Have you ever seen the French film Trop Belle Pour Toi? It’s the story of a married car dealer who has an affair with his very ordinary secretary. Doesn’t sound widely fascinating, I know, but the premise behind the film is that the wife is so beautiful that the husband (Gerard Depardue) constantly feels that he doesn’t deserve her. It is his sense of inadequacy that drives him into the arms of a significantly less attractive woman. She is happy to have him because while he is not exactly handsome, he is Gerard Depardue after all, and who could resist that man?
Twice in my life I have dated men who were off-the-charts good looking and, to be perfectly honest, I found the whole experience a little annoying. It wasn’t their fault. The problem was the predatory behavior of other women who relentlessly pursued them despite the fact that it was obvious they were already in a relationship. With one, we were standing together in a bar when a woman came and (literally) squeezed herself between us so that her body was pressed up against his. When I pointed out that we were together she shot me a shitty “back off” look and then went back to grinning up at him inanely.
After a while it got boring and just like the French car dealer I started to wonder if maybe ordinary is preferable to extraordinary.
Physical beauty is not the only characteristic that women seek in a mate; they also care about the resources a man brings into the match. New research in psychology finds that while women may prefer a man who is handsome over one who is plain and a man who is rich over one who is poor, when given a choice they prefer a handsome man who has lower income over a handsome man who has a higher income. *
That is women have a slight preference for lower-status physically attractive men over high-status physically attractive men. The authors of this study attribute this preference to a fear of infidelity on the part of the women – women prefer a handsome man that they aren’t going to have to share with other women.
The researchers on this project created online dating profiles for twenty fictional men who varied in terms of physical attractiveness (rated by an independent group on a scale of one to ten) and who were assigned into occupational classes: high status (doctor, architect), medium status (teacher, social workers) and low status (postman, call centre operator). The dating profiles were shown to women who were then asked which of the men they would prefer for a long-term relationship. Following that response the women took a test to determine their level of trust and their self-perceived success on the mating market.
The results of this research find that women prefer a man who has a medium economic status over a man who has high economic status if he is physically attractive (rated as more than 7/10). If he is less attractive though (rated between 4 and 6), women prefer a man who is high economic status over one who is medium economic status. They find that these results are strongest for women who are less trusting and for those who rate themselves as less competitive on the mating market.
So, the general conclusion is that a woman who is afraid that her mate will not be faithful will stay away from men who she perceives to be attractive to other women. This could be because she thinks he will cheat, but it could also be that mate-guarding is exhausting and, like me, she would rather not incur the cost of being in a relationship with a man who is constantly being pursued by other women.
There is one other possibility that is not addressed in this paper and that has to do with the distribution of household bargaining power. If you are in relationship with a person who has better outside options then the distribution of power within your home likely favors that other person. If women care about economic resources, physical attractiveness AND bargaining power and they perceive that bargaining power is diminished with a man who has both high economic status and is physically attractive then it is purely rational to choose a man who is weaker in either one of those characteristics.
The important message here is for men who are fine-tuning their online dating profiles: If you are going to “exaggerate” your qualities I recommend that you don’t overdo it. For example, if you plan on Photoshoping a picture of your head onto a hot guy’s body then you may not want to also claim that the five years you spent in community college moving from program to program is a post-graduate degree.
And Gerard, next time you are looking for a less than perfect mate please feel free to give me a call.
Chu, Simon, Danielle Farr, Luna Munoz and John Lycett (2011). “Interpersonal trust and market value moderates the bias in women’s preferences away from attractive high-status men.” Personality and Individual Differences.
Thank you to all the readers who took time out on their busy Easter Sunday to let me know that I had misspelled "coitus interruptus" in my last post.