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You are here: BBC Science > Human Body & Mind > The Mind > Emotions and instincts

Language of Love

Read between the lines

If you've never considered searching for a date in the lonely hearts columns, count yourself lucky. It's a jungle out there and that's scientific fact.

Lonely Hearts advert
Are lonely hearts columns a window into our evolutionary past?

Enter the world of lonely hearts and you take a trip back through your evolutionary past, where the veneer of civilisation is stripped away and men and women are slaves to their most basic instincts.

The frank vocabulary of the ads illuminates the rules of human mating in the most unambiguous way. If you're a blonde, attractive, curvaceous female, that's exactly how you should describe yourself in your ad. The same applies if you're a handsome, athletic, millionaire male.

For this very reason, lonely hearts may give us a unique insight into the reasons for our sexual preferences - preferences that have been moulded by millions of years of natural selection.

Column inches

Professor Robin Dunbar of Liverpool University spent much of the latter half of the 1990s studying the hidden evolutionary signals contained in Lonely Hearts advertisements.

"We were studying 19th century folk [love] songs, but it wasn't working out as well as we had thought. Many folk songs are political when you scratch beneath the surface," explains Dunbar.

"When we changed our focus to Lonely Hearts, we found a close link with evolutionary preferences," he adds.

The language of love

Dunbar found that the vast majority of words used by people to describe themselves in ads could be lumped into five different categories.

He asked 200 university students to rate the appeal of ads containing different categories of words. When Dunbar analysed the results, he found that men and women attached very different levels of importance to the five categories:

Men's preferencesWomen's preferences
1. Attractiveness1. Commitment
1. Commitment2. Social Skills
3. Social Skills3. Resources
4. Resources4. Attractiveness
4. Sexiness5. Sexiness

Far from being conditioned to regard these things as important, Dunbar argued that men and women had evolved these preferences over millions of years of evolution. These were crucial qualities that enhanced the fitness of children, and, lest we forget, children are the key to the survival of our species.

Lovers on a park bench
What hidden messages do we send the opposite sex?

Pregnancy and breast-feeding place great stress on a mother, so females make the biggest investment in reproduction. This is why women are choosier about their partners than men, with 20-something women being the choosiest of all.

This big parental investment also explains why women seek males who are willing to stick around and provide for children.

Diamonds are a girl's best friend

But evolutionary theory tells us that resources should be just as important to women, if not more so. Good fathers need to have the means to feed offspring as well as the willingness to stick around.

In our evolutionary past, before resources meant a Rolex watch and a sports car, a well-heeled man was one with high status in a hunting tribe. High status males were often good hunters and likely to provide a steady supply of food.

When the desire for reproduction is taken out of the equation, preferences change drastically. Dunbar has shown that lesbians were three times less likely to seek resources than heterosexual women.

But why should such an intangible quality like social skills score highly with heterosexual women? Dunbar puts this down to the Scheherazade effect, a phrase coined by cognitive psychologist Geoffrey Miller.

The Scheherazade effect refers to the possible tactics used by ancestral women to appeal to a man's conversational skills in order to keep them around.

Research conducted by Professor Doug Kenrick at the University of Arizona seems to support this sexual dynamic. Kenrick has found that both sexes regard social skills as important, particularly a sense of humour. But that a good sense of humour has a different meaning for women than it does for men.

"When women look for a sense of humour in a man, they're saying: 'show me what you've got'. But when a man looks for a sense of humour in a woman, they're saying 'she laughs at my jokes, she must think I'm a great guy'."

Playing the field

The very fact that men need an incentive to stick around leads us to the question of male priorities in the mating game. Men, like women, want to maximise their contribution to the gene pool by having as many offspring as possible.

But for males, time spent providing for a pregnant partner could be better spent fathering other children with other women. This may explain why men place such a high premium on attractiveness.

Attractiveness is a rough indicator of age, and in women, age is a good indicator of fertility. After her late 20s, a woman's fertility steadily declines, and so does her value on the dating market.

Salsa dancers
We all want to make babies. But when it comes to the politics of mating, men and women dance to a different tune.

Ageing beauties

Men, so the biological assumption goes, always prefer younger women, because they are likely to bear them more children.

But a recent study seems to contradict this theory. Dr George Fieldman, of the Buckinhamshire Chilterns University College showed images of women to about 200 men with an average age of 30.

A picture of a 36-year old woman, who a separate group of men had found attractive, was shown to the men along with eight other photos of women aged 20 to 45 who had been rated as less attractive.

Asked to choose one woman as a long-term partner, all three groups chose the beautiful woman regardless of what age they thought she was.

"They are saying: 'I'd rather risk a relationship with an older woman who is not going to give me as many children but is very beautiful, than a woman who is more fecund but whose children will be plainer," says Fieldman.

The theory is based on the notion that a beautiful woman is more likely to bear beautiful offspring and that those offspring will be more successful than plainer offspring.

"Female beauty has evolved through sexual selection. If you're beautiful then it's likely that you're also symmetrical," he adds.

Symmetry is a difficult characteristic for genes to code for, leading many scientists to conclude that it is an indicator of good genes.

Fieldman's research suggests that beauty is important to men on a deeper level than just a simple indicator of youth.

Led astray

However, Kenrick thinks that in this instance, men are being confused by the benefits of modern healthcare and beauty products.

"My suspicion is that we respond to visual cues of attractiveness, not what you see on someone's birth certifcate. Liz Hurley, for example, looks attractive because she's got all those cues [despite her age]," he explains.

"In evolutionary history, by the time a woman got to be 45, she'd have had five children and various parasites. She wouldn't have looked like one of those Hollywood actresses," Kenrick adds.

Studies have shown that men seem to prefer women with smooth skin and glossy hair, features which seem to be associated with higher levels of the female sex hormone oestrogen. In our evolutionary past, these would also have been strong indicators of youth.

Dirty old men

As male lonely hearts age, they seek women who are increasingly younger than they are. This reflects their increasing value on the dating market due to their increasing resources, or wealth.

But why males should value commitment so highly is less clear. Dunbar thinks he has the answer: "In males I think commitment is to linked to paternity certainty," he explains. If a male is to spread his genes, he needs to know that the children being born are his and not those of a rival.

The patterns of preferences amongst homosexual male advertisers are startlingly different. In one study, gay men offered resources and attractiveness half as often as heterosexual men did.

Dinner date
On average, female lonely hearts prefer a man five years older than them.

Like everyone else, lonely hearts raise or lower their standards according to their own circumstances. Young men have low expectations because they don't have much wealth to offer. Older women are similarly undemanding, because of their reduced attractiveness.

Liar, liar

But the lonely hearts columns seem to amplify one important tactic of the mating game: lying. One of the most common complaints made by people responding to advertisements is that the advertiser was nothing like their description in the ad.

So if you're thinking of flicking through the lonely hearts, take all those evolutionary traits on display with a pinch of salt, even if it means ignoring your most basic instincts.


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