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When It Comes to a Mate, Beauty Can't Be Beat

New research finds that both men and women place a premium on looks

THURSDAY, Feb. 14 (HealthDay News) -- With Valentine's Day as a backdrop, researchers are taking a cold look at the hot topic of romantic attraction and turning some long-held assumptions on their pretty heads.

Debunked myth number one: Men alone place a premium on appearance, while women prioritize mates by the size of their wallets.

Reality check: It turns out that regardless of what people may claim they want, in the real world of face-to-face dating, physical attractiveness is the number one draw for both sexes, ahead of either money-making potential or ambition.

"When you ask them to describe their ideal preferences, women consistently say they care more about earning prospects, and men consistently say they care more about physical attractiveness," said study co-author Paul W. Eastwick, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychology at Northwestern University. "But when you see what men and women are truly attracted to, you don't find these sex differences emerging."

Debunked myth number two: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Reality check: People stick to a universal standard of beauty when assessing the physical attributes of others, no matter how attractive the judging parties are themselves.

"Although more attractive people are more selective in terms of the attractiveness of their potential mate -- in terms of who they choose to date -- all people, regardless of their own looks, perceive the attractiveness of others in similar ways," said the lead author of the second study, Leonard Lee, an assistant professor in the marketing division of the Columbia University Business School.

Eastwick's work is published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, while Lee's finding were expected to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science.

In the first study, Eastwick joined his co-author Eli J. Finkel, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University, to conduct 30-minute online surveys of 163 undergraduate students regarding their pre-dating preferences for an "ideal" romantic partner. With an average age of almost 20, the participants and their responses split by gender -- men placed an emphasis on looks, women on money.

Approximately a week to two weeks later, all took part in a speed-dating event in which multiple four-minute "dates" occurred over the course of two hours.

Over the following month, as speed-date meetings turned into subsequent dating, students continued to register their views on both ideal romance and the actual characteristics of their speed-date matches. And the researchers found that although men and women may say they're from different worlds when it comes to attributes in a potential mate, they're equally inspired by physical attractiveness.

That's not to say a prospect's earning power was deemed irrelevant. In fact, after appearance, both men and women showed equal interest in good earning potential and ambition, the study found.

Trying to explain the findings, Eastwick and Finkel suggested that it could be that men and women don't really know what they want in a partner. Or, perhaps both sexes tend to engage in faulty role-play, taking cues from popular culture and gender myths when drafting their own idealized views of a mate.

The question of what men and women really want in a partner was explored further in the second study, in which Lee joined colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to analyze data collected by the online dating site "" The Web site allows members to post photos and profiles, rank each others' attractiveness, and indicate dating interests.

The study authors found that more attractive people tended to be pickier about looks. What's more, both men and women preferred to step up a notch -- seeking to date someone "moderately" more attractive than themselves, so long as it wasn't someone "overwhelmingly" out of their league.

And following the online tally -- in their own speed-dating experiment -- the researchers also found that people of varying attractiveness seemed to use different criteria when assessing mate potential. While the more attractive individuals placed a greater emphasis on looks during date selection, less attractive men and women put more weight on other traits, such as sense of humor, likeability, and intelligence.

"This suggests that less attractive people are strategic, rather than deluded," Lee said.

More information

For more on physical attractiveness, visit Colorado State University.

SOURCES: Paul W. Eastwick, Ph.D. candidate, department of psychology, Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.; Leonard Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor, marketing division, Columbia Business School, Columbia University, New York City; February 2008, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Psychological Science

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