What Do Women Want? Nature Serves Up a Tall Order

From the WebMD Archives

Jan. 12, 2000 (Atlanta) -- The following information would no doubt have Napoleon putting up his dukes: When it comes to women choosing a mate, height does matter ... somewhat.

R.I.M. Dunbar, PhD, from the University of Liverpool, England, and two Polish colleagues recently conducted a study of 4,500 Polish men between the ages of 25 and 60. What they found, the authors write in this week's issue of the journal Nature, is that "taller men are reproductively more successful than shorter men, indicating that there is active selection for stature in male partners by women."

Dunbar tells WebMD, "We know a lot about height, stature, on the psychological perceptions of people in terms of their social, economic and other success, the reality of it. What we've shown is that these social and economic successes are actually carried over into evolutionary success, if you like, in terms of the frequency that people can pass on their traits to the next generation. ... We do indeed have free choice, but those choices still have evolutionary consequences and ... our decisions are actually guided by, or influenced by, genuine evolutionary considerations."

The researchers found that men without children are on average three cm. (1.2 inches) shorter than those with at least one child. The mean height of the men in this study was about 5 feet 6 inches. Dunbar says that unusually tall or short men were not included in the study because that may "reflect some pathological condition which may in turn have fertility consequences."

The only age group with men that were not "significantly" taller than the childless group was men in their fifties. The authors credit that to the fact that these men entered the marriage market after World War II, when men were in short supply.

Dunbar says that people likely have some "inbuilt guidelines," along with a myriad of other experiences, that direct them toward a specific mate, but of course, anyone can override those guidelines if they wish. "Stature is simply one criterion that women in this particular case use, and they're not choosing taller men just for the sake of tallness, but [rather] tallness is a cue or index of something more fundamental," Dunbar tells WebMD.


There are two schools of thought in sexual selection theory about those fundamental desires, Dunbar says. One, that passed down through the hunter-gatherer, agricultural history of modern man, is a sense among women that tallness gives an advantage because it signifies strength. Additionally, tallness could also be a marker for good genes, biologically speaking, of someone who is capable of "withstanding the vagaries of the world," Dunbar says, such as illness or poor diet -- "genes that are good at producing bodies."

The second reason, according to Dunbar, is possibly more crucial to the mating decision. Tallness, he says, could signal "the quality of the rearing environment that the male had when he was young ... because to get big you not only need genes for tallness, but you need a good environment," one that is healthy and provides good nutrition.

Which of the reasons account for the data in this study? Dunbar doesn't know if it's either one, or both, for sure. The genesis of the study came from earlier work Dunbar was doing where he analyzed personal ads to find what kind of traits people were offering and seeking. "Men tend not to state anything about their height unless they are above average, in other words, males will say tall ... but they'll never say five foot two, Danny Devito look-alike," He says.

William Irons, PhD, is an anthropology professor at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., who focuses on evolutionary ecology, and reproductive strategies, among other topics. Providing objective commentary to WebMD, Irons called the study excellent, but says that the findings are not surprising. He mentioned another, similar study involving college graduates.

Still, Irons says the study should not be put aside just because it seems familiar or because it is "politically incorrect." These studies point to a "strong universal tendency" and need to be done in many different places.

"A lot of people with good hearts really don't want to believe that something you're simply born with ... somehow has that much impact on your course in life. It's unfair, and yeah it is unfair, but it also tends to be true, and the more people that actually document this carefully, the better," Irons tells WebMD.


"Other things being equal, they [women] prefer taller over shorter ... all the women I know have that idea in their heads, and being five foot seven, I deeply resent it, but I can't escape it," Irons tells WebMD, laughing.

Dunbar has a similar take on the topic: "Women, in particular, are making very complex decisions in mate choice, much more complex than those of males. They're using a number of criteria at which stature is just one, and what they do is trade off between those and try to get the best mix they can. It's always going to be imperfect, but the world is not perfect, so you settle for what seems reasonable after some searching," he tells WebMD.

  • New study findings show that men without children are on average 3 cm (1.2 inches) shorter than men who have at least one child.
  • Researchers believe this indicates there is an active selection by women for stature in male partners.
  • It is suspected that women prefer tallness either because it signifies strength and good genes or because it signals a high-quality rearing environment with proper nutrition.
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