Humans choose mates instinctively and by cultural context. But in the modern age of print media, a new model of finding a date appeared: the “lonely hearts” ad. These “human-seeks-simpatico” pursuits via print also created a new social phenomenon: people finding each other from beyond their familial and social networks. The advertisers (and responders) no longer relied on recommendations from their community, or a roommate putting in a good word, to decide if a potential mate was a good match. Individuals had to sell themselves.
Newspaper personal ads offered a data pool for researchers to study how dating choices are made. Anthropologists David Waynforth and R. I. M. Dunbar used nearly 900 “lonely hearts” ads from the 1990s (479 placed by men, 402 by women, in both national and Oregon newspapers) to test their hypotheses on mate selection strategies.
Some of the process followed an expected pattern: male advertisers offered security and stability, female advertisers focused on physical attractiveness. But Waynforth and Dunbar looked at how the balance was struck, based on what advertisers chose to highlight—and where they sat, in terms of presumed desirability:
They found that “men sought cues of physical attractiveness in their partners significantly more often than women did,” while women offered attractiveness cues more often than did men. Moreover, a positive self-perception in terms of attractiveness shaped the entire ad, as “women (but not men) offering cues of physical attractiveness make higher demands than those that do not, [and] men (but not women) offering resources make higher demands than those that do not.” Male advertisers with few financial resources also “attempt to offset this disadvantage by offering cues of family commitment.”
But family wasn’t always viewed as a positive in the personals. In fact, both “men and women with dependent offspring make lower demands than those without.” Attitudes toward children from a previous relationship were also notably gendered. When offspring were mentioned in an ad, “men were significantly more likely than women to refuse to accept offspring from a previous relationship.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, age was a defining characteristic for both male and and female advertisers, but Waynforth and Dunbar found its presentation was also gendered. “[W]omen tend to become less demanding as they age (probably because reproductive value declines with age),” they write, “whereas males become more demanding (probably because resources increase with age).”
Overall, “individuals from higher socio-economic groups (who are likely to have more resources to offer) make more demands than those from lower socio-economic groups.” But the researchers found that the “single most important quality” for male advertisers was attractiveness. Moreover, “i[i]t seems that men in the higher (wealthier) social classes feel that they can command higher levels of attractiveness in their women.”
This much might be as we expect. But researcher Steve Sack looked at “lonely hearts” interactions from the other side: the replies to an ad, placed by a man seeking a woman. He scored the women’s responses based on what they emphasized, how affectionate they were, and whether they included a photo. He noted that women perceived to be at a disadvantage on the dating market played up other characteristics to compensate, emphasizing shared interests or being more romantic. But he also found that beyond the child-rearing window, these priorities tended to unravel. In his conclusion, he suggests “mate selection among the middle aged is not a rational process.”
Editor’s note: the second sentence of this story was edited to clarify that personal ads weren’t invented in the 1990s.