If you’re a single woman who has a brain and a backbone, you may suspect that these things are working against you in the dating arena. Maybe you read a dating guide that instructed you not to choose the restaurant or argue about politics. You need to let the man be the man! So hold off on the Yelp search and for heaven’s sake keep your opinions about Hillary Clinton to yourself!
Or maybe friends and family have gently suggested that you’re a tad too independent or intimidating. It’s not that they think that you shouldn’t have gotten that master’s degree or corporate-law job. Everybody’s super duper proud of what you’ve achieved!
The problem isn’t you—it’s guys. They say they want to be with a woman who can hold her own in an argument about the latest Supreme Court ruling, but really they all want old-fashioned girls who will defer to their opinions about metal bands and gaze in wide-eyed awe as their men explain about states’ rights and single malt whiskey.
This is the conventional wisdom that annoying know-it-alls have been dispensing to women for decades, and we have mostly believed it. A 2006 study found that heterosexual women asked to contemplate a romantic day with an attractive stranger became more acquiescent, while their male counterparts become more headstrong and non-conformist. The researchers concluded that this is because men prefer deferential women, while women like men who are independent and assertive.
But Matthew Hornsey, a psychology professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, questioned this assumption, since the study was based on what women thought men liked, rather than what men actually preferred. To get a clearer picture, Hornsey and a team of researchers conducted a series of experiments designed to determine how heterosexual men and women select romantic partners.
The study, the results of which were recently published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, found that the majority of female participants did indeed find non-conformist men more attractive than the more compliant types. But it also found that men prefer non-conformists, too.
In one experiment, men and women read dating profiles in which subjects showed either conformist or non-conformist traits. For example: “Amy has always liked hanging out with her family and friends, and likes being part of the group. She is quite happy to go along with what others are doing;” and “Jess likes to stand out from the crowd, and enjoys expressing different opinions from her friends, as well as making decisions for herself.”
Most women thought unassuming Amy would have an advantage over the brass Jess, but they were wrong. Men preferred the more headstrong type. In another experiment, in which men and women engaged in an online chat about art preference, male participants preferred women who frequently disagreed with the group to those who deferred to others’ opinions.
“Women should tear up their assumptions about what they think men want,” Hornsey wrote to me in an email. “The old gender stereotype—that men go for conformist, submissive women, has been slow to die. For women, the consequence may be that they rein themselves in when dating when they would be better served by just being themselves.”
So the next time you assume the guy you’re seeing will be crushed if you challenge his opinion on campaign-finance reform, give him some credit. Most men are not the fearful little bunnies that decades of dating folklore have made them out to be. They prefer women who know their own minds, and aren’t afraid to show it.