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  May 8, 2000

Psychologists Examine Power Relations
and Choice of Marriage Partners

Men who care only about women's looks and women who are preoccupied with men's wallets are most interested in maintaining inequality, according to a UConn professor.

These and similar patterns of behavior - illustrated in everything from Cinderella to Who Wants to Marry a Multimillionaire - which hold that men will attempt to acquire several mates and will be sexually controlling while women pursue high-status mates, are hierarchy enhancing, says Felicia Pratto, associate professor of psychology.

Evolutionary psychologists have argued that these strategies are adaptive for all people and should increase their reproductive success. In fact, the strategies are "most useful to men and women who are willing and able to exploit existing inequalities to their individual reproductive advantage," Pratto and co-author Peter Hegarty write in a recently published paper.

In "The Political Psychology of Reproductive Strategies," published in Psychological Science, Pratto and Hegarty examine the relation of these mating strategies to social-dominance orientation. Also known among psychologists as SDO, the term refers to a person's general approval of either dominance or egalitarian relationships.

People with high social-dominance orientation levels support group-based inequality, which can manifest itself in forms such as racism and chauvinism, and find stereotypical mating strategies appealing, say Pratto and Hegarty. Those with low levels oppose social inequality and are less likely to engage in these strategies.

To test their theory, the researchers administered a scale which measures support for group-based inequality to more than 1,100 heterosexual college students. Each student also answered questions about their ideal mate and the life circumstances under which they would have children. About 100 of the students completed eight social-dominance orientation items as they believed their ideal mate would.

Among the questions were ones that asked respondents to estimate the percentage chance that they would have at least one affair while married to their ideal mate, their willingness to care for children that were not biologically their own, their ideal mate's sexual faithfulness, and the importance of their ideal mate's status and economic power.

Among men, social-dominance orientation was strongly related to sexual jealousy and self-rated likelihood of having an extramarital affair, Pratto and Hegarty found.

Men with high social-dominance levels were also less willing to care for a child that was not biologically their own, and more desirous that their mate had no previous children. Men with low levels were less likely to express these attitudes toward wives and children.

Concern that an ideal mate have high social status and make a high income was related to high social-dominance orientation levels among women, the researchers found.

"The results generally supported our hypothesis that within each gender, those individuals who most approve of social inequality report being most likely to use reproductive strategies that we argue are predicated on power inequalities," write Pratto and Hegarty.

The results also suggest that people prefer a spouse with a social-dominance orientation level similar to their own. A marriage between two people with high levels may have a husband who provides his wife with high financial and social status, but who is controlling and more likely to be unfaithful. By comparison, a marriage of two people with low levels may have less gender differentiation in terms of sexual promiscuity and jealousy, social status and child care.

Pratto and Hegarty say their findings indicate that reproduction isn't solely dictated by biology.

"The observed interactions between SDO and gender demonstrate that reproductive strategies cannot be understood solely in terms of the 'biology' of reproduction," they write. "Rather ... we argue that power distributions are as integral to reproduction as internal fertilization is."

Allison Thompson