Do Women Only Like Powerful Men Because of Evolution?

I really don't think women are "biologically programmed" to prefer powerful men.

Woman with men
(Image credit: Chris Militscher)

One of my favorite blog readers (I do love my readers) sent me a note the other day with a link to an article by Nick Neave, the evolutionary psychologist (who oversaw that study about what makes men good dancers).

In the article, Neave claims that even in the 21st century, women are scared they can't survive without a man. Then he lays out what I understand are a few basic tenets of evolutionary psychology.

1. Women look for men who are "socially dominant."

Today's women "may be shooting up the career ladder and earning more than the men in their lives, but when it comes to relationships, men still hold the trump card," Neave claims. "I study patterns of behavior dating back to the first human societies and constantly analyze evidence that demonstrates the key differences which have developed between the sexes since men were hunter-gatherers and women were child bearers. Females are smaller and weaker than males, so, in prehistoric times, women and their offspring were prone to being the victims of predators and violence. They needed the support and protection of men who didn't just have brute force but also had social status in the group, either through their sheer physicality or the strength of their personality. That's why women still look for a mate of higher social standing. If a woman had a relationship with a socially dominant male, she would immediately get greater access to resources because her social standing would be elevated, too. As we shall see, modern surveys consistently show that women today ape [no pun intended?] those inherent characteristics by looking for partners who are socially dominant and have the respect of their peers, paying close attention to how men interact with, and are treated by, other men."

2. Men look for women who are young.

"Men have a different reason for choosing a mate," Neave continues. "The caveman needed to be sure he was raising a child who was genetically his. The best way of doing this was to secure a mate and guard her so she didn't get the chance to stray. A man's natural instinct may be to have sex with a different woman every day, but to safeguard his relationship (and secure his progeny), he has been forced into a pattern of monogamy. When couples meet at speed-dating events, typically a man will judge a woman on her looks and youth. His priorities are whether she's healthy, interested in sex, and can give him children one day. He doesn't care how much she earns or her social status. Typically, however, a woman's first question will be: 'What job do you do?' It sounds a friendly overture, but what she really wants to know is his social position and earning capacity. Is he an industrious, hard worker, capable of providing for her and their children? Because of his power, even the ugliest politician on the planet has women lining up to go to bed with him... As American statesman Henry Kissinger put it: 'Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.'"

3. Women will pick the powerful over the sexy.

Neave goes on to quote a study in which the researchers (from Syracuse University and University of Toledo) presented women with photographs of men. The first group, described as doctors, wore designer ties, smart shirts, and sported Rolex watches. The second wore plain shirts and Swatch watches and were described as teachers. The third group wore Burger King uniforms. Women repeatedly picked doctors as potential boyfriends — even though many of the men in the third category were actually more handsome.

Says Neave: "Quite simply, to women, a man's looks are less important than earning power and social standing."

Why evolutionary psychology bugs me.

I'm skeptical. I have mixed feelings about evolutionary psychology. On the one hand, it can help to explain some interesting stuff. On the other hand, it can be tiresomely reductive — and certain evolutionary psychologists can strike me as just as caveman-like as the cavemen they seem so interested in.

I mean, speaking for myself, as much as I'll take a multimillionare, sure, what I like even more are baby firemen. In other words, power doesn't turn me on one bit — unless it's coupled with youthful good looks! I am not at all hot for men who look "distinguished," i.e., "older." And I have to say, if anything is biologically programmed into me — or instinctual — I think it's my predilection for young men. Because hell knows I am aware that they are no good for me.

Another thing: Neave kind of glides from his point about prehistoric women liking men who were physically strong and had brute strength to the bit about how men with higher social standing also helped our progenitors survive — which, according to him, makes the case that women still like socially dominant men. But ... well ... what about physically strong men? Sure, the men who will most help us survive in today's world don't need brute strength — a great job is a better signal that they will be a good mate. But, if our prehistoric brains were really controlling us so much, wouldn't we still look for the brute strength? Wouldn't we still find that most attractive? But according to the evolutionary psychologists, we women don't care about a hot physique in our men, because if we did we'd all be salivating over the youngsters and the gym addicts. Instead, we are much more likely to choose powerful politicians, sexy old-man writers, and Woody Allens over some dumb hottie on the elliptical.

If you ask me, a woman is responding to a certain amount of personal greed — and societal pressure — more than any biological instinct when she picks a not-so-hot but rich old man over some sexy younger guy. Because she knows that men — for reasons that probably have something to do with biology but also certainly have a lot to do with cultural standards and societal pressures — prefer young women. So she figures she may as well get while the getting is good, and have a big stash of cash — and plenty of plastic surgery, courtesy of his credit card — by the time her old man dies.

Sure, this is a pretty extreme example ... but caveman are pretty extreme, too!

What do you guys think?

I think I need more coffee.