I can still remember the moment clearly: college, sophomore year, during a post-party wrap-up with my friends. We were talking about what men and women want in sex and love. At one point the question “Do nice guys finish last?” came up. After some discussion, a friend of mine named Ashley (conveniently dating a fraternity brother) said, “Yes, but only in the short run.”
Being a nice guy, I didn’t believe her, since the hot girls always went for the well-connected, senior guys in my frat house, while at the time I was earning the record for strike-outs. And it seemed I at least had celebrity couples on my side. It didn’t matter if he was a famous actor, musician, athlete or artist, if he was older, well-established, and famous, his companion was a much younger femme fatale.
While we could explain celebrity matches by the craziness that simply is the celebrity culture, what about the rest of us, who live outside of the glossy magazines? No one should dispute the notion that women prefer partners who have more resources and men tend to advertise it when looking for a partner. Research can back me up, too: a study on messaging in newspaper personal ads (ah, life before the Internet) showed that men tend to advertise the amount of resources they have (or can get) by talking about how much money they make or listing a high-profile career. In their singles ads, women tend to ask for men with more resources. If you ask both sexes around the world, women will always prefer men with more resources.
Now, before the women start to protest, imagine a smart, handsome, kind man who makes you laugh while cooking you dinner, gainfully employed in a high-profile career. Great, right? Now imagine him in a menial job with no chance of promotion. Which one looks more attractive?
Since my college days, there has been a lot of research (both in the universities and in the bars) on what women want most in their romantic partners. Turns out our inspiration for a mate may be in our genes. Researchers David Buss and David Schmitt took an evolutionary perspective, stating that as far back as prehistoric times women have had to strategize about their mates. Since they are at risk of getting pregnant and having the father take off, they are biologically driven to find a man who can not only provide good genes, but also invest his resources in a relationship with their children. In their work, Buss and Schmitt found that men who were older, displayed more ambition, and had greater financial prospects were always preferred over the alternatives.
It doesn’t hurt to look good, either. Features labeled as “classically male” (i.e., square jaw, strong cheekbones, and large eyebrows) are an indication of high levels of testosterone and healthy genes. Studies suggest that men with these features are more dominant and sexually assertive. Researchers initially thought this meant that dominant men would be the most attractive. After all, dominant men would be more likely to acquire resources. And when given the choice between a dominant man and submissive man, women preferred a dominant man.
But is the lesson to get plastic surgery, stick out your chest, push your way to the front, brag about how much money you make, and dominate every business meeting? Thankfully, no. There is a difference between dominance and aggressiveness (and just plain stupid vanity). Before you rush to the mirror, know that there are negative sides to those features as well: participants also rated men with these features as less able to commit and provide for children (and have the potential for aggression and risk taking. Yikes.). Men with less masculine features, such as fuller lips, wider eyes, and curved eyebrows, were perceived as less dominant but better fathers and providers for a long-term relationship.
Additionally, it turns out that aggressive and pushy men are seen as less attractive than assertive and confident men. Moreover, a study by Lauri Jensen-Campbell, William Graziano and Steve West showed that women prefer men who are dominant and social. Men who are antisocial get marginalized and lose status in groups. If a woman is looking for a provider, she doesn’t want someone who is eventually going to be rejected by everyone. Plus, a dominant and disagreeable man is unpleasant to be around (and sometimes dangerous). When men reflect dominance by being assertive, confident and social, they are liked more and rise in status.
The lesson? What women ultimately want depends on the length of the relationship: is it a short-term fling or a long-term love affair? Women make trade-offs depending on whether they want to focus on finding someone for the night or for life. If the relationship is going to be short term, women prefer men who have a lot of resources, are willing to invest those resources on them, and have better-than-average looks. If the relationship is going to be long term, they prefer men who want to commit, will invest time and effort into children, and be good protectors and providers.
What does this mean for guys in the dating world? It doesn’t mean you have to flash a lot of money, drive an expensive car and live in a big house. It also doesn’t mean that you have to be amazingly hot (although honestly, that always helps). But since those may represent good health and security, don’t discount them when dating. Men should exude confidence in a friendly way. Let a woman know what you want and how to get it, without being pushy or rude. Just because you can’t afford to take her to a fancy dinner doesn’t mean you have to make spaghetti (at least not in the first three months of dating). Do what you can to improve/maintain your looks, and make the most of the resources you have (and a little ambition doesn’t hurt anyone). It may be unfair, but it’s important, especially if you are looking for a long-term relationship.
A woman wants to be attracted to a provider, so show her you can do both. In the end, my college friend Ashley was right. The good news is that both men and women want a partner with a lot of the same attributes, and these are the kinds of things that you would expect: someone who is kind, smart, flexible and honest. In the long run, nice guys do finish first, as long as they are confident and willing to stick up for themselves.