’t know if these are reactions of adaptations to aspects of culture or the development of personal choice. We can make some pretty sound but very limited inferences in drawing loosely from a wide pool of generalized empirical data and common sense, but that’s still a science groping largely in the dark in my book. What needs to occur in the political sciences, such as psychology, is a data-gathering project on an absolutely massive scale. I’m talking about a project that is ambitious as NASA aiming for the moon in terms of providing a regular reliable data well from which the political sciences may draw up as a standard measuring rod to set their work against as well as capturing and identifying key aspects of cultural change and, more importantly, stasis. Lot of ethical issues there but really it’s what’s being done hamfistedly by private corporations with the complacency of Universities and specifically the Psychological Community. The fact that Dr. Drew is allowed to practice as a mental health professional and present himself as a legitimate public celebrity representation of mental health professionals generally is but a small symptom of how much of joke the ethics of the field really are.

      Having laid that all out, I appreciate that even though the studies he presented aren’t perfect they still disprove many of the preconceptions people have garnered from post-modernist theoretical extremes. With him 100% there, however, a lot of these experiments are really just testing one gender studies theory or another, disproving it, and then giving a tautologically repetition of the researcher’s theoretical commitments by stating “this physical/biological/hormonal/psychological trait was clearly shaped by evolution” followed by wild speculation couched (I had to check that one and it’s not coached which really would have been a fun malapropism) in the mildest rhetoric on how that trait ensures reproductive success. There’s also this statement: “the findings are merely tests of evolutionary-guided hypotheses, and the tests were supportive of specially-designed sex differences existing in human mate preferences” which is odd because that’s a lot of weasel words to state the obvious conclusions that a) men and women are physically different b) these physical differences lead to men and women being sexually drawn to different things c) displaying both physical and cultural manliness is, by and large, attractive to women and displaying both physical and cultural womanhood is, by and large, generally attractive to men d) this is persistent across vast cultural landscapes e) these differing sexual attractions have been shaped in some way by evolution. In studies of this nature you’ll likely find that A through D, or some other variation of, will be very specific, well defined observations that have been directly linked to empirical studies and then E, the part pertaining to the actual application of ET, hasn’t but is rather linked to theoretical speculations as high and lofty as anything spouted by a hipster with a culture degree. I’m not outright rejecting E, but given the commitments of modern science it may as well be a superfluous tautology and high theory. None of statements A to D would have even been all that controversial BEFORE the arrival ET. I see ET trotted out here as if it really adds anything to the conversation other than: wow, there’s ET so you just KNOW it’s gotta be super cereal. Again, I want to see them state that in relation to X events adaptive psychological trait Y emerged. I appreciate that ET “inspires” a lot of brainstorming about various methodologies, instrumentation and perspectives on how to approach psychological research but I don’t see that alone as being Evolutionary Psych. I guess what I’m trying to get at is if study can be completely rewritten without a lot of evolutionary buzzwords still manage to get across a basic interpretation of what the data is saying then I don’t really see it as evolutionary psychology. That everything can eventually relate to evolutionary theory doesn’t make it evolutionary science. Just because a study is on the biological influences on sexuality and gender differences doesn’t make it evolutionary science. Freud believed in ET yet we don’t consider him to be a founding father in evolutionary psychology, in fact I think that many evolutionary psychologists would take umbrage at the suggestion. Experimental Evolutionary Psych, like every other political science, needs to be tightly reigned in and refocused towards a very boring and tedious scope in order to build the foundations it will need to really move forward as a science.

    • Rob King says:

      Helga, just noticed your comments. Well informed as always but, like many others you have missed the point of evolutionary psychology. Its not to prove that this or that is (or is not) an adapation. Its precisely this that gets some scholars all hot and bothered because they cant tell the difference between “adaptive” and “morally desirable” (see reference (94) in this piece, for instancve). The point of evo psych is, of course, to complete Tinbergens (1963) four questions about a trait. Its not about proving that X is an adaption. Its about using the fact that adaption is the only non magical method of producing complex functional structures and traits that imposes constraints on the completion of an explanation.

  2. Lesley Newson says:

    There is something different about humans and it is something that makes one wonder about the point of the “human mating strategy” investigation that evolutionary psychologists do. Evidence suggests that for most of human evolutionary history individuals had very little choice about whom they mated with. Humans are profoundly influenced by others when making reproductive decisions. This is not surprising because human females cannot successfully raise children without help from other members of her group. Human groups have reproductive norms which serve to regulate reproduction. In view of the extent to which norms influence all human behaviour, it is strange that the word “norm” doesn’t appear in the index of the David Buss textbook that the author mentions.

    • GSTally says:

      “Evidence suggests that for most of human evolutionary history individuals had very little choice about whom they mated with.”
      Individually yes. That does put a dent in the whole conception of the individual preferences in mate selection in men and women considering that it’s all absolute and completely empty and idle, if not outright pointless, speculation as to the actual environmental conditions of mate selection over the course of human evolutionary history. I guess you could try to make a case that for many cultures over the course of human history these decisions would at least be made by kin. Then again… link to youtube.com

    • Rob King says:

      Lesley, this sounds an awful lot like Wynne-Edwards style group selection. Is that what you are talking about? That sort of voluntary limiting of reproduction to benefit the group or species has been thoroughly debunked

    • David Schmitt says:

      on the myth of no voice in mate choice…pretty much just another “yes, but” link to psychologytoday.com

  3. Ben says:

    What a fantastic summary, David. This is a gold mine. Thank you, this article will go a long way.

  4. James says:

    Things have changed a lot from what they were in the past. Marriage stats now show the greatest group of women marrying men within two years of their own age.

    The below is irrelevant to today in terms of what is being discussed here, except to say that this is how things were in the past but they’re rapidly changing.

    “…women, more than men, valued a long-term mate who had a steady job (d = -0.73), earned more than they did (d = -0.49), was highly educated (d = -0.43), and was older by five years (d = -0.67). ”
    “In a cross-generational analysis of the same mate preference questionnaire administered to Americans from 1939 to 1996, both men and women increased their valuing of good financial prospects and decreased valuing ambition/industriousness over time, but the degree of sex differences in these items largely persisted in strength across more than 50 years.”

  5. Kaare Fog says:

    I live in a Scandinavian country (Denmark). I should greet from here and say that here too, in our modern relatively egalitarian society, there is still a fairly strong trend that the men that women prefer and the men that become fathers of most children are the rich ones and those with high positions, whereas men with no jobs fare the poorest. This is a mirror image of the situation the other way around: women in top positions (e.g. CEOs) have relatively few children, whereas women with no job (and hence full time available to raise their kids) have relatively many children.
    These are the results of various sociological statistics. Most references to this are in our native language. There is one reference in English, comparing the situation in USA and Sweden:
    Daniel Perusse (1993): Cultural and reproductive success in industrial societies. Behavioral and brain sciences 16: 267-322.

  6. Diotima says:

    “If the sociopolitical gender egalitarianism found in Scandinavian nations is supposed to produce smaller psychological sex differences, it’s not doing a very good job of it.”

    Yes, but importantly, they’re not allowed to say so.

  7. SocraticGadfly says:

    Ev Psych is built on an intellectual house of sand: link to socraticgadfly.blogspot.com

  8. SocraticGadfly says:

    And, here’s a much more in-depth refutation of the whole edifice, by and large: link to socraticgadfly.blogspot.com

  9. GSTally says:

    Loved this article. It demonstrated many areas where Evolutionary Psych really shines, particularly in debunking lofty conceptions of social constructivism as well as those of naive biological determinism. That said it has not convinced me that Evolutionary Psych is, as it currently stands, by and large a giant bullshit factory. Maybe in a century or two it will really shine but y’all got your work cut out for you climbing that Everest. After the fat is cut (academic clickbait) I’m really only seeing threadbare conclusions of strikingly limited applicability.

    Great article, +1.

    • GSTally says:

      Ok, I take back my first statement about where Evolutionary Psych really shines. It’s the best of the best when it comes to political sciences because it did something I didn’t even think possible… it established a Disney song in empirical reality: link to youtube.com
      case closed

  10. FYI WDWYTM says:

    If this disgracefully patronising article is indicative of the general tone of evolutionary psychologists, perhaps it is no wonder that many are disposed to argue with them. The author introduces many interesting studies (which I shall investigate further) but his smug and lazy caricature of opposing viewpoints is repellent. Not helpful or scientific.