How can women and men accurately detect whether members of the opposite sex possess the qualities they desire? A man’s ability to provide direct benefits cannot easily be directly detected, just as the number of children a woman is likely to bear in her lifetime is not readily detectable. The answer, evolutionary psychologists tell us, is that women have evolved to be attracted to desirable qualities of men that are correlated with the ability to provide indirect resources. Similarly, men have evolved to be attracted to detectable qualities of women that are correlated with peak reproductive potential.

In the evolutionary psychological scheme, women solved their “detection problem” by evolving a preference for high status (particularly in long-term relationships) over other considerations like attractiveness. This is because the higher a man is in status, the greater his ability to control resources. High status in most societies is associated with wealth and power; it may also be associated with intelligence, emotional stability, and conscientiousness, which are themselves desirable traits. Consequently, rivalry among men to attract women focuses on acquiring and displaying cues of resources.

Men, on the other hand, solved the problem of detecting peak reproductive potential in women by favouring features that signal high reproductive potential, youth or fertility, rather than signal, say, status. According to Buss, these features include “full lips, clear skin, smooth skin, clear eyes, lustrous hair, good muscle tone and body fat distribution…a bouncy youthful gait, an animated facial expression and a high energy level.”

These features are said to signal that a woman is at her peak reproductive potential. In short, then, while both men and women may value the same characteristics in a partner (such as attractiveness, status, emotional stability and so on), they weigh these characteristics differently as a result of their evolutionary endowments. In support of these predictions, evolutionary psychologists have relied on all manner of qualitative and quantitative experiences. For example, some have studied personal advertisements, which provide a good encapsulation of some people’s mate choice preferences. Studies have shown that newspaper advertisements for heterosexual partners placed by women in different parts of the world put a strong emphasis on indices of wealth or status, or indices that indicate some willingness to invest in the relationship itself. The explanation is that women who are able to gain access to more resources, especially in traditional economies, are able to invest more in their offspring and thereby increase the survival and reproductive chances of their offspring.

By contrast, newspaper advertisements placed by men show a different pattern of preferences: they put a strong emphasis on cues of physical attractiveness, while other traits—such as wealth or status—receive much less emphasis. Since physical attractiveness changes predictably with age, and age is a good correlate of fertility in women, such cues provide an indirect measure of a woman’s fertility.These preferences have also been found using more conventional psychological experiments. Buss used a questionnaire to explore mate choice preferences in more than 30 different cultures, and found that women place a strong emphasis on cues related to wealth and status, while men tend to place an overwhelming emphasis on physical attractiveness.Women will tend to find attractive cues in men that signal the possession, or likelihood of possession, of resources and the likelihood of providing parental care. Men, on the other hand, will tend to find attractive cues in women that signal peak reproductive potential, youthfulness or some combination of the two.