U-M study: Why men are attracted to subordinate women

December 09, 2004

ANN ARBOR, Mich.---Men are more likely to want to marry women who are their assistants at work rather than their colleagues or bosses, a University of Michigan study finds.

The study, published in the current issue of Evolution and Human Behavior, highlights the importance of relational dominance in mate selection and discusses the evolutionary utility of male concerns about mating with dominant females.

"These findings provide empirical support for the widespread belief that powerful women are at a disadvantage in the marriage market because men may prefer to marry less accomplished women," said Stephanie Brown, lead author of the study and a social psychologist at the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR).

For the study, supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, Brown and co-author Brian Lewis from UCLA tested 120 male and 208 female undergraduates by asking them to rate their attraction and desire to affiliate with a man and a woman they were said to know from work.

"Imagine that you have just taken a job and that Jennifer (or John) is your immediate supervisor (or your peer, or your assistant)," study participants were told as they were shown a photo of a male or a female.

After seeing the photo and hearing the description of the person's role at work in relation to their own, participants were asked to use a 9-point Likert scale (1 is not at all, 9 is very much) to rate the extent to which they would enjoy going to a party with Jennifer or John, exercising with the person, dating the person and marrying the person.

Brown and Lewis found that males, but not females, were most strongly attracted to subordinate partners for high-investment activities such as marriage and dating.

"Our results demonstrate that male preference for subordinate women increases as the investment in the relationship increases," Brown said. "This pattern is consistent with the possibility that there were reproductive advantages for males who preferred to form long-term relationships with relatively subordinate partners.

"Given that female infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males only when investment is high, a preference for subordinate partners may provide adaptive benefits to males in the context of only long-term, investing relationships---not one-night stands."

According to Brown, who is affiliated with the ISR Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, the current findings are consistent with earlier research showing that expressions of vulnerability enhance female attractiveness. "Our results also provide further explanation for why males might attend to dominance-linked characteristics of women such as relative age or income, and why adult males typically prefer partners who are younger and make less money."
-end-
For more information on the ISR Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, visit: http://rcgd.isr.umich.edu/ehap/

Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research (ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations, and a world leader in the development and application of social science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes, the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study, the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects, and the Institute has established formal ties with universities in Poland, China, and South Africa. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest computerized social science data archive. Visit the ISR Web site at http://www.isr.umich.edu for more information

University of Michigan

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