Friday, October 21, 2016

How People Choose their Mates

How do people make decisions? This post is going to be about choosing your spouse, but I think the results apply to anything. My basic view of human behavior is that hardly anyone makes such decisions rationally or according to any criteria the decider could explain. In fact my view of life is that things like the "choice" of marriage partners and careers are often pure accidents, and that even when they feel like carefully made decisions they are actually mostly determined by circumstance. As Ecclesiastes puts it, "time and chance happeneth to them all."

Consider: I had been reading about archaeology for much of my life and taken a few courses in college, but at 22 I was certain I would one day be a history professor. I got my first job in archaeology because an acquaintance who heard I was looking for work pointed me to an archaeological project that was desperate enough to hire people with next to no experience. Turns out, he was mainly trying to get me out of town so he could hit on my girlfriend while I was gone. Up until that point I did not even know there was such a thing as non-academic archaeology and certainly had never considered a career in it.

But let's get back to the subject, starting at the level of basic physical appeal: why are some people attracted to one kind of face or body and not another? It is a bit of common wisdom that men like women who look like their mothers, and women like men who remind them of their fathers. But why? Freudians of course think we imprint on our opposite-sex parents (the ones who raise us, biological or no), so family relationships are all important. Geneticists think, no, men like women who look like their mothers because half their genes come from their fathers, who chose their mothers. I would say, though, that the basic proposition is just folklore anyway, and for every case you can find of men who seem to have married their mothers I can find another case of something very different. These notions of personal preference also compete with generalized ideals of beauty, I mean, some men like women who look like their mothers and some like women who look like Scarlet Johansson.

And, anyway, how much does that basic sort of attraction have to do with marriage?

Scott Alexander has a new post exploring the evidence on whether genetics or imprinting has a bigger impact on who we find attractive.  The evidence, as Alexander shows, is mostly bad, and the best studies seem to find no real impact at all:
[We find] near-zero genetic influences on male and female mate choice over all traits and no significant genetic influences on mate choice for any specific trait. A significant family environmental influence was found for the age and income of females’ mate choices, possibly reflecting parental influence over mating decisions. . . . We also tested for evidence of sexual imprinting, where individuals acquire mate-choice criteria during development by using their opposite-sex parent as the template of a desirable mate; there was no such effect for any trait.
So according to this study, people tend to marry people who resemble their own families in terms of income and other basic class characteristics, which is easy to explain sociologically without invoking either genetics or imprinting. As to anything else – large vs. small breasts, beards vs. clean-shaven, tall vs. short, whatever – they find no evidence of any impact at all from either genes or imprinting. Other studies do find some relationship, but the effects are not very big and most of the variation looks like pure chance. The authors of the study I quoted from above conclude,
If we provisionally accept our interpretation of these data, we are left with a curious and disquieting conclusion: Although most human choice behavior lawfully reflects the characteristics of the chooser and of the choice, the most important choice of all, that of a mate, seems to be an exception…we outline a theory that is compatible with these interpretations, namely that human pair bonding is relatively adventitious, based on romantic infatuation which, as Stendhal observed, “is like a fever that comes and goes quite independently of the will.”
So, these scientists say, your guess is as good as mine.

A point made by many people studying this subject is that most of us have more than one romantic interest before settling down, and these lovers often don't look much like each other. Maybe this means we really don't have strong preferences, or maybe it means that we don't order our lovers from a pattern book and that whether they match some imprinted ideal of beauty doesn't matter very much. I have read about men who obsessively pursue a certain ideal of feminine beauty and don't care about other characteristics, but for me that just seems silly. Do you really think that would make you happy? Insofar as psychologists can turn personality into measurable statistics (via the Myers-Briggs or what have you), they find that people are not any more consistent in the personality traits of their lovers than what they look like. (Nor do such measurements predict which relationships will succeed.) As to why people get together, I think circumstances matter enormously; of the billions of potential mates on the planet, how many are you going to meet? And then there is timing. Lots of people simply marry the lovers they have when they reach the stage of life at which they want to get married. Two people have admitted to me that they had previous lovers they much preferred to the ones they eventually married, but "the timing wasn't right."

As with so much about life, we grope our way through the darkness of love, dreaming of paradise but making the best of what and who we find.

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