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Are Today's Mating Preferences Primitive? : Relationships: The traits we desire in the opposite sex are the same ones our early ancestors sought, says a University of Michigan professor.

August 19, 1994|MARY JO KOCHAKIAN | THE HARTFORD COURANT

What men want in a mate: A young, attractive woman who would never be unfaithful.

What women want: A man with status and resources, who is going to stick around and spend those resources on her and the children.

It is primitive. Much as we would like to believe otherwise, however, those basic preferences--the product of evolution over thousands of generations--are still very much driving decisions about who we choose for mates, according to David M. Buss of the University of Michigan.

Buss, a psychology professor, has extensively studied human mating behavior. With 50 collaborators from 37 cultures worldwide, he collected information on mating preferences from 10,047 people. Dozens of related studies followed, as did "The Evolution of Desire," (Basic Books, $22).

"Much of what I discovered about human mating is not nice," Buss writes. "In the ruthless pursuit of sexual goals, for example, men and women derogate their rivals, deceive members of the opposite sex and even subvert their own mates."

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There's something in the book to upset almost everyone. Men may not want to hear they will be considered undesirable if they are without resources or the potential of acquiring them. (The preference evolved from women choosing men who could best help the family survive.)

The importance men place on youth and beauty is not great news for women, as looks "are undemocratically distributed," Buss notes, "and you're kind of stuck with what you have." (The preference evolved from men choosing women who seemed likely to have healthy children for many years.)

Buss' peers, likewise, have reason to be upset. "My social-science colleagues, in my view, have been brainwashed," Buss said in an interview. "They've held these myths for years and years. . . . Myths that everything is infinitely culturally variable; that men and women are identical in their psychology except by virtue of the ways they've been brought up."

The research shows that men and women are vastly different in sexual psychology. Common sense says the same thing, Buss says. Yet the lack of understanding leads to a lot of conflict.

"My book's not a self-help book, but I think an intelligent reader can read it and take away some powerful information about what they should do, depending on what their values are," Buss says.

For example, men have a powerful desire for sexual variety. "A lot of men remain faithful, but still have that desire," he says.

A key "mate-keeping strategy" for women, he found, is to enhance appearance in order to stay attractive. Then there's fidelity. Men abhor infidelity in mates.

For men, kindness. "Men who tell their mates that they love them, show helpfulness when their mates need it, and display kindness and affection regularly succeed in retaining their mates," he writes. (It reflects commitment.)

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Although our sexual psychology is rooted in the primitive, Buss emphasizes, it in no way means that we're "somehow doomed to unchangeable behavior." Mating behavior is flexible. Evolution provided us with a variety of ways to solve the problems of how to mate successfully. One example is how we tend to choose partners who have similar values and interests, and belong to the same social group.

Men and women are psychologically similar in most ways, Buss says. They share the goal of a happy, lasting marriage. And as couples age, the sexual differences recede in importance. (It helps that testosterone levels in males decrease steadily with age.)

An understanding of sexual differences can only help, he says. "I think there are a lot of things men and women can do to increase the odds of harmony, by understanding there are differences in the nature of their desires."

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