Sorry, Arnold, nice guys finish first with women, study shows

April 14, 1995|By Mark Bowden | Mark Bowden,Knight-Ridder News Service

Nice guys, it turns out, don't finish last -- at least not where romance is concerned.

In the never-ending search for what women really want, researchers at Texas A&M University have found that, when women select men, niceness appears to count for more than the macho traits that evolutionary psychologists group under the term "dominance."

"Nice guys finish first," psychologist Bill Graziano says, and it only figures. "In the ancestral environment, what did it matter if a powerful male could be the premier hunter-gatherer if he wasn't willing to share?"

Mr. Graziano and graduate student Lauri Jensen-Campbell are part of a new push in behavioral psychology to explain better how human beings pair off. Most of the work in recent years has found that attractiveness, once thought to vary from one race and culture to the next, has a surprising universality.

For instance, men from all parts of the world agree in general on the essence of a pretty face. A computer composite of a female face is judged more appealing the more symmetrical it is -- or, interestingly, the more faces that are blended to form it, thereby ironing out imbalance and imperfection. Asian, black and white men showed the same inclinations. It is strong evidence that the game of love is rooted in evolutionary history.

One of the more controversial tenets of this new evolutionary psychology has been the tendency of women worldwide to prefer strong, healthy, aggressive, competitive, high-status, successful men. It suggests that women share responsibility, in an evolutionary sense, for the macho traits that feminists denounce.

But the study by Mr. Graziano and Ms. Jensen-Campbell, published in the March issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has forced some of the leading researchers in the field to rethink their ranking of women's priorities.

The study asked 115 female volunteers to evaluate the appeal of two men who, unbeknown to the women, were scripted, coached and made up to exemplify either dominant or passive traits. After watching videotapes that showed these men acting in either selfish or altruistic ways, the women were asked to rate their feelings about them.

The results showed that while dominance was an important part of what makes a man attractive to women, it was not as important as such characteristics as altruism and a pleasant personality.

These findings have reordered some of the priorities described by University of Michigan psychologist David Buss in his 1994 book "The Evolution of Desire." His landmark 1989 international study found that women in every one of the 37 cultures examined placed a higher value than men on a potential mate's financial status or prospects.

Evolutionary psychologists like Mr. Buss use the word "dominance" to summarize those male traits likely to lead to resources and status. In his book, Mr. Buss notes that women's judgment in mate selection is exceedingly complex and weighs many factors, including kindness, love and commitment. But dominance, he says, carries the most weight.

The theory goes like this: In the age-old struggle to pass on genes, men profit by impregnating as many women as possible. Women, on the other hand, have more complex, long-term needs. They must bear and nurture a child to adulthood in order to pass their inheritance to the next generation.

Mr. Buss' finding seemed to confirm that women have evolved with preferences for dominant men, those with social status or the promise of obtaining it, the better to provide a secure environment for child rearing.

Understanding human behavior in such Darwinian terms is gaining ground in academia after nearly a half-century of behaviorism, which says human beings are primarily shaped by life experience.

The influential writings of cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead in the 1920s and '30s argued that sexual politics -- long considered universal -- in fact varied widely from culture to culture. Mead claimed to have found a society of strict sexual equality in Samoa, where such "Western" male-dominant failings sexual jealousy, competition and status hierarchies were absent.

Most of Mead's observations have since been disproved by more careful field work, but her writings powerfully influenced Western thought. In the years since, cultural determinism has viewed Darwinian theory as an elaborate scheme to justify male supremacy and chauvinism.

In that light, modern Darwinists, who cite dominance as the male trait of primary importance in mate selection, have run into entrenched resistance -- much of it from feminists. It conjures up "Me Tarzan, you Jane" images and implies traditional sex roles are inevitable, opponents say.

"It's clearly more complicated than that," says Mr. Buss, who praised the work being done by Mr. Graziano and Ms. Jensen-Campbell.

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