When thinking about the economic recession, women exhibit less interest in alpha males in favor of guys who call themselves "natural followers," a new study suggests.
The results are surprising because they fly in the face of what evolutionary psychologists expect from women's mate choices. According to evolutionary theory, women will seek men who provide resources and protection. The new study found that women do still prefer high earners for long-term partnerships and marriage, but that for the short term they seem less concerned about snagging a macho man during a recession.
"Our findings tell us that external factors, such as an economic recession, may affect women's mate preferences," said study researcher Fay Julal, a psychologist at Southampton Solent University in England. "What is interesting here is that we have shown that women's mate choices appear to shift during an economic recession."
The recession and the dating market
When Julal and her colleagues started their study in 2010, the news was full of stories of a bad economy. The researchers wondered whether the economic doldrums would change what women wanted in a man. So they created mock online profiles of a man looking for a relationship. In some versions, the man was attractive, and in others he was plain. Some profiles described the prospective date as a leader, others as a follower. In some cases, the man was planning a high-earning career, and in others his work would be more modest.
One hundred and sixty heterosexual female volunteers saw these profiles and ranked whether they would date the man and whether or not he would make a good husband. Before viewing the profiles, however, they took a language test that included finance-related words such as "bankruptcy." This test was meant to introduce thoughts of the recession into the women's minds, putting those thoughts at the forefront during the dating profile experiment.
Dating versus marriage
The results showed that women evaluated "Mr. Right" and "Mr. Right Now" a bit differently. Men with the highest earning potential were judged as the best husband material — somewhat surprising, Julal told LiveScience, as all of the volunteers were university students whose own potential earning power was high.
"Compared to other historical periods, women are in a better position to support themselves independently, financially. For this reason, partner's earning potential may be less important," Julal said."Our findings suggest that when modern women think of marriage, the men who are most appealing are those who have high earnings. Things don't seem to have changed." [6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
In the short term, however, women were less interested in dating a go-getter, rating natural-born followers as better dates. Socially dominant alpha guys still should have piqued these women's interest for dating, according to evolutionary theory, Julal said. It's only speculative, she said, but it may be that in a time of recession, a laid-back guy who comes with minimal drama is appealing.
"A man who is a follower might offer stability: He may have fewer resources, but he may be less likely to abandon us for another woman or need to share his resources with lots of other women," Julal said.
Julal and her colleagues plan to present their work this week at the annual conference of the British Psychological Society in London. In future studies, they plan to look at the effect of recession on mate preferences in men, in older women and in working women who are out of college.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.