A Philosopher's Blog

Appearance & Relationships

Posted in Business, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on May 12, 2008

When it comes to relationships, two common questions are: 1) what works in starting one? and 2) what works in maintaining one? Not surprisingly, beauty (or lack thereof) is involved in the answers to both questions.

Beautiful People

Intuitively, beautiful people have an easier time starting a relationship. Being attractive, they would obviously tend to attract more people. Also, beauty is a valued quality and hence can be used to get what one wants. Aside from formulaic comedies, you almost never see beautiful people lamenting that they cannot find a date and that no one is interested in them. Quite the opposite is true. So, if you want to increase your relationship chances, then being beautiful is a good place to start.

Intuitively, one would think that beauty would also help maintain a relationship. To use an analogy, just as a person would want to keep a beautiful work of art, she would want to keep a beautiful person. However, to continue the art analogy, a really outstanding work of art is something that would have many potential buyers and hence can be a hard thing to keep. Likewise, a beautiful person will have many options and hence might be inclined to move along if a better deal arises.

As with many things relating to relationships, men and women tend to differ in regards to the role of beauty in maintaining a relationship. This has been recently studied in a limited way and the findings are, roughly, as follows. A man is more likely to stick with a relationship if he is less attractive than the woman. If he is more attractive, then he is more likely to end the relationship.

Intuitively, this seems obvious. Some possible reasons are as follows. First, the is the general tendency of people to want the best they can get. If a guy is aware he is better looking than his current woman, then he will be inclined to seek someone better (assuming he defines value in this manner). Second, there are the qualities attributed to men. Men are said to be more concerned about physical appearance than women and the findings in the study seem to support this: a woman is less likely to leave a less attractive men than a man is to leave a less attractive woman. Those who can’t resist bringing in evolutionary theory almost always claim that men have two basic reproductive strategies. One is to stick around with a mate and help her, thus making it likely that the offspring will survive and pass on his genes. The other is to “mate around” and thus have a higher chance of creating more offspring and thus increasing the odds that at least one will survive to pass on his genes. A man who is not so good looking will have less chances of “mating around” and hence, the reasoning goes, will tend to follow the stick around strategy. A good looking male can make the “mate around” strategy work, and hence will tend to follow that strategy.

Another possibility, long suggested in popular psychology, is that attractive people generally have things easier in life and hence do not tend to get accustomed to having to do things the hard way. To use a stereotype, you can think of the cheerleader who uses her looks to get the smart guys to help her with her schoolwork while the less attractive girls have to do their work themselves. Those who are conditioned to having things easy will be inclined to just give up when things get harder. Hence, they will tend to leave relationships more often than those who are more accustomed to hard work.

As noted above, women tend to be less affected by the beauty of men. They are, however, not blind to it. As common sense and studies indicate, women do look at attractiveness as a major factor. And, like men, they tend to aim for someone they think is in their same “beauty range.”

Why women want attractive men can be explained in terms of the obvious-people value and are attracted to attractive people (which is why they are called “attractive” and not “repulsive”). There are also the usual evolutionary answers-beauty is taken to indicate good genes and we all know that people are basically machines driven to reproduce by their genes (assuming you believe such a thing).

What is much more interesting is the fact that women are more willing than men to stick with some one who is less attractive.

In some cases, the answer is easy and obvious. For example, ugly music stars attract very hot (but often very foolish) women because they have fame. They can do this even when they wear pink tuxes, have giant clocks around their necks and go by the name Flavor Flav.

Flavor and the Ladies

Ugly guys with power and wealth are attractive because they have, well, power and wealth. Hence, Donald Trump can always find someone young and attractive who is willing to be with him. People, when acting rationally, tend to seek what they value. Since fame, power and wealth are valuable, a rational woman will seek them. Since people generally do not like to just give valuable stuff away, the woman will need to bring something in exchange that the guy will want. The obvious commodity is, of course, beauty. On the downside, beauty fades with time-which is why men like Trump tend to trade their aging wives in for younger models. From an economic standpoint it makes good sense-if your value is the same or increasing and her value is decreasing, it is time to end the merger. Assuming, of course, the relationship is based on those factors.

In other cases, the answer is less obvious. For example, an attractive woman might stick with a guy who is less attractive and is also lacking in power, fame and wealth. In some cases, this might be do to an inferiority complex on the part of the woman or some other psychological factor that might lead her to “settle.” In other cases, it might be because the guy offers something else the woman values other than looks, wealth, fame and power.

It is often claimed that women value loyalty, stability, being supportive and dependability in men. A man who is less good looking and who lacks wealth, fame and power but who has such traits can use them to get a woman who is better looking than he is. He gets a woman that would normally be out of reach for him and she gets those desirable qualities. Some men are also willing to make that sort of exchange, only in reverse, but this is less common.

The standard answer as to why women do this is in evolutionary theory. For women, it is often argued, a good survival and reproductive strategy is to find a male that will stick around and behave in a decent manner (at least most of the time). Hence, more women are willing to stick with less attractive men. Add to this the fact that more attractive men will tend to be less inclined to stick around and it becomes evident why less attractive guys can sometimes get a more attractive woman.

Distilling this all down, the basic idea seems to be that relationships are essentially economic exchanges in which each person assesses his/her value and compares that to what the other person offers in terms of a purchase price. Men tend to value beauty more than women. Hence, wealthy, powerful and famous men are willing to accept attractive woman who are lacking in this traits. Women tend to value security (material and.or emotional) more than men do, hence attractive women are more willing to accept men who will provide such security-even if they are less attractive.

What, then, about love? An excellent question. An excellent question indeed.

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7 Responses

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  1. Sophie said, on May 13, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    Instead of seeing relationships as essentially economic exchanges, I prefer the saying of “making a whole”. Being complementary to each other.

    From the evolutionary aspect, I believe human beings are driven by their genes and seeking for “good genes”.There’s research done by Claus Wedekind which determinded MHC–dissimilar mate selection tendencies in humans. HC genes make molecules that enable the immune system to recognise invaders; usually, the more diverse the MHC genes of the parents, the stronger the immune system of the offspring. In the experiment, a group of young female smelled t-shirts that had been worn by young male for two nights, without deodorant, cologne or scented soaps. Women overwhelmingly preferred the odors of men with dissimilar MHCs to their own. A correspondent’s comment is—don’t clean yourself too well, in case you also wash your charm away. 🙂

    People seeks for the traits they do not have. At the same time, I think people seeks the same traits when seeking a date/mate. For example, the woman who choose to stick around a man who has the trait of loyalty, that must be she values it and has that trait too.

    There’s a noticeable phenomenon that in Mainland China and Taiwan, the rate of single women is getting higher too. A Hongkong news says that is a prevalent situation in China, especially in cities. “The remainder” is a term has been used to describe those single women who born in seventies, and are pretty, well-educated, thoughtful, minded, individual, has abundant emotions, and so on, but can not find a date/mate.
    Is that means those women do not have the traits most men are looking for? 66% of those single women, between 25 to 49, said they can not find a suitable male to get married. Maybe, the reason is reverse that those women can not find the traits they are looking for from some men.

    Until 20 years ago, when I was a teenager, the generally social or women’s conception of marriage is getting a long-term meal ticket. At that time, married women being housewife was very common, they play a role of cleaning, cooking, giving births, taking care of children and elders. But when the women have better chance to be educated and economically independent in past decade. The former playing rule has no longer effective. What do those “reminder” looking for from men?

  2. Melanie said, on July 12, 2008 at 6:30 am

    Alot of this seems like hog-wash when it comes to seeking someone stronger genetically to produce “better” offspring.
    My weight has fluctuated up and down; I was heavy till age 16, then at 21 got married and had a son who is a National Honors Society Member, and award winning Golden Gloves Boxer with a career in film/television ahead of him. His mother (thats me) now weight 239 pds and CANNOT find a serious boyfriend or husband now that I’ve gained weight back “again”… however it made no bearing whatsoever in my ability to produce a brilliant and enigmatic off-spring. So appearances have nothing to do with genetic superiority as far as I can see it! Its just that men are SHALLOW and only care about a woman’s appearance. And the author is right to end with the question, “So what about LOVE; an excellent question, an excellent question INDEED.”.

  3. Michael LaBossiere said, on July 12, 2008 at 4:15 pm

    You do raise an excellent point that current appearance and genetic fitness (vaguely defined) do not always match. I’m sure the folks who like evolutionary explanations would say that men prefer a certain look because it is associated with a general tendency towards certain genetic traits or reproductive health or some such thing.

    What counts as genetic superiority is a tricky thing. In evolutionary terms, any trait that furthers survival and reproduction would be a superior trait and the genes behind such a trait would be “superior.” However, if it is defined in terms of superior qualities, then appearance need not indicate superior genes. After all, beauty and intelligence do not seem to be linked, nor do beauty and character.

    My experience has been that people prefer better looking people. This seems to be supported by surveys and various psychological studies. So, I think almost everyone has some shallowness.

    Being a man and knowing many men, I can say that some men are shallow and focus mainly on looks. But, this is not true of all men. For example, most of my friends prefer women who have common interests, shared values and good character over those who have looks but are lacking in these areas. Honesty does compel me to say that all the men I know would probably chose a better looking woman over another woman, should all other factors be equal (or even just close). All the women I know would probably pick the better looking man over a competitor, if all else were equal (or even just close). Of course, there is the mysterious factor of chemistry to take into account as well.

  4. magus71 said, on July 13, 2008 at 12:04 pm

    I wrote this article, recently. It hits on some of the things you talk about. http://magus71.wordpress.com/2008/07/13/considerations-on-relationships/

    I believe I read a study that stated that being attractive made people more likely to stray from current relationships, and in my experience that’s true.

    To me, genetic reasons for relationship/ appearance question only raise more questions. Human psychology may be a door which we can crack open a very few inches, to peer into a dimly lit room… Different cultures have different ideas of what beauty is, so we can safely say that we’re not hardwired to perceive beauty in the same way.

    The older I get, the less emphasis I put on the looks of a woman. I now instictively know that many times, looks are inversely proportional to decency….Yup–I’m making a blanket statement, but listening to my insticts usually ends up being the right thing to do, and many times beautiful women make my Spidey Sense say “Stay Away!”.

  5. Michael LaBossiere said, on July 14, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    That seems reasonable. If a person thinks s/he has got “the goods”, s/he might be more inclined to shop around for a better deal.

    There was a study done that people pick the same when asked to select between photographs in regards to beauty and not beautiful. This seemed to work across cultures. But, cultural factors do a have a clear role-witness the changes in art over the century in regards to the ideals of beauty.

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