The influence of prevailing environmental factors on plasticity in human mate preferences — ASN Events

The influence of prevailing environmental factors on plasticity in human mate preferences (#115)

Barnaby J W Dixson 1 , Rob C Brooks 1
  1. Evolution & Ecology Research Centre, School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW, Australia

A growing body of evidence implicates prevailing environmental factors in determining cross-cultural variation in human mate preferences. However, considerable debate surrounds the relative importance of historical ecological effects, such as pathogen loads, and current economic development in driving plasticity in mate preferences. Here we attempt to shed new light on this debate using two cross-cultural studies of facial attractiveness. In the first study, we quantified preferences for facial markers of health among Melanesian people from Vanuatu. Preferences were compared between participants from three islands varying in malarial pathogens (pronounced, intermediate and absent) and economic development (urban market-based economies and rural horticultural communities). We found that on islands with higher pathogen loads preferences were stronger for symmetrical and less corpulent faces. However, effects involving economic development were, for the most part, not statistically significant. In our second study, we quantified frequencies in men’s beardedness and women’s preferences for beards using a large cross-cultural sample spanning more than 30 countries. We found that men are more bearded and the attractiveness of beards is higher in larger more developed cities, irrespective of cross-national variation in health and pathogens. Taken together, results from these two studies suggest that within small-scale societies, historical ecological factors rather than contemporary economic development exert some influence on the direction of mate preferences. In contrast, within multi-level industrialised societies, where people frequently encounter large numbers of anonymous individuals, the saliency of attractive traits is enhanced, largely independently of prevailing pathogens. Given that the majority of recent cross-cultural research has focused on preferences from industrialized countries, our findings have implications for some of the core assumptions in this field.