As is customary at such gatherings, I met a host of colorful characters at a party last weekend. The first, a girl named Mary, walked up to me and said, “I don’t need to get a job. I’m going to marry a rich guy.” Needless to say, Mary was quite drunk. After shaking-off Mary, I met a guy named Bill, who, unfortunately, didn’t make for better conversation. He wouldn’t stop complaining about his 53-year-old father, who divorced his wife and married his 25-year-old secretary. “She could be my sister,” he whined into his beer.

We have all heard stories like these and wondered “Why?” The answer to the age-old question, “What features attract us to the opposite sex?” has just begun to be elucidated by evolutionary and social psychologists.

What do women want? A guy with a nice car, a nice salary, a nice house, a nice set of abs? Yes. The bottom line is, women want resources. They want both themselves and their offspring to be provided for. In our distant past, men who were better at building shelters, hunting for food, and warding off rivals were more desirable to women who needed such resources.

Women who preferred such abilities in men naturally out-survived and out-reproduced those women who did not, and left this desire for resources embedded in their descendants’ psyches. This desire is now evident in women’s tendency to prefer men with high incomes and is demonstrated in men’s competition for fame and high-paying, high-ranking jobs.

So what do men want? Beauty. It’s not unnatural that women the world over spend billions of dollars each year on beautifying themselves. They are merely responding to a selective pressure imposed on them by males.

What, then, is beautiful? Men are attracted to features in women that signal health and fertility. These include a low waist-to-hip ratio and youthful facial features. As illness, malnutrition, and childbearing alter a women’s body, men are justified in using a woman’s appearance as an indicator of her health. Naturally, in our evolutionary past, men who preferred signs of fertility in women out-reproduced those who did not; today’s men are left with similar desires.

Gold-diggers and divorcees aside, the question of what attracts us is a serious one. Attaining ideals that will attract the opposite sex, or devising search strategies for finding ideal traits in a potential partner determine much of human behaviour. Women spend billions of dollars each year on cosmetics, perfume, and surgery, and men spend countless hours lifting weights, buying fancy cars and fancier suits, all with the intent of attracting the opposite sex. Not only does attraction drive much of human behaviour, it also drives the economy.

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