Stay in your league? Study claims couples with similar ‘desirability’ more likely to stay together

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Should a beautiful model only look to marry another “10”? Appearance is just one aspect of attraction and dating, but researchers from the University of Missouri-Columbia suggest that relationships between two people of “similar desirability” tend to last longer and are more successful.

Simply put, the study authors believe people who “outkick their coverage” won’t be with their attractive partners for very long.

Study author Sean Prall, an assistant professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Science, traveled all the way to northwest Namibia in southern Africa to research this topic. While there, Prof. Prall studied the behaviors and dating tendencies of Himba, a group of semi-nomadic agro-pastoralists. Among these people, he found that two individuals sharing a similar level of “desirability” were more likely to end up in a relationship together. Moreover, those relationships were also more likely to go the distance.

Do your ‘mate values’ match up?

Prof. Prall also interviewed locals regarding the desirability of others in the community. Using that data, researchers calculated an estimated “mate value” for each resident. This metric represented how much others may desire to be in a relationship with someone. The team also analyzed relationship statuses.

That additional analysis revealed people sharing similar “mate values” were more likely to date each other and more likely to enjoy positive relationship outcomes. The research team notes that this work is quite different than more traditional research on attractiveness because it focuses on people’s actual actions — not just their preferences, which often vary based on outside social factors.

“We were interested in this because much of the anthropological work on human mating patterns are based on only people’s preferences,” Prof. Prall says in a university release. “This research focuses on people’s actions. Sure, you might say you’d prefer someone that’s deemed really desirable, but that’s heavily impacted by societal norms. What do you do in that relationship? How does it actually go? That was what we were looking at.”

‘That’s how people have been partnering up for thousands and thousands of years’

Up until COVID-19 emerged, Prall and his research partner, UCLA professor of anthropology Brooke Scelza, routinely spent a month each summer living among the Himba pastoralists.

In all, Prof. Prall has spent five years researching the community. Over that period, his team analyzed data pertaining to marriage, parenting, childcare, food insecurity, and romantic partner selection. While this work is very specific to the Himba population, Prall is confident it applies to a larger population.

“This was a great population to look at these questions because everyone knows each other and most date and marry within the population,” Prof. Prall concludes. “You can ask them how much they’d like to be in a relationship with a specific person because they actually know that person. That’s how people have been partnering up for thousands and thousands of years, not online, but with people in your community.”

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

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