Dissecting Hidden Objections to Human Nature: Assortative Mating

Beautiful people don’t mind being judged beautiful any more than smart people mind being judged smart. Yes, some will object to that statement — most likely those will be ugly people and dumb people. “But, Andrew” you say, “I’m beautiful and smart and I still object to your assertion.” That’s fine, I see your nod to humility and raise a charge Zahavian signaling.

Indeed, how you perceive yourself will influence your behavior. In this case, it will influence how you assess your thoughts and feelings about the metrics humans use to rate attractiveness, and the behavior of expressing (or not expressing) them (Little et al. 2001). And yes, that puts us in a bind of omni-directional bias. So after you’ve thought twice about it, think again.

The objection to human nature I’m referring to in the title is an implied one. You’re not likely to hear it articulated unless you’re stuck in an after-hours conversation with inebriated evolvify readers (or writers). The application of the argument against assortative mating is endlessly demonstrated in Hollywood plots where some forlorn, awkward character is advised to “just be yourself.” Once said character assumes the role of their magical one true self (usually characterized by being nice and having zero discernible personality), the uber-hot person of their dreams recognizes unending value in their averageness and falls madly in love with them.

One example of this is the movie Gigantic (2008). In it, the hot and rich character played by Zooey Deschanel becomes inexplicably attracted to an ultra-doofus supreme and unexceptional mattress salesman played by the eternally mopey and dopey Paul Dano. Mr. Dano does have a convincing rival in patheticness by way of characters played by Jay Baruchel of She’s Out of My League fame. Yes, you’re lacking in any redeeming qualities, she is most definitely out of your league of extraordinarily dull gentlemen. But thanks for giving the average schmucks of the world hope, Hollywood!

The implication buried deeply in all of this is one of entitlement. All of us are of equal inherent “value”, and therefore are equally deserving of any of the rest of us. As the movie poster asks, “How can a 10 go for a 5?” In the world of human nature denial and political correctness, that’s a flawed question because we’re all 10s. No, that would imply we’re all trying to elevate ourselves. Rather, we’re all striving desperately for mediocrity.

Despite objections to ranking or rating on a numerical scale inherent in the wording of the question, in principle this question is completely valid for those who find the concept of assortative mating unsavory. Assortative mating is the simple theory that those of comparable mate value will self-organize in such a way to roughly match up. Thus, the folk wisdom of “punching your own weight” when it comes to dating is insightful and useful.

Why Are Both Examples Men?

The examples I’ve chosen here demonstrate a deviation from what happens in real life. What good would it do if I trotted out examples of a Keira Knightley character falling for Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy? What good would it do to introduce thousands of examples of novels of the wayward hot chick being swept off her feet in the pages between a Fabio laden paperback cover? No, such examples of hypergamy more or less align with predictions based on assortative mating in humans. Sure, we could critique them on a number of fronts, but they don’t deviate greatly from human nature.

The examples with men provide an assault on sexual selection. Strangely, the assault is on women (at least) as much as men. Female mate-choice is a fundamental principle in evolutionary biology. It predicts that women should have the ultimate choice in selecting a mate because of their significantly higher level of investment in gestation. In this case, “should” can be argued (for or against) from multiple angles, but I’m using it in a game theoretic optimization sense.

Yes, the message of these films is essentially that women should (in the cultural norm sense) cast aside both their innate feelings of attraction and their cognitive analysis of a man’s value. What should women replace this with? Why… the first guy who comes along, of course. Films of this ilk merely replace the heavy-handed misogyny of the Abrahamic patriarchal magical cult structures with a culturally induced anesthetic to a woman’s passion.

This doesn’t do any favors for men either. Despite attempts by the media milieu to deny women’s instinctual attraction and passion, then reify the denial by cultural programming, women’s attraction remains. When a man who has absorbed the “strive for hollow mediocrity” message attempts to attract a woman who’s still operating on her own instinctual feelings and cognition, he’s in for a taste of disappointment. But… but… in the movie all he had to do was be a nice guy.

Who Benefits?

I’m sure there are several attractive women who have had their instincts replaced by the new set of cultural norms in a world of almost 7 billion. In such instances the dudes who are 5s benefit. Congrats.

I’m sure there are instances wherein the tables are turned and a hot (in whichever composite of metrics we agree upon) guy ends up confusing a long-term mating strategy with a short-term mating strategy and gives up a few points in the aggregate hotness department.

Thus, both men and women of low relative mate-value may benefit from time to time. Unfortunately, assortative mating is a zero sum game (assuming hypothetical monogamy). So every time an individual scores someone a couple points above them, the higher value individual loses that many points in the genetic assortment game.

Who regularly benefits from the anesthetizing of human instinctual passion and attraction are the purveyors of the ideas. There is much hay to be made in convincing average individuals that they have real hope of attracting someone out of their league. The real genius comes with the idea that all you have to do to realize this hope is to be your boring self. This capitalizes on the human psychological tendency to seek answers in magic bullets rather than work or progress. Selling hope for a dime… such a beautiful business model.

The (perhaps) unintended consequence of this culturalization program is that it creates a flak feedback mechanism. Since communication between humans operates to a large extent on the sociocultural channel, establishing norms that we should be attracted to anyone who’s just being their true self also establishes a cultural channel for social sanctioning. The phenomenally cruel step of castigating an individual by exercising their innate feelings of attraction are the in place. Psychosocial pressure can be applied to this end through a variety of mechanisms. Congratulations, human nature deniers; your brainwashing program causes real harm to real people.

On Being and Time Yourself

A trite note in closing: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being yourself. Unfortunately, the ‘yourself’ that’s often portrayed in these contexts is your laziest self. Unfortunately squared, nobody’s true self exists on a linear continuum. We’re all conflicted by different parts of our brains at all times and we all have the ability to choose from a range of selves. I must therefore reject the notion that there is such thing as a one true self for any individual. So yeah, be yourself, but… the fun and awesome version.


Don’t even get me started on Beauty and the Beast.

Little, a C, D M Burt, I S Penton-Voak, and D I Perrett. “Self-perceived attractiveness influences human female preferences for sexual dimorphism and symmetry in male faces.” The Royal Society 268, no. 1462 (January 2001): 39-44. [PDF]

  1. Aeryn 5 years ago

    I've often wondered where humans ended up changing from so many species where it's the men who have to perform elaborate displays and look good. I curse agriculture for ultimately ruining things by making wealth and status more important in men and sexual selection than looks in a agrarian society, because (and forgive me for largely stereotyping) many men think that as long as they have an okay job and pay for dinner, it doesn't matter that their hair has no style and they're wearing baggy jeans from the early 90s (if they still fit) that don't show off their figure. (Yes, men should have a figure and yes, women want to see it!)

    I wonder if women forgo-ed monogamy and only had sex with the very elite of physically attractive men that put time into their appearance if this could be somewhat reversed. But that might only work for female animals that seek out sex a few times a year instead of female humans that can and want to have sex any time, otherwise there might be a big shortage of available men.

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      I don't think it's completely accurate to say that looks have been replaced with wealth/status. Rather, I'd suggest that frumpy guys with high wealth/status are of average mate value in the same way that attractive guys with low wealth/status are of average mate value. In both cases, all other things being equal, the guy who has an advantage in appearance or status (or any number of other fitness cues that we're glossing over such as creativity) will ultimately be perceived as having higher mate value by women in general.

  2. @Wild_Not_Wise 5 years ago

    Except that monogamy-for-a-while-at-least is reproductively advantageous for females. They not only want a mate who is a prime specimen of a man, but one who will stick around long enough to bring them food while they're pregnant, lactating, saddled with a child, and also protect them from threats. Because a woman with a stable mate will be able to bring more children to adulthood than one who leaves after the mating act, we've bred in a tendency for women to go for the lovable less-than-optimum, rather than the peacock-man who's strutting his stuff for everyone around. A man who takes too much care of his physical appearance could be seen as either too self-involved or perhaps too ready to look for the next piece of tail once he's impregnated his current target. But it's not so much that men DON'T need some peacock feathers; rather, it's an interplay of physical attractiveness and a sense of stability. Doing it with the hottest guy is not the best way to ensure the survival of the species.

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      In general, I think this is why it's not accurate to assume monogamy (for any amount of time). If we take your assumptions, but throw out the monogamy bit, the optimal strategy is a short-term mating strategy of getting DNA from the highest quality mate possible, then a long-term mating strategy of settling down with the "provider" guy.

      • Geoff 5 years ago

        This strategy is in agreement with what we see in terms of female attractiveness toward men as well. During ovulation, women are attracted to physical characteristics more indicative of high testosterone individuals, and are much more likely to undertake a short term relationship with such an individual. Likewise, this is the period during which women are most likely to cheat on their boyfriends.

  3. Greg Linster 5 years ago

    Does assortative mating suggest that beautiful people end up with beautiful mates and intelligent people end up with intelligent mates? I'm sure most of us have seen a beautiful woman on the arm of an unsightly wealthy man. It's usually safe to assume that she has a personality to match his unsightliness. If assortative mating deals with aggregate attractiveness then this would seem to make sense.

    Here's an interesting question to ponder: have you ever known of a beautiful AND intelligent woman (I concede that this is difficult to measure)? In other words, do any men ever go way out of their league and land a female who is better looking, smarter, and funnier than them? I don't think so either.

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      It's hard to shove all of assortative mating into one category. By that I mean that women tend to select some characteristics for maximum difference (MHC complex). I don't know that aggregate in a mathematical average sense is the most accurate model, but the concept seems generally more useful than assuming women choose like traits in mates.

      I think there's also some insight in the referenced study. There's a component of the self-evaluation that opens the door for the beholder to weight certain traits differently. Then there's the cognitive and social level that tempers all of it as well.

  4. Greg Linster 5 years ago

    My question got cut off… It should read: have you ever known of a beautiful AND intelligent woman (I concede that this is difficult to measure) who married beneath her in both categories?

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      There's a study bouncing around out there somewhere that concludes that women with their own status/resources/careers don't view their own resources as a replacement for those of their potential mate. Higher status women tend to select even higher status men. Thus, the stay-at-home dad thing is kind of a pipe-dream (on average).

  5. Victoria 5 years ago

    I don't know- this seems to be the inevitable consequence of our modern society… Everyone gets an A, everyone makes the baseball team, and everyone loves you just they way you are without you trying (not just your mother). I'm still struck by something you said on the forums at some point, something about cultural cues as abstractions of mating fitness and the attraction to cues that are more difficult to fake… I think I just butchered what you were saying, but for anyone that's interested the conversation is here if I did that right…

    Anyway- I don't know why the idea of assortative mating is so controversial- or I guess I should just admit that I didn't realize it WAS controversial. Whoops. I guess what I think is interesting is the divisions under which people 'sort'. Obviously what is attractive to some is not attractive to others, and I expect there's a spectrum of characteristics that require an interesting algorithm to come up with a universal 'mate value'. Intelligence, looks, and genuineness probably being the 3 factors that come to my mind first, though there must be subcategories within those. Something I noticed in a paper that was briefly discussed on the forum at some point was the relative mate values- yes most relationships consisted of people who were fairly close in mate value, but interestingly (if I remember correctly) the overall trend showed that individuals seemed to rank their partner as having a slightly higher mate value than themselves, which seems like a useful little mind trick for a successful relationship.

    • Karen 5 years ago

      I would add status to your list of factors for mate value and creativity (though maybe only as a sub-category of intelligence).

      I also didn't realize that assortative mating is so controversial. But perhaps talking about it is controversial, where as acting upon it is not.

      • Author
        Andrew 5 years ago

        I don't think assortative mating is controversial in overtly stated terms. There is an implied rejection of it and its implications buried in cultural themes such as the films mentioned above. I simply hoped to shed some light on what's actually being challenged by these plotlines.

  6. David Csonka 5 years ago

    None of this applies to me because I'm an 11.

    • Katherine 5 years ago


  7. Jamie 5 years ago

    I love David's comment, but it also touches on something else in society that you generally aren't allowed to do – self-rate yourself too high. If you think you are a 9, going on 10 (or an 11 in David's case), there are unwritten rules that you should scale that back a bit. Likewise, at the other end of the scale, you shouldn't be too hard on yourself, so can scale yourself from a 2 to a 4 (not that it makes a lot of difference in the grand scheme of things as you are still an unspoken 2 as far as potential mates are concerned). There is an aggregation to the mediocre as Andrew points out. It all leads to disappointment though, as in real life, the 2 never gets with an 8 unless there has been a major shift in the universe… cue the angst of an awkward teenage boy who always played the nice guy with the great personality, but who always lost out to the rugby jock that treated the girls like shit…..

    Moving on… this bit stuck out for me:

    "Since communication between humans operates to a large extent on the sociocultural channel, establishing norms that we should be attracted to anyone who’s just being their true self also establishes a cultural channel for social sanctioning. The phenomenally cruel step of castigating an individual by exercising their innate feelings of attraction are the in place. Psychosocial pressure can be applied to this end through a variety of mechanisms. Congratulations, human nature deniers; your brainwashing program causes real harm to real people."

    In making the statement tonight (whilst watching similar rubbish play out on TV, as plucky Mr Average tries to win over Miss Gorgeous by being 'a nice guy'), "a good personality doesn't trump ugly in the mating game" I was castigated for not thinking that everyone has an equal chance.

    I wonder, in the USA in particular, whether an extension of this is the belief that anyone can achieve anything, e.g. anyone can become the president? Nice and heart-warming in theory. An absolute lie in practice.

    • Victoria 5 years ago

      Heh- so I wasn't the only one that had the 11 thought. The first thing that came to mind was the clip from Spinal Tap with the amplifiers that go up to 11… If you're not familiar, I recommend youtubing it!

      I definitely agree that 'A good personality does not trump ugly', but as I probably stumbled around above, there has to be an interesting algorithm to figure out relative mate values, and I would guess that it varies in some ways from person to person. To what degree do different people value intelligence, looks, status, character, etc? You can be great to look at, but become completely uninteresting when you open your mouth. Alternatively, if someone make you want to stab your eyes out with pencils when you look at them it doesn't matter if they're the most interesting person ever (at least in the 'getting into bed together' department). I've watched a couple talks by a professor of Behavioral Economics, Dan Ariely, who talks about online dating and attraction in general. His online dating thoughts are interesting as he points out that it makes people focus on the things that are easily searchable and categorizable. At some point he also mentions (though I don't think I ever saw him answer) the question of what happens when your mate value dramatically changes (ie- disfiguring accident). Does your self realization of mate value change over time? When is it set? Does the high school rugby jock that treats the girls like shit but gets the girls anyway still think he's hot stuff when he's in his 30s with a beer belly and balding?

      • Author
        Andrew 5 years ago

        A lot of this can also be addressed by throwing the assumption of monogamy out the window. It's been shown from multiple angles that individual female attraction itself fluctuates. With that as a starting point, it's harder to come up with a model or algorithm. Assessments would have to also be weighted in relation to ovulation at the very least.

        • Victoria 5 years ago

          Throw monogamy out the window if you want, but a woman can only be impregnated by one man at a time (at lengthy intervals), so it would seem logical that, slight fluctuations aside, there are probably trends in assortative mating that can be explored. The issue of ovulation is definitely an interesting one, as it brings up the issue of who a woman wants to impregnate her and who she wants (or thinks is a safe bet) as a long term parter, but in most cases do we think that a woman wants both in the same package if it's acquirable- this one does.

          Greg brought up the question above of how assortative mating works- do people highest in attractive sort out in one pile and intelligence in another? What does which find most attractive and how does that vary? Are different characteristics more important for each gender? If pushed I'd say resources and status are more important in the overall ranking for men, while attractiveness is more important in women (though again this probably varies by who is doing the ranking). It is unlikely to find a '10' in every way (Natalie Portman might be close, but she's a vegan, so I'm sure that knocks her down to a 9.5), so the question becomes what if you're a 10 in looks and character, but a 2 in intelligence, and how does that compare to someone who's a 10 in looks and intelligence, but a 2 in character- it probably depends who's doing the ranking?

    • Author
      Andrew 5 years ago

      "If you think you are a 9, going on 10 (or an 11 in David's case), there are unwritten rules that you should scale that back a bit. Likewise, at the other end of the scale, you shouldn't be too hard on yourself…"

      This reminded me of the following paper…

      'Dissing oneself versus dissing rivals: Effects of status, personality, and sex on the short-term and long-term attractiveness of self-deprecating and other-deprecating humor.' [PDF]

      They come at it from a different angle, but I think it's related.

  8. ravi 5 years ago

    this question of monogamy is sticky – and going back to your comment about us having the choice of many selves to be true to – having been in stable but open relationships (2 in the last 20 years), and watching my partners "choices" at the beginning – it's clear that the selection criteria are quite convoluted – that is they do not reflect any kind of linear conscious or unconscious choices that clearly speak of these issues of looks or intelligence directly. She chose to display many variations of her "true self" (as did i)and the men she chose to bed and start relations often had characters and attributes that baffled me, but obviously spoke to some selection criteria of hers. My present relationship of 10 years with her with child reflects her choice of me as a more stable provider (perhaps – or was it the cool way i juggled fire?…) – but she could not have known my potential "stability" at all given the circumstances under which we met (sexually/relationship experimental community – many partners/relationships going at once) . I was as energetically non-monogamous as she was and while we were toying with partners that – in all candor – i would rate both above and below each of us on that scale – the nature of each of the relationships was reflective of too many variables to assign a whole lotta specifics of evolutionary choice.

    Monogamy is a bogus construct – i believe that hunter-gatherer societies had hugely more varied and quite frankly, interesting "arrangements" than the stultified monogamous straight-jacket we're all subjected to at present. There are partners to screw and partners to father/mother your kids (oh yea – then there's MILF's too…)

  9. Greg Linster 5 years ago

    Do these concepts apply to friendship as well? Do you know of any good papers discussing "assortative friendship"?

  10. Geoff 5 years ago

    I think there's a very important element missing from this discussion: the outliers. The reality is that any man, if he is delusional enough about his value, can attract a high value woman. That is to say that female perception of value, both socially and genetically, can be short circuited by her perception of confidence and self worth.

    In a pre-agricultural society, social value, genetic value, and perceived self worth would be highly correlated, which could explain why a woman might use perceived self worth, which is much harder to fake, as the primary indicator of attractiveness. Still, the reality is that in our world today where genetic value is highly disjoint from social value and in many cases self worth, we see outliers that we describe as "having game."

    The movie examples you described would not be popular if there was no semblance of truth in them. Selling a fantasy that totally collides with one's worldview is not a profitable endeavor. The reason they are successful is because most people know an outlier or two who give the mediocre hope of someday experiencing their fantasies. These movies are selling the idea that that outlier guy is no different from you, he just got lucky, and if you wait around long enough, you can too. The problem with most of these movies, I'll speak specifically to "She's Out of my League" since I've seen it, is that the situations illustrated show the fantasy from the perspective of the chump, totally missing the outlier characteristic of delusional perception of one's own value.

  11. Danielle Meitiv 5 years ago

    The issue is not whether beautiful people mate with beautiful people. High-status people mate with each other. Over time and across societies, the characteristics that convey status might change – i.e. what is considered beautiful, what valuables constitute wealth – but the desire to seek status is constant.

    The reason why beautiful women get together with ugly but wealthy men is that in our society (and many many others throughout history) beauty conveys status to women while wealth does the same for men. In societies where intellect and learning were valued (the Soviet Union pre-break-up, Europe Jewish societies pre-20th century), those traits conveyed status on men.

    Fair or not, the value of beauty for women is pretty universal, even if the standards are somewhat (but not entirely) flexible.

    The flaw in these movies is not that the women go for physically unattractive men, but that they bother with men who are low-status. Why oh why would they do that to their offspring? They wouldn't. But hey, it sells tickets – to low-status guys.

  12. Julia 4 years ago

    Thank you for these excellent analysis. 

    Just seeing the trailers of these kind of movies always made me barf a little in my mouth…It’s either the concept that’s gross or the guy who plays the lead or both, but needless to say, I’d rather not have to mini-barf not to mention it’s not exactly good when kissing if a hot guy come along…

    I think one aspect that hasn’t been mentioned is that even when attractive (high reproductive value) women pair up with physically unattractive (low genetic mating value) men the woman is not physically attracted and often actually end up using the cuckold strategy; using one man for resources and another (more attractive and sexier) for reproduction. It’s a mixed strategy that has evolved throughout time.

    And while there’s a 0.001-something of ugly men that manage to pair up with beautiful women through the use of money (socially-acceptable prostitution in a way) in a way assortative mating does ensure that people get what they deserve in terms of partners (i.e: ensuring ugly end up with other ugly people, physically desirables with other physically desirables etc) and that no one end up “cheating the system” so to speak.

    Of course, I know evolution does not actually have “goals”. It’s just another of thinking about it. Offer and demand: people go for the hottest bed partner they can get. And basically since no one wants to pair up with people of lower reproductive value, everyone ends up with someone of similar desirability.

    Unfortunately these movies plays up the loser guy’s delusions and actually contribute to creating creeps, mutazoids that thinks they can score with the local beauty, street harassment etc…  

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