Biologist's reading of lonely-hearts personal ads reveals what big-city women really want: Men with money

Cornell biologist Kevin McGraw at the site of his personal-ad study, the reading room of the university's Olin Library.

Kevin J. McGraw, a biologist at Cornell University, knew what female birds and other animals in crowded, resource-scarce environments look for in their mates: males with potential to materially care for females and their offspring. But what about the human animal? What do women really want, McGraw wondered, as he read thousands of lonely-hearts personal ads in newspapers from 23 American cities. After two months of research, the graduate student in Cornell's Department of Neurobiology and Behavior concludes, "In densely populated and resource-demanding environments, birds and women may not be all that different."

Where resources are at a premium – expensive, big cities from San Francisco to Boston – so are the men who can provide them, says McGraw. In such densely populated places, personal ads indicate that male-provided material comforts seem more important to women than do emotional or intellectual aspects of a relationship. But in medium- and smaller-sized cities, the biologist's reading of newspaper personal ads found the opposite: Women place more emphasis on emotional aspects or personal interests of potential mates, and less on materialism.

McGraw comments: "This study emphasizes the flexibility of mating strategies, depending on the environments individuals find themselves in. The rich guys don't always win. And the nice guys don't always finish last – although they might have to move to be found by the right mate."

The personal-ad reader, whose more traditional scientific studies – the effects of diet, genetics and physiology on birds' plumage color, for example – have taken him to natural habitats around the world, published his findings, "Environmental Predictors of Geographic Variation in Human Mating Preferences," in Ethology (Vol. 108, pp. 303-317), a European journal of behavioral studies.

Physical attractiveness – the male attribute that seems to motivate women in the popular television series, "Sex and the City" – does not vary with geographic location or city size, McGraw discovered. Women across the country, who in their personal ads stated preferences for attractive men, were the same ones who also boasted of physical appeal, such as "attractive, blue-eyed blonde."

New York City, the setting for "Sex and the City," was not included in the study because the city's daily newspapers publish too few lonely hearts ads to offer a representative sample. The largest city in the sample was Los Angeles and the smallest was Montgomery, Ala.

Among large cities where female ad-writers rate men who are good providers over men who are good listeners, San Francisco ranked first – followed by Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Miami, in that order. However, money is much less important to women in St. Louis and Kansas City, with The Big Easy (New Orleans) and Montgomery, Ala., tying for honors as places where women care about things other than income.

Comparing human mate-choice strategies to those of other animals, McGraw says women seeking resource-rich men use phrases like "financially stable" and "professional and intelligent." And those attributes "are important to animals, too, when natural resources are in short supply and the cost of living is high," he adds, notng that the same species of animals in less crowded environments might have the luxury of looking for other attributes in potential mates.

However, the emotional aspects of interest to women – such as honesty, compassion and sincerity – are harder to judge in non-human animals, the biologist says, "although we might look for a male's attentiveness to his mate as a sign of commitment." Regarding shared personal interests, he says, "It's hard for us to put a finger on the hobbies of wild animals, but if you wanted to impress a bird, you might escort her to a foraging site or sing a song with her."

Asked to write a personal ad that would accurately portray himself, McGraw says the advertisement certainly wouldn't emphasize money – "not on a graduate student's income!"

Besides, a mate already has found McGraw, and he doesn't have time to read newspaper ads these days. He and his wife are expecting their first child in August.

Syntax and the City: Lonely-hearts ad language reveals where money matters and sincerity slides Desired traits in women-seeking-men personal advertisements in 23 American newspapers, expressed as percentages of all words in ads . Boldface percentages are highest in each category; underlined are the lowest Source: "Environmental Predictors of Geographic Variation in Human Mating Preferences" (Ethology, Vol. 108, pp. 303-331) by Kevin J. McGraw, Cornell University Department of Neurobiology and Behavior.

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