Friday, April 5, 2013

The Neanderthal Way

Average male wages in the US peaked in real terms in 1973, and have been in uneven but long-term decline ever since. Average household income during this period was rescued, and even edged upward (according to the Census Bureau, from $47,500 in 1973 to $50,000 today – inflation-adjusted and rounded to the nearest $500), thanks to rising female wages. Women now dominate higher education, making up 60% of undergrad college students, and they earn a majority of the degrees up through and including PhDs. So, it’s a safe bet women will continue their relative economic rise. Pretty much the same pattern exists in all Western countries.

Despite this – and against the expectations of economic determinists – there has been little change in the way the sexes relate to each other. It seems almost every day we read of some study by baffled researchers remarking on this. Yesterday’s Telegraph reported, “Research gathered in a scientific speed-dating study reveals that when it comes to the rules of attraction people behave like stereotypical Neanderthals.” Participants in the study ( said all the fuzzy PC things when asked what they sought in a mate, but, when put to the test, men picked pretty women while women picked wealthy men, just as one might have expected a century ago. Zsa Zsa Gabor’s quip apparently still has legs: “I want a man who's kind and understanding. Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?”

Yet, it is easy to overstate the case for the stereotypes, and the very structure of speed-dating may be responsible for these particular results. Participants in speed-dating, by design, don’t have time to assess their interlocutors with anything much more than primal (evolution-honed?) responses. Given more time, they might consider other factors.

Susan A. Patton (alum of Princeton, President of the Class of ’77, successful owner of an NY human resources consultancy) raised a firestorm last week when she delivered what some regarded as antediluvian advice to the current female students of Princeton. She urged them to find husbands while at Princeton. She explained that men don’t care so much about brains (earning potential?) in their partners, but women should – and, after Princeton, they’re just going to meet a bunch of dumbasses: “It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal. As Princeton women, we have almost priced ourselves out of the market. Simply put, there is a very limited population of men who are as smart or smarter than we are. And I say again — you will never again be surrounded by this concentration of men who are worthy of you.” She caught heat for (among other things) saying to the young women that marriage is a “cornerstone of your future and happiness” – and her noun choices indicate heterosexual marriage at that.

I’m not entering the fray about marriage and cornerstones, but I do call attention to the implications of the “if” in Ms. Patton’s “if she is exceptionally pretty.” I’m not the only one who noticed it. Catherine Rampell in The New York Times noted it and referred to a study relating BMI (Body Mass Index), education, and wages to marriage preferences. (See The authors of the study actually put numbers to the trade-offs in these factors that people make in their partners. In our overweight times, low BMI can be used as a rough (though imperfect) substitute for physical attractiveness. The authors’ longitudinal analysis of American marriage data shows that men willingly trade 2 units of BMI for each year of a partner’s education, while women trade 1.3 units of BMI for each 1% change in a partner’s wages. In other words, women can be less educated but still retain the same level of appeal if they are thinner (by 2 units of BMI for each year of missing education), while men can be poorer but retain their appeal if they are thinner (by 1.3 units for each 1% drop in wages) – or, if you prefer, women can be fatter if brainy, while men can be fatter if rich. So, yes, Ms. Patton’s “if” appears to be correct, but we as easily could phrase her remark the other way around, i.e. “It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of pulchritude, if she is exceptionally erudite.” Remarks on male looks and money can be phrased two ways, too. So, maybe we’re not so Neanderthal after all – somewhat, but not entirely. Men do count more than looks and women do count more than resources.

A marvelous Woody Allen movie from 1995 that relates is Mighty Aphrodite. (BMI is not an issue for any major character in the movie, but beauty nonetheless is.) The plot: Lenny (Woody Allen) and his arty intellectual wife Amanda (Helena Carter) adopt a son who is exceptionally bright. Curious about the child’s biological parents, Lenny (illegally) seeks out the mother, who turns out to be an intellectually challenged but utterly stunning prostitute named Linda Ash, played by Mira Sorvino. Complicating matters is Amanda’s dalliance with a rich investor from the Hamptons. *Spoiler*: Despite the obvious appeal of Linda, Lenny ends up sticking with Amanda, with whom he really does have more in common. Mira Sorvino, by the way, though she clearly is having fun in this part (for which she won an Oscar), in her own life graduated cum laude from Harvard.


  1. It all comes down to the fact that we humans are still animals, no matter how smart we think we are. Those primal reactions to beauty and power will always be there. It is interesting how power can be translated to intelligence or money. But it all comes to the same basic idea.

    I'm not a huge fan of Woody Allen. He tends to run hit and miss. But I admire that he sticks to his guns and makes what can only be called Woody Allen films. "Mighty Aphrodite" is a lot of fun. Really great script and some good laughs all the way around.

    1. I exchange the occasional note with Dr. Loretta Breuning (a few hundred miles to the north of you) who makes much the same point in her books:

      Woody is a prolific filmmaker, and, unsurprisingly, a lot of his movies are mediocre. But when he is good, he is very very good, and this is one of his gems. An acquaintance with the conventions of ancient Greek drama, which he parodies, will make it funnier, of course, but that isn’t actually a must.