Do less attractive men make better fathers?

Happy Father’s Day (on June 17th)!

The folk notion that so-called “sexy cads” offer poor committed relationship potential has led some dating guides to suggest that women should instead seek “Mr. Good Enough” when thinking long-term (Gottlieb, 2010). Indeed, physically attractive men may be great for a short-term fling but, when it comes to starting a family, it might be safer to go a little more Danny Tanner than Jesse Katsopolis (Full House; Franklin, 1987). Importantly, this line of reasoning suggests that being physically attractive and being a good father are somehow at odds… It begs the question: Do less attractive men make better fathers?

Disclaimer: Today I’m posing a question to which there is still no definitive answer; in this post I’m simply going to present some theoretical reasons why less physically attractive men MIGHT make better fathers and summarize some relevant research. Bear in mind, physical attractiveness is just ONE possible predictor of parenting motivation among a multitude of other factors (see Buckels et al., 2005 for some other predictors). These ideas do not generalize to ALL fathers and I do not wish to imply that your amazing father is unattractive in any way!

Why might less attractive men make better fathers?

According to life history theory, physiological and psychological mechanisms facilitating mating behavior utilize the same bioenergetic resources (e.g., time, attention, effort) as those facilitating parenting behavior (Del Giudice, Gangestad, & Kaplan, 2016). Therefore, when resources are invested in the development or deployment of mating mechanisms, those resources are unavailable for investment in parenting mechanisms; this fundamental tension is referred to as the mating/parenting trade-off. Think of your available bioenergetic resources as a pitcher of water and think of parenting effort and mating effort as two separate glasses; you have a finite amount of water in your pitcher, so a trade-off occurs between which glass (parenting or mating) gets the greater fill.

Source: Chris Price/Flickr

The decision of which “glass gets the greater fill” (or which reproductive strategy is more heavily favoured) depends on the costs and benefits of either strategy within an individual’s local ecology (Buss & Schmidt, 1993). In some contexts, it is beneficial to adopt a reproductive strategy which focusses heavily on short-term mating and producing a large number of offspring (Clutton-Brock, 1990). In other contexts, investing heavily into the parental caring of offspring is a more optimal reproductive strategy because it ensures that these particular offspring grow up with the skills and social acumen to be reproductively successful themselves (Trivers, 1972; Rowe, Vazsonyi, & Figueredo, 1997).

Parenting effort is favored over mating effort in situations when the opportunity to produce a high number of offspring is low, such as when there is a dearth of receptive potential romantic partners around (Marlowe, 1999; see Gangestad & Simpson, 2000). It may be the case that being less physically attractive offers fewer opportunities to mate with reproductively viable romantic partners and therefore results in fewer opportunities to produce additional offspring. If so, then less physically attractive men may be better served devoting limited bioenergetic resources to parenting the offspring they are able to produce rather than to the pursuit of a less-than-successful short-term mate-seeking strategy.

Another practical consideration which may lead to the prediction that less attractive men make better fathers is that physically attractive fathers (versus less physically attractive fathers) may draw more opportunities for extra-pair affairs which could destabilize co-parental alliances and lead to poorer parent-child relationships.

Is there evidence that less attractive men make better fathers?

Some research has examined the relationship between “self-perceived attractiveness” and parenting effort. Self-perceived attractiveness can be thought of as an indication of an individuals’ anticipated success in securing opportunities to engage in short-term romantic relationships. And, because people are more likely to engage in behaviors that they expect to produce successful outcomes, it may also serve as an additional indication of their inclination to devote bioenergetic resources to short-term mating effort (see Clark, 2004). Therefore, self-perceived attractiveness may fit with the evolutionary logic outlined above; men who perceive themselves as less attractive may devote more effort to parental care and less effort to short-term mating.

Apicella and Marlowe (2007) found some evidence that fathers’ self-perceived mate value may be indirectly related to parental investment. Specifically, they found that the extent to which fathers believed that women found them attractive was associated with self-reported time spent flirting with women, which in turn, was related to less attention and time devoted to their children. Though this study provides some ancillary support for the idea that less attractive men may make for better fathers, the authors did not include measures of parental emotional responses that may be more indicative of the parental compassion typically associated with being a “good dad”. Indeed, parental investment entails more than mere time and attention devoted to offspring; there must also be an emotional component which encompasses a willingness to protect children from harm, as well as an inclination to embrace the role of caregiver (Buckels et al., 2015). There is some evidence that less physically attractive individuals may be more empathic (Holtzman, Augustine, & Senne, 2011), but this work does not specifically examine emotions associated with parental behavior.

In some of my own empirical work (Beall & Schaller, 2014), I examined whether there is an association between men’s self-perceived attractiveness and their tendency to experience emotional responses associated with parental care (e.g., “tenderness”; see Beall & Tracy, 2017). Results of this investigation revealed that men’s self-rated desirability as a short-term mate (e.g., “physical attractiveness”, “sex appeal”) was negatively correlated with trait-level parental tenderness. Indeed, men who reported being less attractive tended to more strongly endorse statements such as “when I see infants, I want to hold them” and “babies melt my heart”. Additionally, when men viewed photos of infants (pre-selected to exhibit high levels of cuteness), those with higher self-perceived attractiveness reported feeling lower levels of parenting-related emotions such as tenderness and caring. Put together, the results of this research are the first to suggest that men who are less attractive (or, at least, believe they are less attractive) tend to exhibit stronger parenting motivation and feel more parental caring emotionality towards infants.  

Do less attractive men make better fathers? The evolutionary logic and scant extant research seems to hint at a possible negative association between physical attractiveness and parental effort, however, much more empirical work is needed before any confident conclusions can be drawn. To my knowledge, no research has directly examined whether “other-rated attractiveness” is also associated with parenting emotionality and/or any other form of parental effort (e.g., attention/time devoted to children, nurturant tendencies, etc…); this might be an interesting area for future research. In the meantime—no matter if he looks more like Danny Tanner or Jesse Katsopolis—be sure to wish your dad a happy father’s day!

Thanks for reading! I want to know your thoughts, please feel free to tweet me @DrAlecBeall

(Also, for more info on the mating/parenting trade-off, check out my recent published paper: Beall & Schaller, 2017 or check out my dissertation)

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