A couple of months ago, I posted a blog about a politically sensitive subject: What’s going on inside the brains of Trump supporters. Specifically, I wondered aloud about women enthusiastically supporting a manifest bully who had displayed his attitude toward the fair sex as sex objects. As I might have expected, I received some hostile responses, a few of them ad hominem, from Trump supporters. What was less expected is the vehemence of women’s attacks. So, where did that come from? Was this a reaction to the cognitive dissonance they must be feeling watching their presidential candidate behaving like a schoolyard bully? Could it be a manifestation of the Stockholm Syndrome, when a captive identifies with his/her kidnapper?
Some psychologists believe that women who choose to stay in abusive relationships suffer from this syndrome. Maybe, except that there is no objective evidence to that effect. Those Trump adoring women are not captives, neither are they coerced in any way. To the contrary, at least, the TV images show genuine enthusiasm.
To try to figure this out, I turned to literature to see what science has to say about what women want when it comes to men? It turns out, it says a lot, but also very little. What do women really want when it comes to men? Check it out on the web and you’ll be overwhelmed by books, scientific papers, faux-science articles, blogs, and advocacy screeds. So, let me distil it into 2 interrelated main lines: evolutionary and psychological.
The evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Todd Shackelford of the University of Texas have published widely on the subject of sexual attraction between the sexes. They concluded that women desired men with traits in the following four dimensions:
- Good genes: Men who were more masculine, physically attractive, good looking, fit, and high in sex appeal.
- Good investment ability: Men with high potential income, good earning capacity, educated, and older than the woman herself.
- Good parenting: Men who want a home and children, who are fond of children and like them, who want to raise them well, and are emotionally stable and mature.
- Good partner: Men who want to be a loving partner. It is not hard to see the common thread in those criteria; the evolutionary desire to maximize survival odds of the offspring.
The Israeli scientists Sigal Tifferet and David Kruger dug a bit deeper. They decided to investigate whether the “terminal investment hypothesis,” which had been demonstrated in non-human primates, applies to humans as well. The hypothesis states that in species showing an age-related decline in reproductive value, reproductive effort should increase with age.
They surveyed 1,365 women from 11 countries, ranging in age from 14 to 68, about their preferences in a male partner and found that women generally preferred the “dad” type man for a long-term partner and the “cad” type man for a short-term sexual affair. Preferences varied by age: Young women were more likely to consider brief sexual affairs, particularly with the cad. This effect of age is perfectly understandable if we consider that young women are more fertile and are unconsciously more likely to have a relationship with an attractive man, bearing “good” genes. Older women, in contrast, prefer mating strategies that are related to higher paternal investment.
A short comment on the field of Evolutionary Psychology
According to Wikipedia, Evolutionary Psychology is a theoretical approach in the social and natural sciences that examines psychological structure from a modern evolutionary perspective. The word “theoretical” is important. In essence, practitioners of this approach are finding a causal relationship between our evolution as a species and human behavior. But this alleged connection is based on generally accepted, but unproven, assumptions about our archaic ancestors. One example is humans, like all other species, are supposed to try and maximize the survival of their DNA. Pretty solid evidence for that. From there to the statement made by some scientists that rape is based on that imperative sounds quite sensible, albeit less supported by evidence. From there to the fraught conclusion that rape is “natural”, as in “boys will be boys,” is a skip and a hop.
In case you think this is far-fetched, just Google it. The Internet is polluted with many hundreds of entries on the subject, with only a few based on research and actual data. Of course, the conjecture on rape being adaptive may be true or it may not. To draw such a conclusion is to ignore what we call “confounding factors.” Could a raping intruder be killed by the head of the band, as happens in some apes species? Could the newborn issuing from such an act be killed by the alpha male of the band, as lions are known to do? Hence, such behavior would have been maladaptive and eliminated by natural selection.
My point is, such ‘sensible’ assumptions and retrospective inferences should be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. There is no substitute for collecting data obtained from carefully designed and controlled experiments with real, live humans. Their interpretation in the context of natural selection is intellectually satisfying (to them) but still, these are only conjectures.
The physiological evidence
Previous research has shown that in the week near ovulation, women become attracted to sexy, rebellious, and handsome men, like George Clooney or James Bond. In fact, this is not limited to looks only; being an all-around “bad boy” is a big plus.
Why on earth would women choose bad boys at their prime reproductive age? Because their hormones make them. Studies have shown that an ovulating woman’s hormones influence who she sees as good potential fathers, and they specifically pick sexier men over obviously more dependable men.
Kristina Durante, at the time at the University of Texas, San Antonio, had women view online dating profiles of either a sexy man or a reliable man during periods of both high and low fertility. Participants were asked to indicate the expected paternal contribution from the men if they had a child together based on how helpful the man would be caring for the baby, shopping for food, cooking, and contributing to household chores. Near ovulation, women thought that the sexy man would contribute more to these domestic duties. Durante concluded,
“Under the hormonal influence of ovulation, women delude themselves into thinking that the sexy bad boys will become devoted partners and better dads. When looking at the sexy cad through ovulation goggles, Mr. Wrong looked exactly like Mr. Right.”
We started this journey puzzling over what goes on in the brains of women who support the Donald, an archetypical “bad boy.” I could find lots of science on the subject—some of it very good. It is easy to understand why he is doing so poorly among women, in general, and college-educated, in particular. What is more difficult, and much more interesting to me, is to understand why some women are drawn to him. Despite all the learned research, I am still puzzled. Were these women ovulating at the time they made their choice? Or, are they looking for cads? Just kidding (or not).
Dov Michaeli, MD, PhD
Dov Michaeli, M.D., Ph.D. (now retired) was a professor and basic science researcher at the University of California San Francisco. In addition to his clinical and research responsibilities, he also taught biochemistry to first-year medical students for many years.
During this time he was also the Editor of Lange Medical Publications, a company that developed and produced medical texts that were widely used by health professionals around the world.
He loves to write about the brain and human behavior as well as translate knowledge and complicated basic science concepts into entertainment for the rest of us.
He eventually left academia to enter the world of biotech. He served as the Chief Medical Officer of biotech companies, including Aphton Corporation. He also founded and served as the CEO of Madah Medica, an early-stage biotech company that developed products to improve post-surgical pain control.
Now that he is retired, he enjoys working out for two hours every day. He also follows the stock market, travels the world, and, of course, writes for TDWI.