Women Prefer A Good Heart Over A Good Body, Says Science

Photo: Kiselev Andrey Valerevich/ Shutterstock
man sitting in the sunshine

By Sara Eckel

A 2016 British study published in Evolutionary Psychology examined how much a man’s level of altruism influences his attractiveness to women.

In the study, led by University of Worcester psychologist Daniel Farrelly, 202 heterosexual women looked at photographs of pairs of men. In each pairing, one man had been independently evaluated as physically attractive, the other physically unattractive.

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The women were also told how each man reacted to a scenario that called for altruism.

In one scenario, a child is drowning in a fast-moving river. Participants were told that one of the men jumped into the water to try and rescue the child; the other decided it was too dangerous and didn’t attempt to save the child. If I saw a man jump into a river to save a child, I would make sure the kid was safe first, and then I would get that man's number. I don't need science to tell me that. Am I the only one?

In another scenario, one man purchased a meal for a homeless person while the other pretended to make a phone call and walked by. The women also viewed scenarios in which both men engaged in equally neutral activities — buying a shirt versus buying a pair of jeans. In total, the women saw 12 different scenarios — eight that contrasted altruistic and non-altruistic behavior and four with neutral behavior.

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After viewing each pair of photographs and behavior scenarios, the women were asked how desirable each man would be for a long — or short-term relationship. Not surprisingly, the men who were both physically attractive and altruistic got the highest scores.

But when they had to choose between the two conditions, it got interesting. When women were asked about their preferences in long-term relationships, men in the “unattractive” category who had behaved altruistically received significantly higher ratings than the handsome men who had behaved selfishly.

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But this finding did not hold up for short-term relationships—men who were high in attractiveness but low in altruism received slightly higher scores than their kinder, less handsome peers.

“Overall, the results provide further support for the view that altruism acts as an important trait mate choice, particularly for [long-term] relationships,” the authors said.

In other words, if women are contemplating a fling, this research shows that looks matter slightly more than character. But when they are thinking about who they’d want to have a serious relationship with, women strongly prefer a good heart to a hot body.

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Sara Eckel is a personal coach and the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian, and more.