As I continue to read up on the evolution of human mating, a theme that keeps recurring is how complex people are in what they want from their erotic pursuits. Many books, journal articles, and even popular magazines compile lists about the physical features we consider attractive, the traits we look for in a mate, etc. In those lists, we can find patterns, but none can ever be perfect because we are complex, individually and culturally variable, and always in flux, trying to balance an array of wants and needs that shift over time along with our circumstances. No single variable will ever be sufficient to explain what people want. Sometimes it’s Arthur Miller; sometimes it’s Joe DiMaggio.
Here is a sample of the complexity, in list form:
3: Primary erotic components/drives: (1) sexual desire, (2) romantic love, and (3) companionate love (Jankowiak and Paladino 2008:1).
237: Different reasons given for having sex, according to a study of American college students (Meston and Buss 2007).
6: Most important traits people look for in a romantic partner, according to personal ads from the UK (Dunbar 2012, page 89):
- Physical attractiveness
- Status and wealth
- Social skills
- Hobbies and interests
0: Major differences for regions of the brain that become activated when viewing a photo of one’s partner for people in the early stages of romantic love. These were similar for (1) males and females, (2) hetero- and homo-sexuals, and (3) American, British, and Chinese subjects. (Zeki and Romaya 2010; Xu et al. 2011). OK, this one is more about consistency than complexity, but I thought it was a compelling demonstration that there are some underlying biological similarities to falling in love. According to Xu et al., “early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese students was associated with activation in the dopamine-rich regions of the VTA (ventral tegmental area) and caudate as found by Aron et al. and Ortigue et al. for American students, and Bartels and Zeki for a London group” (p. 255).
12: Factors that predispose people to falling in love (modified from Reila et al 2010)
- Reciprocal liking: mutual interest expressed between two people; the other liking the self and the self liking the other as a function of the other’s interest.
- Appearance: attractiveness of the other’s general physical characteristics (e.g., good-looking, nice body).
- Personality: ex., intelligence, sense of humor.
- Similarity: things in common, such as attitudes, experiences, interests, appearance, personality, and family background.
- Familiarity: the amount of time spent together and exposure to the other.
- Social influence: the (dis)approval expressed by friends and family toward the other.
- Filling needs: having needs met or meeting the needs of the other (e.g., he makes me happy, she buys me little presents that show she cares). These typically imply characteristics that are valued in relationship maintenance (e.g., compassion, respect).
- Arousal: strong physiological reactions (e.g., irregular heart rate, rapid breathing) that may occur when meeting the other in an unexpected circumstance and/or the misattribution of arousal to attraction.
- Readiness: being emotionally or physically prepared for seeking a romantic relationship, such as having just broken up with someone and seeking comfort in a new partner.
- Specific cues: specific, idiosyncratic features characteristics of the other (e.g., smile, shape of the eyes), that are relevant to the perceiver in producing strong attractions. Not the same as general attractiveness.
- Isolation: being alone with the other.
- Mysteriousness: ex., there’s something I want to know about him/her, or uncertainty about the circumstances.
3: Number of times you’re allowed to fall in love, according to Kurt Vonnegut. This is for fun, but it seems just as valid as any other arbitrary fiat.
5: Components of physical attractiveness (Gray and Garcia, 2013: 71-3)
- Symmetrical faces
- Smooth skin without sores or discoloration
- Body shape (waist-hip ratio in women, shoulder-hip ratio in men)
- Body odor
Of course, these lists are not complete. To this, we could add other features considered attractive, such as women with big feet (among Karo Batak men in Indonesia), men with larger penis size (at least among Australian women looking at computer-generated figures). Or, some men just want a good cheek with a pinkish hue.
I liked what Greg Downey had to say in response to the question “What do women want?” The same could be asked of any group:
The irony is that, with such a tangle, the conclusion is foreordained: women will seem enigmatic, inconsistent, and irremediably opaque… I think that the conclusion is built into the way the question is being asked. If a similar question were asked about nearly any group, in nearly any domain of complex human behaviour, and then a simple single answer were demanded, the questioner would face nearly identical frustration.
One can imagine an article with the title, ‘What do diners want?’, which bemoaned the fickleness and impenetrable complexity of culinary preferences: Sometimes they want steak, and sometimes just a salad. Sometimes they put extra salt on the meal, and sometimes they ask for ketchup. One orders fish, another chicken, another ham and eggs. One day a guy ordered tuna fish salad on rye, and the next, the same guy ordered a tandoori chicken wrap, hold the onions! My God, man, they’re insane! Who can ever come up with a unified theory of food preferences?! Food preferences are a giant forest, too complex for comprehension. What do diners want?!
There are a lot of moving parts here, and while it is tempting to latch onto a few major components to explain ourselves, it’s important to remember that complexity. And, to make things even more unwieldy, the moving parts can interact. Kevin Kniffin (a former classmate of mine) and David Sloan Wilson showed that for people who knew each other, ratings of physical attractiveness were strongly influenced by the personality traits of those persons who were being rated (Kniffin and Wilson 2004). In other words, when rating potential mates, ‘inner beauty’ augmented perceptions of external appearance and overall attractiveness. The converse can also be true: external appearance can affect the way we perceive personality traits. Beauty matters, but so does intelligence, and kindness, and consistency, and passion, etc. But not always simultaneously. To that end, Esther Perel referred to us as “walking contradictions” (2007: 4-5).
Call me an idealist, but I believe that love and desire are not mutually exclusive, they just don’t always take place at the same time. In fact, security and passion are two separate, fundamental human needs that spring from different motives and tend to pull us in different directions…we all need security, permanence, reliability, stability, and continuity. These rooting, nesting instincts ground us in our human experience. But we also have a need for novelty and change, generative forces that give life fullness and vibrancy…We’re walking contradictions, seeking safety and predictability on one hand and thriving on diversity on the other.
And what is true for human beings is true for every living thing: all organisms require alternating periods of growth and equilibrium. Any person or system exposed to ceaseless novelty and change risks falling into chaos; but one that is too rigid or static ceases to grow and eventually dies. The never-ending dance between change and stability is like the anchor and the waves.
Perhaps this should be expected from evolved animals like ourselves. We have a diverse array of needs that result in beautiful, but conflicted, complexity.
p.s. Thanks to Mona Xu for pointing me to some of these references and helping me develop these thoughts (though any mistakes are mine).
Dunbar R. 2012. The Science of Love and Betrayal. Faber and Faber Link
Gray PB, Garcia JR. 2013. Evolution and Human Sexual Behavior. Harvard. Link
Jankowiak WR, Paladino T. 2008. Desiring sex, longing for love. In W Jankowiak (ed): Intimacies: Love & Sex Across Cultures. Pp. 1-36. Columbia Univ Press. Link
Kniffin KM, Wilson DS. 2004. The effect of nonphysical traits on the perception of physical attractiveness: Three naturalistic studies. Evolution & Human Behavior 25(2): 88-101. Link
Meston CM, Buss DM. 2007. Why humans have sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior 36:477-507. Link
Perel E. 2007. Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. Harper Collins. Link
Riela S, Rodriguez G, Aron A, Xu X, Acevedo BP. 2010. Experiences of falling in love: Similarities and differences in culture, ethnicity, gender, and speed. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 27(4): 473-93.
Xu X, Aron A, Brown L, Cao G, Feng T, Weng X. 2011. Reward and motivation systems: A brain mapping study of early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese participants. Human Brain Mapping, 32(2), 249-257.