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Commentary: The age-old currency of modern dating

Meeting people is now easier with the latest dating apps, but this doesn't change the fundamental instincts of those who are looking, argues SMU’s Norman Li.

Commentary: The age-old currency of modern dating

While there have been many dating apps readily available across Asia, traditional factors like education, age and race still hold large sway over who people choose to interact with in real life. (Photo: AFP)

SINGAPORE: Times are changing for Singapore’s dating scene. More and more people are meeting through the latest smartphone apps.

It seems more people may be dating casually, while less people are getting married, and those who do are less likely to stay married for life.

Statistics on Marriages and Divorces for 2016 released by Singstat showed a 1.2 per cent decline in the number of marriages and a 1.2 per cent increase in the number of divorces from the year before. The median duration of marriages that end up in divorce is 10 years, and 29.9 per cent of divorces involved marriages that lasted between five to nine years.

Could it be that people have more options – real or perceived – leading to relationships dissolving quicker?

Two weeks ago, Channel NewsAsia carried a commentary that discussed the ease of finding love and broadening one’s social circle with dating apps.

I've found, however, that people’s basic dating instincts have remained unchanged.


Research indicates that both men and women value a wide variety of characteristics including warmth, kindness, intelligence, and a sense of humour. These are traits we look out for in a potential long-term partner or someone we'll marry.

In casual, short-term relationships, however, both men and women place a greater emphasis on – you guessed it – physical attractiveness.

A couple sits in front of an advertising billboard in Singapore on Feb 12, 2008. (Photo: AFP)

But men prioritise physical attractiveness above other traits in their long- and short-term partners, to a greater extent compared to women. Men also appear to be much more willing to participate in a casual encounter than women.

The Clark and Hatfield experiments published in 1989 and 2003 are perhaps some of the most famous in evolutionary social psychology. They found that, despite being equally receptive to a date with a stranger, men and women were strikingly different in their receptivity to going home with someone they just met.

Men were certainly the more willing creatures. Variations of this study around the world have found the same broad pattern.


In contrast, women seek out partners with social status and access to resources above other traits. They also value these traits more than men do, in both short- and long-term relationships. 

It seems despite women having made great strides in educational attainment and at the workplace in modern societies, the traits women value haven't changed much.

This is especially so in Singapore, even though the gender wage gap is lower than in other developed countries including the US, Germany, South Korea and Japan.

In a cross-cultural study published in 2011, we asked participants to allocate tight budgets of “mate dollars” to construct their ideal partners. Compared with their American counterparts, Singaporean women tended to allocate an even higher proportion of their budget to the social status of a long-term partner.

Why haven’t these conventional expectations of what we want out of our partners for men and women changed with the times?

Popular culture and other social forces undoubtedly play a part, as evidenced by a large body of empirical work, but, as hundreds of studies in psychology, biology and anthropology also suggest, there is an even deeper reason that goes back millions of years: Evolution.


From an evolutionary psychological perspective, mate preferences evolved in order to adaptively guide humans to choose mates who can help ensure survival and reproductive success.

Because women’s fertility tends to peak at around ages 23 to 24 and rapidly drops after 30, men evolved to value traits that reflect youth and sexual maturity, such as smooth skin, soft hair, large eyes, and low waist-to-hip ratios. 

While men’s physical features show similar signs of ageing, their fertility diminishes much more gradually over their lifespan. Thus, there is less evolutionary pressure for women to identify fertile mates.

Where men vary widely, however, is in their ability to acquire and provide resources. Since women have historically been reliant on men for survival, from an evolutionary perspective, a man with high levels of resource access – as indicated by his social status – would have been preferred.

A couple at the beach sunbathing. (Photo: Pixabay)

Indeed, similar to their height preferences, women tend to require a potential mate to have at least as much social status as the women themselves have.

Furthermore, because women are the reproductively more valuable sex and bear the costs of pregnancy, they evolved to be choosier about who their partners are.

All these forces might not be conscious and many would vehemently deny that evolution still shapes much of our decisions.

Of course, women do not zero in on any man with a thick wallet, nor are men blind to everything but looks. But time bears out patterns that surveys and ethnographies still capture. Evolutionary preferences will continue to influence our choices over a long period of time.

Importantly, because evolutionary change usually takes place over the course of hundreds of generations, our mindsets have not had enough time to adapt to the unprecedentedly rapid technologically-induced changes that have occurred in recent times.

In essence, we are processing very new environments and inputs with rather “ancient mental software”.

Although there is plenty of flexibility built into our brains, and other factors influence our decisions, there are also inclinations and limits imposed by psychology that evolved to serve our ancestors in a natural world that is quickly disappearing. As far as dating is concerned, people will tend to retain these same preferences for a partner. 

But if technology continues to speed up the rate at which information is transmitted, increasingly powerful apps could grant access to larger numbers of potential partners, filtered through whatever criteria people so desire. Relationships may become yet more temporary and less stable.

However, holding out might be worthwhile for the lucky few who do find partners the conventional way.

People who don’t electronically access thousands of mates each week may make more stable ones.

At the very least, they are not on a constant lookout for other options – and be more willing to settle down with their dream partner.

Norman Li is associate professor of psychology at the Singapore Management University. His research interests include mate preferences, and the mismatch of modern conditions and adaptive mechanisms.

Source: CNA/sl