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Research shows logic of love

Mel Flanagan | Thursday, February 14, 2013

As romance fills the air on Valentine’s Day, assistant professor of sociology Elizabeth McClintock said she does not buy into the idea of love as an illogical occurrence that cannot be explained.

Instead, she said she believes love and why people are attracted to each other can easily be rationalized.

“There is a disjoint between us feeling it is something irrational and random, and the fact that it is actually very logically and socially structured,” she said.

McClintock has conducted research on the roles of physical attractiveness and social status in mate selection, and she has found many stereotypes about selection to be false.

She first examined the trophy wife stereotype, or the idea that men with high-income occupations will marry attractive women, and found she could generally debunk this claim. In reality, McClintock said men and women tend to marry spouses who have a similar status to their own.

“We have the perception that the surgeon will marry the pretty nurse,” she said. “But instead, doctors marry doctors, lawyers marry lawyers.”

McClintock attributed the misconception to the finding that higher status men and women are better looking on average than those who hold lower status.

“They can afford dermatologists, they are less likely to be overweight,” she said. “There is a correlation between physical attractiveness and status.”

As a result, if couples match on social status, they will also generally match on their level of attractiveness, she said.

“There is going to be a correlation between one spouse’s social status and the other’s attractiveness,” McClintock said. “But they’re not necessarily trading attractiveness for status.”

The trophy wife stereotype could also exist because people assume only male status and female physical attractiveness matter in mate selection, McClintock said. That claim states a female would choose the male for his status, while the male would choose the female for her attractiveness.

“I think women care what men look like too, we don’t particularly want to marry ugly men,” McClintock said.

Social status affects mate selection so greatly because of its relation to cultural capital, she said. In order for two people to connect emotionally, they need to possess some of the same cultural interests and knowledge.

McClintock said education level remains the single strongest force in mate selection.

“Men might be willing to accept a woman who is beautiful and doesn’t have a lot of money,” she said. “But they’re not willing to accept a woman who doesn’t have the same education or the same cultural background.”

Despite her findings, McClintock said not all couples match entirely on social status, education level and physical attractiveness.

“You can have successful marriages with people who are different,” she said. “I don’t think that’s bad. I think it’s good because it can create a certain amount of social mobility.”