Do you have a teenager in your household? Are you a teenager yourself? As you may have already found out, you don’t learn everything you need to know in middle school health class.
In 2008, Geoffrey Miller and I co-edited a book titled Mating Intelligence: Sex, Relationships, and the Mind’s Reproductive System. Therein, we discussed the idea of an expanded kind of health curriculum. A curriculum that puts sex education in context. Sure, STDs are bad—and pregnancy is a huge deal. But science on the nature of intimate relationships has uncovered so much about the place of sexual activity in the broader domain of human mating. In our book, Geoffrey proposed the idea of expanding the sex education curriculum to connect more coherently with an education regarding the nature of human intimate relationships and mating psychology.
In a landmark study on the psychology of human mating that was conducted across more than 30 cultures around the world, David Buss and his colleagues (1990) documented the values that young adults and teens (college-aged students, in this case) place on various attributes in potential partners. Knowing this information should help teens in thinking about developing relationships.
Mutual Attraction and Love
Across a broad variety of cultures, young adults rated “Mutual Love and Attraction” as the #1 attribute that they care about in a relationship. A simple implication for developing relationships is this: If she doesn’t like you, then you should probably move on. Relationships that are not built on a foundation of mutual appreciation usually don’t do very well.
Be Dependable and Trustworthy
The #2 attribute that young adults in Buss’ study emphasized pertained to dependability. Not good looks. Not being a tough guy. Not being a bad boy. Nope. Good old dependability. For various reasons, people have a strong preference for others whom they can count on. Others whom they can trust. Related, young adults tend to show a strong preference for the attributes of honesty and humility in partners (see Van Tongeren et al., 2014). Being tagged as a liar is not usually the best way to acquire a mate!
Understanding these facts can go a long way in all kinds of relationships, including intimate relationships.
Emotional Stability and Pleasantness
#3 on the list was “Emotional Stability” and #4 was “Pleasant Disposition.” There are clear implications here. Romantic partners who are highly emotionally unstable, or “neurotic,” are not typically highly sought after (see Nettle & Clegg, 2008), and there are all kinds of good reasons for this. Emotional instability can wreak havoc on relationships and families. So it’s in your interest to not overreact and to be chill! (This is hard to do all the time for anyone, particularly for developing adolescents, sure. But it is also something to think about.)
Similarly, young adults all around the world seem to show a strong preference for a partner with a pleasant disposition. Kindness, respect, altruism, and generosity are generally features that people like in others.
Stay in School
There is a stereotype about nerdy guys not getting attention from women. Not true: Another top attribute that is found on the list is “Education and Intelligence.” One point for nerds all around the world. So if you’re a teenager and you need some extra motivation to do your homework, here it is.
Create and Be Fun
The other side of “Education and Intelligence” pertains to intelligence, which seems to map onto various forms of high-quality creativity (see Geher & Miller, 2008′ Miller, 2000). So don’t be afraid to spend time mastering your instrument or your graphic-design skills. Humor and artistic talent, both of which seem to connect with the broad construct of intelligence, are highly attractive.
Don’t Worry too Much about Looks and Social Status
So here’s an eye-opener from David Buss’ research on attributes that young adults find attractive in potential mates: Of attributes that were studied, “good looks” and “social status” were ranked lower than all of the above-mentioned characteristics. And this fact was true for both males and females. Surprising, right? So that pimple in the middle of your nose? Not so big of a deal! The fact that you didn’t get invited to that party that everyone else seemed to go to? As difficult as it might be, don’t let that get the better of you. It’s a long road ahead. And while your social status may seem to be everything when you’re a teenager, I promise you this: Your social status in high school does not define your life.
Relationships Take Place Within a Community
Teenage lives are famous for drama. Cliques are formed. Betrayal happens. And general meanness is at least somewhat common in the hallways of the high schools. Further, gossip is rampant.
While these facts may be concerning, it’s important for teens to know what they are dealing with. Gossip is actually a common feature of human social interactions (see Kniffin & Wilson, 2010). Gossip seems to be so common in human communities because it keeps certain classes of behaviors in check. If there’s a cheater in the mix—or a liar—or a physical abuser, it’s in the interest of all kinds of individuals to be aware. Gossip seems to function as something of a check on such non-other-oriented kinds of behaviors.
This is important for teens to know because relationships are famous for having occasional problems. Conflict and even betrayal often come along for the ride. With maturity and experience, people develop skills that relate to the navigation of intimate relationships. But it’s not always easy, and teens are still learning. Realizing that relationship-relevant behaviors exist in a broader social community is an important part of the development of these critical skills.
Lessons from Health Class
With this all said, I’d be remiss to put out this guidance as a replacement for what all is more typically presented in health class. Understanding STDs, as well as how to avoid them, is foundational. And teen pregnancy can be an extremely difficult and life-altering issue to deal with. So listen to your health teachers!
A huge proportion of songs are all about young love (see Hobbs & Gallup, 2014). This is not coincidence. Intimate relationships are foundational in the human experience. They famously lead to extreme emotions on both ends of the spectrum. There is nothing better than being head-over-heels in love. And there is no heartache that compares with that which follows from relationship dissolution. Breaking up is hard to do. And being betrayed in a close relationship can be nothing short of devastating.
While health class provides teens with critical information regarding teen sexuality, it turns out that the details of reproduction are really a slice of the human mating experience. Understanding the personality and behavioral factors that are attractive to potential partners as well as the factors that lead to conflict and stress in relationships can go a long way to helping teens and young adults effectively navigate the all-important life domain of intimate relationships.
This post is dedicated to any and all developing adolescents navigating new stages of life each day. Remember: No matter how difficult things might seem at any given point, tomorrow’s another day.
Buss, D. M., Abbott, M., Angleitner, A., Asherian, A., Biaggio, A., & et al. (1990). International preferences in selecting mates. A study of 37 cultures. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 21, 5-47.
Hobbs DR, Gallup GG. Songs as a medium for embedded reproductive messages. Evolutionary Psychology : An International Journal of Evolutionary Approaches to Psychology and Behavior. 9: 390-416. PMID 22947982
Kniffin KM, Wilson DS. Evolutionary perspectives on workplace gossip: Why and how gossip can serve groups Group and Organization Management. 35: 150-176. DOI: 10.1177/1059601109360390
Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London, Heineman.
Nettle, D. & Clegg, H. (2008). Personality, mating strategies and mating intelligence. In G. Geher & G. F. Miller (Eds.), Mating intelligence: Sex, relationships, and the mind’s reproductive system (pp. 121-135). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Van Tongeren, D., Davis, D., & Hook, J. (2014). Social benefits of humility: Initiating and maintaining romantic relationships The Journal of Positive Psychology, 9 (4), 313-321 DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2014.898317