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New research shows that women’s parents choose less attractive partners for their daughters than women choose for themselves. Why would parents want their daughters to date someone less attractive? The reasons may surprise you.
Imagine you were searching for a long-term mate, which traits would be most important to you in a partner? Honesty? A good sense of humor? Physical attractiveness? When we ask both parents and offspring about the most important traits for a potential mate, offspring value physical attractiveness in a potential mate for themselves more than their parents value attractiveness in a potential mate for their children (Apostolou, 2015; Buunk & Solano, 2010; Fugère et al., 2017; Perilloux et al., 2011). Researchers propose an evolutionary explanation for this difference in priorities: Because offspring are more strongly genetically related to their future children than their parents are, offspring should value the good genes signaled by the physically attractive appearance of a partner more so than their parents do (Apostolou, 2015; Perilloux et al., 2011). However, just because good genes are more important to offspring doesn’t mean that they are unimportant to parents. Parents benefit when their children choose attractive mates by gaining good genes for their grandchildren (Apostolou, 2015), and recent experimental research suggests that physical attractiveness plays a stronger role than personality characteristics in the mate choices of both women and their parents (Fugère et al., 2017b).
In the current research project, researchers assessed the mate preferences of matched samples of women and one or both parents (Fugère et al., 2018). The participants included 133 women, 61 mothers, and 84 fathers. The participants were primarily Caucasian. The researchers presented women and their parents with photographs of three Caucasian men varying in attractiveness from more to less attractive. The photographs were associated with different personality characteristics as well. For example, one trait profile included being respectful, trustworthy and honest, while another included having a pleasing disposition, ambition, and intelligence. The different trait profiles were randomly associated with the men’s photographs. Women were asked to choose the most desirable mate for themselves and parents were asked to choose the most desirable mate for their daughters.
The results revealed that women were most likely to choose the most attractive man as the best mate for themselves, regardless of the personality trait profile he was assigned. Women’s parents, however, were most likely to choose the moderately attractive man as the best mate for their daughters, regardless of the personality characteristics associated with that individual. Neither women nor their parents chose the unattractive man as the best mate, even when he possessed the most favorable personality characteristics. Unattractiveness may be unacceptable to both parents and offspring because it can signal susceptibility to pathogens (see Perilloux et al., 2010).
These results raise the possibility that parents might actively avoid attractive mates for their daughters even if the attractive men are purported to have good personalities. The researchers interpret these findings to suggest that parents prefer less attractive mates for their daughters because attractive men are less likely to stay in long-term relationships (e.g. Ma-Kellams et al., 2017; Mueller and Mazur, 2001). Parents may also choose partners for their daughters who are less attractive because parents perceive that less attractive men may be more likely to stay in the relationship and, importantly, help raise any future offspring (Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). This interpretation is bolstered by research showing that parents care more about qualities that indicate the potential for investment in future children such as socioeconomic status and dependable character (Apostolou, 2015; Buunk and Salano, 2010; Fugère et al., 2017a; Perilloux et al., 2011).
Although the current research involves only women and their parents, the researchers expect similar results for men and their parents. Both men and women who are more attractive are more likely to leave their relationships (Ma-Kellams et al., 2017) and may therefore be perceived as less desirable partners by parents.