Tuesday, 15 July 2014

J. Howard Marshall II and Anna Nicole Smith: a touching story of compatibility and companionship

That's a flippant and unfair headline for a link to this article about the idea known in sociology as a “beauty-status exchange”. Broadly speaking, so research from Elizabeth McClintock shows, it's a myth - people pair off with people similar to themselves, seeking compatibility and companionship, rather than using money to get beauty or beauty to get money.

Well, that's what the article says. But is that what the research in fact shows?

"“Women spend a lot more time trying to look good than men do,” McClintock said. “That creates a lot of mess in this data. If you don’t take that into account then you actually see there’s a lot of these guys who are partnered with women who are better looking than them, which is just because, on average, women are better looking. Men are partnering 'up' in attractiveness. And men earn more than women, we’ve got that 70-percent wage gap, so women marry 'up' in income. You’ve got to take these things into account before concluding that women are trading beauty for money.”"

So does the research say this: once you have taken into account that male-female pairings are, on average, a beauty-status exchange, then you will see that they aren't? Can that be right?

On the other hand, one sees the point McClintock makes. Apparently studies have been carried out that look only at a woman's attractiveness and a man's income and show that attractive women find it easier to "marry up". But that's ignoring a lot of important facts: if you took male attractiveness and female income into account, then you would be more likely to find that a, say, second quartile income/attractiveness man is pairing up with a second quartile income/attractiveness woman. Sure, he's richer and she's better looking but in reality they're evenly matched. There's a good exchange at the bottom of the comments section of the article on this topic: a man says "Let's not forget the top 500 or so soccer players in the world", while a woman replies "Those soccer players ARE very attractive" - she's got the point.

A couple of other points. First, given that there is (for whatever reason) a fundamental beauty-status exchange in heterosexual pairings in societies in which men out-earn women, will McClintock turn to homosexual couples next? There might be less data, but less mess in that caused by average discrepancies between the sexes. And it might help to predict what would happen if the status/income or attractiveness disparities between the sexes were to disappear. 

Second, you should note that McClintock seems like a pretty straight-talking kind of woman: "“It would be very hard to separate out class and attractiveness,” McClintock said, “because they’re just so fundamentally linked."" You don't often hear thoughts like that.

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