Human mate selection is unique among organisms because there are two sets of criteria used. The first set of standards used for mate selection is biological in nature in the sense of passing on genetic material. There are specific traits that are deemed more attractive. The second set of standards is sociological and moralistic in nature and, in some of today's societies, is the determining factor of a union. For many generations, marriages were the product of either social advancement or status. These unions were often determined by the involved families rather than the couple in question.

There is no question that today's human phenotypes are, in many cultures, the result of social bias and governance. However, Western culture presents incidences of mate selection based on personal traits rather than societal expectations. That is not to say that social status and wealth do not play a role.

What factors are important to mate selection in humans? Physical traits and monetary wealth both play strong roles, but neither is dominant at all times. Each has its role in reproductive success. Even when a desirable mate is acquired, what ensures a successful long term relationship?

Studies on Mate Selection

To examine this further, four studies regarding different variables were considered. The studies considered selection based on men's socioeconomic status, female attractiveness, the effects of ovulation on mate selection, and self-perception and its effects on finding a mate.

The study on selection for male wealth was analyzed using data from medical and educational records regarding babies born within a certain time period. Some of these people were also personally interviewed. Data was compared with other studies of similar industrial societies and studies of non-industrial, African societies.

Two studies were conducted regarding preferences in human mate selection. The first study consisted of multiple questionnaires regarding desirable traits in a partner, personal perceptions, and the relation between preferences and the background characteristics of the selected mate. A second study was done to further investigate the desirability of certain mate characteristics.

The effects of ovulation on female mate choice were also studied. The desirability of certain male physical traits was analyzed using questionnaires. Desirable traits were also studied outside of the ovulatory period.

Mate preference and self-perception surveys were used to analyze the effects of self-perception on mate preference and acquisition. Scores were assigned and analyzed with mate-preference being the dependent variable and self-perception being the independent variable.


A British study showed a positive correlation between men with greater resources and greater reproductive success (Nettle and Pollet, 2008). This was not only true of men of industrial societies, but of hunting and gathering societies, as well. In polygynous African societies, men of greater wealth can afford to take more wives resulting in greater reproductive success.

A negative correlation between female reproductive success and education and income has been demonstrated, as well. Working women face the difficulty of time management while pursuing a career and motherhood simultaneously. However, there is a possible positive correlation between female reproductive success and household income. Women who choose mates of greater wealth may forego a career in favor of motherhood.

Phenotypic selection on male wealth is an important factor, especially in a long-term, monogamous relationship. Since there is a greater reproductive investment for females, the security and resources provided for the offspring are of great consideration when choosing a mate. Resources are not the only benefit of selection on male wealth, however. Men of high earning potential may also possess a genetic advantage that can be passed onto the offspring (Buss and Barnes, 1986). Selection on male wealth is determined by female choice.

Physical Characteristics

Male choice becomes a factor when physical traits are a factor. While women tend to seek out mates with a higher socioeconomic status, men favor physical attractiveness (Buss and Barnes, 1986). Men tend to favor women who possess physical qualities that are associated with reproductive success. For example, desired physical qualities are those that are associated with female health and fertility, so women of reproductive age will be more attractive. It is no surprise, then, that it has been found that men prefer the faces of women who are ovulating.

What qualities are considered attractive? Men and women were given questionnaires to answer in response to stimuli such as pictures of the opposite sex and the scent of worn clothing. For females, the time of ovulation was of major influence.

Bilateral symmetry is representative of good health and genetic variation and is, therefore, a more desirable trait. For example, a symmetrical face is more attractive. Scent may also be tied in with symmetry. It was found that, at the time of ovulation, women preferred the scent of males who exhibited greater symmetry (Gangestad, et al., 2005). Scent was of no consequence at other times in the menstrual cycle.

Women preferred more masculine faces and deeper voices at the time of ovulation. Men with more dominant personality traits, such as confidence or arrogance, were also more desirable at the time of ovulation. It is important to note that these traits are not necessarily preferred for long-term mates. Male wealth is a good example, as wealth is preferred for long-term relationships. However, women surveyed during ovulation preferred talent over wealth.

At mid-cycle, women were more attracted to men who were not their partners. This was limited by their mates' symmetry, though. Women who had asymmetrical mates were more likely to be attracted to extra-pair men during ovulation. In response, men are more dominant of their mates' time during ovulation to discourage extra-pair mating.


Pair-mating is also influenced by one's perception of oneself. Individuals with higher self-perceptions were more likely to wait for a more preferable partner (Buston and Emlen, 2003). Those with lower self-perceptions would most likely pair with a mate of a different quality with the possibility of finding a better partner at a later time.

Self-perception can be influenced by competition. Women who were exposed to more physically-attractive females lowered their self-perception as did men who were exposed to more socially-dominant males making lower-quality mates more acceptable.

These studies have shown that, while mate selection by males relies on consistent variables, selection by females is dependent upon the presence of ovulation. Outside of ovulation, when the female is infertile, the desirable mate possesses traits such as kindness, understanding, and the ability to be a good father. Financial wealth is also of importance as this is the key indicator of the resources available for raising a family.

During ovulation, the traits that are desirable for a long-term mate are no longer desirable for sexual attraction. Physical traits, such as symmetry and a lower voice, are determining factors. The desire for kindness is replaced by an attraction to arrogance and confidence. Financial wealth is no longer of primary interest, and the talents of a potential mate, such as creativity, are considered, instead. To encourage fidelity, men have been selected to become more dominating of their mates' time during ovulation.

Wealth, physical characteristics, and personality traits are not the determining factors in the success of a relationship, however. Self-perception and mate quality are of consequence. A couple possessing a lower quality mate was less likely to succeed in a long-term relationship. The higher-quality mate would tend to trade up to a better mate, when available. Couples of equal quality, those possessing equal self-perception scores, are much more likely to maintain successful, long-term relationships. Successful marriages are most commonly between like individuals.

Literature Cited

Buss, D. & Barnes, M. (1986) Preferences in Human Mate Selection. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 50: 559-570.

Buston, P. & Emlen, S. (2003) Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 100: 8805-8810.

Gangestad, S., Thornhill, R., & Garver-Apgarl, Christine. (2005). Adaptations to Ovulation: Implications for Sexual and Social Behavior. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 14: 312-316.

Nettle, D. & Pollet, T. (2008) Natural Selection on Male Wealth in Humans. Am Nat. 172: 658-666.