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Stunning new, er, research

As part of the “No shit, Sherlock” series at Samizdata, here is an item about the marrying preferences of women, at least according to a new survey.

37 comments to Stunning new, er, research

  • Been there, done that, got a few ti-shirts…:-)

    Seriously though, it’s not like men never wanted to marry up – or like they never did.

  • Well it may be “no shit, sherlock”, but I find it a little disappointing when people criticise research into the apparently obvious (I’m not suggesting you are Johnathan, not sure TBH what your perspective is here).

    It’s important to be cautious in any research of humans precisely because it is laden with preconceptions, but things which seem obvious are often wrong and vice versa. The question of why we choose the mates we do is important in a world where everyone has very strong opinions about what is “natural” especially when these views are often imposed by force.

    In Natalie’s child protection thread I typed a loooooong comment then refrained from posting it because it went too far off topic and I had to admit that it was one of those regular cases where I was using a thread as an excuse to bore for England about my pet interests. But to praesis it right down, there are strong clues from human biology that lifelong monogamous pair-bonding is entirely unnatural for the human species and our ancestors evolved a promiscuous “orgiastic” system, and then later social “marriage” systems were developed to control that impulse, perhaps for very good reasons of social stability.

    One good interpretation of that would be that in the absence of strong social pressures females will mate promiscuously and serially recruit males as providers who are not necessarily related to the children they are providing for (by providing support to the mothers). Which seems to be congruent with what we actually see happening since the removal of most social constraints.

    This would also obviously create a scenario in which women seek economic providers as long-term mates. Males on the other hand would be disinterested in the economic status of females, which again appears to be true. Males don’t dream of marrying a CEO. They dream of marrying a hottie- or, at least, shagging one.

    So, it’s very useful to do this research. There seems to be ample evidence that the part of the universe humanity understands the least is humanity itself. I personally find the whole subject beyond fascinating and always have. Why are we the way we are, and what precisely is the way we are?

    It also comes back again to that matter of Hume. To learn how we are is not the same as saying how we ought to be, of course.

  • Jim

    “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Pride & Prejudice, Jane Austen, 1813.

    Strange how its taken nearly 200 years for us to come to the same conclusion.

  • I don’t know what it’s like in Eurpoe, but here in the States, it’s long been PC for women to marry men older than them… often times MUCH older. My wife took criticism from a lot of other women for marrying me, because she’s 5 years older than me.

    I believe that the reason that women are encouraged to marry older men is because older men are more likely to be established in their career, and thus have more money.

    Believe me, I feel for feminists. They have enough hurdles to deal with without the majority of women encouraging the status quo of being “inferior” or “housewives”. A lot of these women continually enforce the status quo without realizing it.

    I think the truth is that most of them are afraid of being financially dependent. They are afraid of settling down with someone who is starting their career, as opposed to someone who has money to burn.

    The majority of women are just as shallow as the majority of men… just in different ways. However, they don’t want to admit it.

  • Kevin B

    I’m rather less keen than Ian to see research into human pair bonding practices. Apart from the well known fact that 97% of all research is wrong, (and that’s in a hard science like medicine, let alone social science), there’s the disturbing use that government research is put to these days.

    It’s odds on, in my view, that any research into human interaction will confirm the theories of those who commission that research, and will be used by the political class to influence us into adopting them, either through the culture or by the currently fashionable device of taxing non believers into submission.

    My own theory is that it is impossible to extract any ‘natural’ human behaviour from the extant culture, thus any pontificating on how we are ‘evolved’ to behave is likely wishful thinking.

  • That’s a valid argument Kevin. Nonetheless, there is an objective world out there that science can investigate. Human evolution is a fascinating subject, and it would be a shame to stop it just because, inevitably, some will use it for nefarious purposes.

    I have always been fascinated by the everyday things of humanity that we take for granted. Why do we sing? Why do we dance? Why do we socialise around food and drink? Music is the very strangest thing; why did we evolve to appreciate it, and why do we feel the need to wave our limbs about when we hear it? What on earth is the point of tapping your foot to the beat?

    I want to know the answers to these questions, and I refuse to stop asking them just in case somebody else tries to do something bad with the answers.

    We’re living through an exciting, and unrepeatable time in human history. One day, not too far in the distant future, there will be no science to be done; all the questions will have been answered, everything useful will be known. The age of human geographical exploration is already over. The era of scientific exploration is still ongoing. There are bound to be lots of mistakes along the way, but that’s the fun of the quest, isn’t it?

  • Can’t resist posting this- comment at the Telegraph I just spotted on a thread about a possible cure for baldness, in reply to a chap saying the old saw about baldies having more testosterone.

    Your lower class education is so appallingly obvious. What every woman of any intelligence wants is a chap with a good family name and the ability to support her. In my experience only those chaps from the better quality public schools who have made a name for themselves in the professions are worth considering. As for your reference to virility it is a complete irrelevance if the chap is able to perform or not. I know that when I want, shall we say “my tensions eased”, I can get that without a moments thought. But to get and keep a real gentleman is a challenge. A challenge I might add, I am and have been, very successful at.

    Makes you want to weep, doesn’t it?

  • Well, seeing as I work for the Institute of Studies you should all listen to me…

  • PeterT

    For the interested I recommend the book ‘sperm wars’. I think by Robin Baker. It discusses these issues and is fairly amusing. For each chapter the author describes a fictional situation (supposedly based on true stories, if amalgamated) involving lots of sex which is then followed by the scientific rationale for the behaviour of each participant. The science basically upholds what has been discussed here and on Natalie’s adoption thread.

    There. I stayed on topic for once.

  • frak

    I just can’t resist.

    Ian B,

    One day, not too far in the distant future, there will be no science to be done; all the questions will have been answered, everything useful will be known. The age of human geographical exploration is already over.

    That science implies an end goal – a categorical error and a misunderstanding of science and the scientific method. That that end goal will reveal all the answers and mysteries of the universe – the misguided faith of the rationalist. Humans aren’t capable of learning all the answers, though I admit my contrary view is a matter of faith, as is yours, whether you admit it or not. I’d be rather surprised if Ian B is not an atheist.

    there are strong clues from human biology that lifelong monogamous pair-bonding is entirely unnatural for the human species…in the absence of strong social pressures females will mate promiscuously and serially recruit males as providers who are not necessarily related to the children they are providing for

    Which is one reason why a purely libertarian government (in a Hobbesian world AKA reality) would fail by any objective measure, except in upholding the arbitrary, though consistent and appealing, libertarian creed.

    If all humans within a nation were to act on their evolutionary impulses free of any social condemnation, let alone coercion, for a decade and a magical G-d were to magically punish any transgressors of what libertarians understand as the natural law (life, liberty, and property), then the rates of technological innovation, economic growth, and population growth would dramatically fall and the nation would be conquered or fall into civil war/anarchy because beta males would no longer invest significantly into society, whether by working hard, inventing technologies, joining the military, etc.

    For all their wit and logic, many libertarians fail to recognize this, the reasons for this, and the implications of this and, therefore, do not consciously understand many things that social conservatives implicitly or explicitly recognize. This is one example of why an orthodox adherence to libertarian principles falls short of offering the insight and foresight political leaders require to govern wisely in the real world.

    I genuinely hope libertarians, including many Samizdata folks, lend a bit more credence to the value/benefit/importance of social pressures, traditions, and religion, which represent the cumulative wisdom of experience over centuries, at least in their private thoughts. With that said, Samizdata is filling a probably more urgent void in voicing support for liberty.

    True: http://www.great-quotes.com/quote/52581

  • Frak: Social pressures: fine. Coercion: not fine.

  • John B

    Well, if one views it purely biologically, it takes a man a minimum of, say, 10 seconds to do his bit to make a baby, it takes a woman nine months, plus a few years.
    So the female will tend to be more enthusiastic about financial competence and the ability to provide and protect over a period of time.
    If the biological motivation is procreation and extending the species (what a lovely collectivist view point), then the man will look for a baby-maker who is best suited for making and bearing babies, and the woman will look for genes that are strong and successful, and also a partner who can look after baby and mother with comfort.
    Thank you Robert Winston.

  • Frak, I’m not declaring a “faith” position; just noting the unavoidable fact that once you’ve discovered Pythagoras’s Theorem, the law of gravity, or the cure for gout, you can’t discover it again. The pool of the discoverable dwindles until it is exhausted or, rather, reduced to the inconsequential. When will the pool run dry? We don’t know, but it will, for simple arithmetical reasons.

    So I’d like to know what you think are intrinsic “unknowables”. Certainly, some matters of historical fact are unknowable, or will remain forever uncertain. Who was Jack The Ripper and so on. But that is not what we’re talking about; we’re talking about the nature of the universe, all of which is available for study.

    As to the Hobbesian view, it is the fundamental error of “social conservatives”. Humans are a socially very plastic system and have developed different social structures to adapt to particular historical circumstances. One very common tradition for instance in the old days of most cultures was infanticide, a practical method of keeping populations down. We are a different society now and don’t need to do that any more.

    We’re in a phase of history now in which a global society is being constructed. It will be different- already is different- from anything that has gone before. And there are big, unprecedented changes in the pipeline. Freedom from disease, and even from getting old, are certain within the next couple of centuries, probably within the next century. They are fundamental game changers, and the social structures surrounding them are likely to be radically different.

    Your post implies for instance the world-system of competing societies using military force to dominate and capture resources. That served pretty well in the human Middle Period (with frequent appalling suffering as a consequence of course) but is not much use now. The age of empires is over, and that’s a Good Thing.

    That’s why one can argue that Adam Smith is the most important writer in our history. He was effectively the first to show the errors in mercantilism; and an economy based on peaceful trade rather than resource capture is an immense change from the previous default patterns of human history.

    This is why conservatism- always attempting to retain social strategies suited to previous historical circumstances- is little use as a philosophy. The world just keeps changing too much.

  • Ham

    Is human mating going to end now that for my generation (youngish) women earn more than men?

  • PeterT

    They don’t though, according to the article linked to.

    If they did the obvious solution would be for one woman to be supported by more than two men. There are only so many men to go round of course, so lower earning females may have to go without the male support.

  • llamas

    You can hear an interview with Dr Hakim, the author of this study, at the BBC here:


    You can hear the resigned despair at the departure from the approved luvvie narrative.

    This was pretty-much a ‘well, duh . . ‘ story for me, I guess.

    In the US, higher education is being gradually but inexorably taken over by women. With the exception of hard engineering and the physical sciences (none of which tend to lead to high earning capacity anyway), women are now in the majority of the undergraduate population, and this imbalance is expected to continue to increase. And so the pool of available better-educated, higher-earning men is getting proportionally smaller and smaller. But the desire of many woemn to marry and have a family is as strong as it has ever been. I predict a serious social shift as these two competing factors become ever-more-disconnected.

    (scans back over a long period of professional employment)

    I can count on the fingers of one hand (with fingers left over) the number of women that I have worked with professionally who have NOT taken the wife-and-family track – which typically means either ratcheting down their career-enhancing contributions significantly, or simply leaving the workforce entirely. I have known/know precisely 3 such women, over a career in which I have worked with dozens, probably hundreds of men similarly situated. And one of those women was not – oriented, shall we say – to that choice in any event.

    Don’t get me wrong, virtually all of those women were highly-skilled and high-functioning colleagues with the capacity to make contributions every bit as good and better as their male contemporaries. But, almost without exception, they chose the ‘mommy track’. It is the defualt outcome.

    So research which tells us that women choose to marry high-potential men and have the choice to become SAHMs comes as no great shock to me.



  • PeterT


    This may be true of women in the US, but it is not in Europe (especially Northern Europe), as the public financial support for families (free child care etc) is much better. I am not saying I support this, its just the way it is.

    I anticipate that as society gets wealthier we will be able to pay others to look after a children at much lower costs. Imagine paying a couple of thousand pounds (or dollars) to buy a child minding robot (that did a better job than a human equivalent). I expect fertility (no. children per woman) to increase as wealth becomes less of an impediment to the number of children one has. It follows that if this turns out to be true organic population growth in the developed world will at some point in the future surpass (in percentage terms) that in the developing world. Obviously there are many other factors as well.

  • PeterT;

    Why would you expect that rise in fertility rates? As you note, modern Europe is much closer to your envisioned future than the USA, where wealth is much less of an impediment to the number of children one has, yet it is Europe which has the historically unprecedented low rates of fertility. (Not to mention how consistently the rich have outbred the poor – oh, wait, that’s not quite right, is it?)

    As noted earlier, there’s a lot of preconceptions about human behavior which seem obvious but turn out to not be so.

  • llamas

    PeterT – I don’t think it’s nearly as cut-and-dried as you suggest. After all, if it were merely a question of the cost of childcare that drove women’s decisions whether to keep working or stay home, in those (Northern) European nations you mention, would we not expect to see parents who do choose to stay home with their children equally divided between genders? Yet it is not so – the great majority of stay-at-home parents, even in those nations where they could have free childcare for the asking and keep on working, are women. And why would that be? Because, even when either parent can stay home with the children, at no social or economic cost, it is (more often than not) a better deal for the father to keep working – because women everywhere prefer to marry up.Note that I’m not making any judgement about those decisions, merely pointing out how it is.

    Many of the women I knew who took the ‘mommy track’ could well-afford high-quality childcare – it’s freely available in the US and not particularly costly, and these were professional women earning good salaries. Many consciously chose a lower standard of living for their families primarily because they wanted to be with their children – a choice generally made quite easy because they married up.

    Increasing wealth always, always, always correlates to lower birth rates. Always has, always will. (Except in China, but forced sterilization doesn’t count.) Many European nations now have lower-than-replacement birthrates for their indigenous populations, many are barely at replacement rates only due to the relatively-higher birthrates of their immigrant populations, which tend to be at the poorer end of their income spectra. So I don’t see where the demographic changes you expect will come to pass.



  • What Llamas said. Why have children, if a minder (human or otherwise) is going to enjoy their company?

  • Jamess

    Ian B,

    “The age of empires is over, and that’s a Good Thing.”

    I’d suggest that that was a faith based position, unknowable by scientific research.

  • It was neither a scientific nor “faith based” position, it was a personal prediction but, I think, a reasonable one. Imperialism just isn’t a viable strategy any more. It has always been a flawed strategy, even during its heyday in the Middle Period[1]. But everyone had to do it because everyone else was; you either built an empire or found yourself part of somebody else’s.

    However it was always ultimately self destructive- which is why the sod is littered with the ruins of them. It was ultimately due to an understandable fundamental error; the misapprehension that theft is a superior economic strategy to trade. It is in the short term, but never in the long term. It always ends up costing more to invade your neighbour, subjugate them and steal their stuff than to trade for it; hence empires could only ever prosper while expanding (stealing more and more stuff); once they stabilise and have nothing left to steal, they collapse. An empire is a Ponzi Scheme on a very grand scale.

    But in the days of footsoldiers and spears, it was semi-“sustainable” on the scale of decades or centuries before collapse. In the age of MOABs and nukes, it is fundamentally impossible. History moves too fast these days. This is the era of trade.

    The stable age after the Middle Period is hard to imagine because it will presumably be a post-scarcity economy, and we have no theory available as yet to help us understand how that is going to work. I wish I were going to live to see that, I really do. It’s going to be very nice indeed.

    [1] This is my own conceited classification of history; the Middle Period extends from the beginning of resource capture economics to its end, through which we are currently living. It is “Civilisation, So Far”.

  • Jamess

    Sorry Ian B, I was very unclear in my comment. “Good” and “bad” seem to me to be a category unknowable by science and observation. I’d suggest therefore it’s a faith based value assessment (though you might prefer another term – if so, what would it be?).

    What do you mean by calling something “good”? Simply something that makes an increasing number of people happy? If 51% of people said that a certain government policy (e.g. the NHS, smoking bans etc) made them happy, would it be a “good” policy?

    Shame that text can’t convey tone very easily: genuinely interested to see what answers you have.

  • Laird

    I think Ian B’s concept of the current “Middle Period” of human history, and the coming Nirvannic “post-scarcity” era, is a really interesting idea and worth further exploration. But this doesn’t seem the place for it; it’s extremely off-topic here. Could we perhaps have another thread for it?

  • Ah, then I wasted a long waffle 🙂

    I was judging Good purely subjectively. That doesn’t make if “faith” based (faith applies to belief in the unseen). Everyone has a personal subjective view of what is Good and what is Bad; at its most basic level, the brain itself is a machine that judges Good from Bad, at a purely individual level.

    My cat has very clear ideas on what is Good and what is Bad. That doesn’t mean she is right. It isn’t an act of faith. It’s just what brains do. Since I am a brain, I do too.

    So at a collective level; seeking an “objective” Good and Bad, I have argued before that the Goodest Possible World is one in which each brain has the greatest latitude to judge, and act upon, its own preferred Good and Bad. That may be the only Good there is, at a level above the individual. It’s Good enough for me.

  • Laird, “Nirvannic” is going a bit too far. I only said that I think it will be “nice” 🙂

  • PeterT

    Regarding the first point. No doubt there is a strong tendency for women to wish to marry up and stay at home with children. However, I think the cost factor is important. I have to revised my earlier comment though. For all I know many European countries such as Italy have poor childcare facilities, and the most appealing (financial, cultural, or otherwise) way for families to care for their children is for the mother to stay at home. And as you say Italy has a low birthrate. What I do know is that fertility is high in the Scandinavian countries; it is at or above replacement rates, and government support for families there is much better than in Italy and the US. I am not saying that there are important non-financial factors, just that finances are important, and must have an impact on the decision of women to stay at home with children rather than continue their careers.

    Regarding the second point. So far, higher wealth has corresponded to lower fertility. Please bear in mind that my comment relates to time series rather than cross section analysis (e.g. between countries). The future is of course unknowable, but I would stab a guess that fertility levels will increase as the cost and hassle of raising families reduces. When ‘the turn’ will come is anybody’s guess. Procreation is an end in itself to humans and all living species; enjoying the company of your children is a bonus. Branjelina is a case in point – although of course that is only one data point.

    So on balance I am happy with my original comment.

    I can only agree with Angy Old Guy’s comment

    “As noted earlier, there’s a lot of preconceptions about human behavior which seem obvious but turn out to not be so.”

  • Jonathan

    Dr Hakim has got it wrong. Most women want to DIVORCE a wealthy man!

  • The astonishingly low birth rate in countries like Italy is intriguing and paradoxical. As a very tentative hypothesis, i wonder if it’s not so much to do with state policy, as the effect of introducing western european protestant derived systems (nuclear family, smaller numbers of high value children, high status women) into southern european catholic societies (extended family, lower status women, larger numbers of lower value children) with a resultant exaggeratedly socially disruptive effect.

    See Monty Python’s famous “Every Sperm Is Sacred” for a very clear comical contrast between the two traditional familial systems.

  • Richard Thomas

    I think it could be a major mistake to dismiss the non-financial aspects of who stays at home with the kids. It may not be politically correct to say it but whether by nature or nurture, (in many cases) there are differences in attitude between the sexes and women will be more often inclined to want to be with the children whilst men will be more often inclined to be the breadwinner. This is by no means a rule of course but I believe it to be statistically significant.

    As to the negative correlation between prosperity and fertility, these may not be directly causally linked. As the attitudes to women in the workplace have changed, more women have been working. This increases productivity in general, leading to increased prosperity but also means that (some) women delay or even cancel any child rearing plans. It doesn’t take much of a swing to go from replacement rate or greater to failing to meet it.

    On the positive side (if you look at it that way), two things seem to be starting to come in to play. Firstly, people are starting to realize that having two incomes is not always as good as you think. By the time you factor in childcare, transport, work clothes and convenience foods, the gains are often marginal. Then throw in scheduling conflicts and other non-financial factors and the balance is not necessarily favorable. Secondly, post-feminism, (many) women are starting to realize that job or family is a choice they are allowed to make and they shouldn’t feel wrong or ashamed for picking family. Having been disparaged for so long, many now recognize that it’s a noble calling.

    Having said all that, don’t get me wrong. It’s great that barriers have been broken down and women have many more opportunities work-wise. I’m also not disparaging women who choose work over family or even no family at all (I know several couples and singles who have no intention of ever having children and whilst I can’t understand it, I respect it). Non-traditional families where the dad is stay-at-home are great too. Choice is what it’s all about.

  • I don’t think we should over-emphasise the financial issues either though. It became popular in the C20 to believe that great social achievements could be, er, achieved, by manipulation of financial incentives (e.g. by Pigovian Taxes) but the evidence of efficacy is debatable to say the least. One thing for instance is that you seem to get a kind of “shifting of the mean” such that across-the-board changes in prices become accepted as the “new norm”. Hence British sheeple citizens are far more accepting of high petrol prices than Americans, because they’re just used to it.

  • Dang, that was supposed to be sheeple. My HTML-fu fails :'(

  • Laird

    Ian, your HTML skills beat mine: I don’t even know how to create a strikethrough, so I’m limited to the small selection provided by our hosts!

  • Richard Thomas

    Ian, to digress a little, it is not just the expectation of the price of petrol but that, on the whole, British residents have a lot less far to travel to get anything done. Last time I was back visiting the old family home, I was surprised exactly how much closer things which used to seem to be forever away had appeared to become.

  • Kim du Toit

    “it takes a man a minimum of, say, 10 seconds to do his bit to make a baby,”

    I can only dream of such feats of sexual prowess.

    Sorry: couldn’t resist.

    As for the main topic: big deal. Women are genetically programmed to find a mate who will provide a better home / better security for herself and her offspring. Lionesses will even mate with the lion which has killed their cubs — human females are only a couple of steps different from that. C’est toujours la vie. Can’t see the fuss. It’s like research which breathlessly declares that men will have sex outside the recognized bonding ceremony, if given the chance to “impregnate” an attractive woman. C’est aussi la vie.

    If you’ll pardon my French.

  • Richard Thomas

    Kim, the thing is that it hasn’t always been obvious. We’ve been fed lies out whole lives, from fairy tales, our parents, Hollywood (or the BBC) and members of the opposite ex (for both sexes). It’s not been that long that a less-than-romantic view has really been allowed out in to the mainstream. Hopefully some decent research (rare for the social “sciences” admittedly) will finally allow some of the more egregious myths to be laid to rest.