You don’t have to look to television sitcoms to find ridiculously mismatched couples. Sometimes it seems like everywhere you turn, men are with women entirely out of their league. Which got us – and scientists – thinking: why do women prefer less attractive men?

Tall dark and handsome, or helpful. Of course women are attracted to men who are both altruistic and attractive, but how many of these men actually exist? Not enough. If you had to choose, which characteristic would be more important in a partner: helpful, or handsome?

The research. Daniel Farrelly, a psychologist at the University of Worcester in the UK, tested the preferences of over 200 heterosexual women. He wanted to determine the most important attribute in a partner.

Picture this. Farrelly showed the women photographs of pairs of men. Each pair featured a handsome man and a less-than-attractive counterpart. Then, the women were given scenarios in which they had to imagine each of these men.

SOS. One scenario went as follows: “Man S and Man T are both at a picnic beside a river that has a fast current when they see a child being swept down the river, gasping for breath. A woman cries, ‘Help! Save my child!’ One man in each pair acts altruistically: T hears the mother’s cries and jumps in the raging river to try to save the child. On the other hand, S sees the speed of the current and chooses not to try to help.”

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The giving type. Another scenario: ”Two men are walking through a busy town and notice a homeless person sitting near a café. Man E decides to go into the café to buy a sandwich and a cup of tea to give to the homeless person. Man F pretends to use his mobile phone and walks straight past the homeless person.”

Blue jeans, white shirt. Other scenarios were neutral: “Man O and Man P both go clothes shopping. O decides to buy a green jacket and P buys a pair of blue jeans.” The latter scenario was used as a control condition since it tells us nothing about the men.

Friendly middle aged man’s face.

Comparing. After they read a variety of scenarios, the women had to rate the attractiveness of each man (in terms of both a long-term and short-term relationship, i.e. marriage vs. a one-night stand).

What Farrelly learned was that the more helpful, good men received much higher ratings in attractiveness, especially in the realms of long-term relationships. Farrelly explained, “Non-altruistic men were less attractive than physically unappealing men, and altruistic men were more attractive than handsome men.”

Kindness counts.Essentially, what he discovered was that a man’s physical appearance is less important to a woman than his kindness and helpfulness.

Conclusive? Realistically, this is like comparing apples and oranges. There is no set scale for rating how attractive the male species is to women as a whole. It could be that altruism only appeared to be more valuable than attractiveness due to the scenarios in question.

Going the distance. He also discovered that helpful men were deemed more attractive for a long-term relationship, as opposed to a fling.

Don’t count out hotness quite yet. Women still want to get down and dirty with the more attractive men, but they don’t want to settle down with them. Wham bam thank you, man.

You’ll do for now. Farrelly’s research also suggests that women found selfish, non-altruistic men to be more appealing as potential-fling candidates because they are seen as the stereotypical bad boy types.

Everyone’s got a use. “Past research suggests that women prefer ‘cads’ to ‘dads’ when seeking a casual hookup,” says Psychology Today’s Robert Burris.

As for the ladies? “Future research needs to examine the effects found here in men’s ratings of the desirability of altruistic women as well. This is because there is a lack of such research in this area, as most studies have concentrated on only women’s ratings.” Farrelly concludes.



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