What do women want? And for that matter, what do men want? These are age-old questions, and they are particularly top of mind on Valentine’s Day when we celebrate romance. It turns out that behavioral science has some answers to offer based on careful empirical research, and perhaps not surprisingly, men and women want different things.
In one study conducted by economist Raymond Fisman and colleagues for Columbia University, 392 single men and women were invited to participate in a speed-dating event. Each participant went on between 10 and 20 four-minute speed dates with members of the opposite sex. They then rated the attractiveness, intelligence and ambition of each person they met on a 1-to-10 scale and indicated whether they would like that person’s contact information (so they could see them again).
First, there’s some good news: People aren’t absurdly hard to please! Forty-three percent of the time, these speed daters requested the contact information of the person they had just met. The more interesting question is what moved that number up and down. (And were the same characteristics important to both men and women?)
Unsurprisingly, the data collected reveals that both men and women really care a lot about attractiveness (though men care ever so slightly more). However, women care about intelligence roughly twice as much as men. In the speed-dating study, every point increase in a man’s intelligence rating (on a 1-to-10 scale) boosted the chances a woman would want to see him again by an average of 4.5 percentage points, while an equivalent increase in a woman’s intelligence increased the probability that a man would want to reconnect by only 2.3 percentage points.
Attractiveness mattered far more to potential mates than intelligence. A one-point increase in a woman’s attractiveness rating (on a 1-to-10 scale) boosted the chances that a man would want to see her again by an average of 14 percentage points. And this was a big factor for women, too: An equivalent increase in a man’s attractiveness raised the chances that a woman would want to reconnect with him by 12 percentage points.
Another study, of 10,526 participants in a commercial dating service conducted by a team of psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania, also concluded that the outcomes of such dates were largely determined by physical attributes such as height, weight, age and overall attractiveness. So obsessing about appearance may be worth the effort for men and women; it’s only slightly more rational for women to primp. And revealing that you’re smart has big returns, too — they just turn out to be twice as big for men as they are for women.
Here’s where things from the Columbia speed-dating study get really interesting and a little depressing: Men valued women’s intelligence only until it matched their own, and they actually found women whose ambition exceeded theirs to be off-putting.
Disappointingly, this finding aligns with other recent research. For instance, a team of economists at the University of Chicago showed that when women out-earn their husbands, marital satisfaction is lower, and divorce is more likely. Another recent study, of MBA students, suggests that single women are worried about this issue and try to avoid being penalized for it by potential mates: Single female MBA students hid their ambition on questionnaires when they expected male classmates to see their answers. For ambitious women, perhaps a better approach would be to seek equally ambitious partners who will value their drive appropriately while we all work on changing social norms.
Lest you be left with the impression that only men revealed politically incorrect preferences in the Columbia speed-dating study, however, let’s set the record straight: Women have some, too. For one, they prefer men raised in more affluent Zip codes, while men show no such preference for a moneyed upbringing. In addition, women are dramatically more interested in partners of their own race, while men show no such in-group preference.
In another interesting twist, the researchers discovered that men are equally discerning when it comes to the women they’d like to see again no matter how many people are in a speed-dating pool. Their standards remain unchanged whether they meet 10 or 20 potential partners. Women, on the other hand, become pickier the more partners are “on the market.”
What does this all mean on Valentine’s Day?
If you’re on the market for a mate, it does seem advisable to worry a lot about appearances. Whether that means hunting harder for a great hairdresser; signing up for Stitch Fix, Trunk Club or Birchbox; or making a trip to your local fashion retailer for a wardrobe refresh, it could be a good investment. And reading more so you have smart things to say on a date is a good idea, too — the returns are probably worth it. Women, please don’t hide your ambition! But you may find more lasting love if you look for an equally ambitious partner. Finally, men, if you’re looking for an uptown girl, you may encounter some snobbery, but never fear — as long as there aren’t too many fish in the sea, you’ve got a chance! Isn’t that romantic?
Happy Valentine’s Day.
Katherine L. Milkman is a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who researches behavioral economics. Follow her on twitter @Katy_Milkman.