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]