Thursday, April 2, 2009

Story to "Webify"

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer

From "Romeo and Juliet" to "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," literature, art and the movies have long found inspiration in the conflicts between parents and their offspring over whom the young people should marry.

Just in time for spring weddings, scientists decided to put what has become an entertainment cliche to an empirical test. Do young people and their parents really disagree about the qualities of a suitable mate?

In a study involving Dutch, American and Kurdish students, psychologists in the Netherlands found that the cliche is, in fact, true. Young Americans told the researchers that qualities they would find unappealing in a potential mate included low intelligence and physical unattractiveness. But they said their parents would object to a mate who was of a different ethnicity, was poor or lacked a good family background.

The responses of Dutch and Kurdish students were similar in that young people invariably considered the potential mate's attractiveness the most important quality, whereas parents uniformly paid more attention to the suitors' social background or group affiliation -- race, religious background and social class.

Shakespeare and Hollywood can duke it out about whether the young people or their parents are right -- "Romeo and Juliet" sided with the young people, whereas a number of recent books and movies have essentially taken the view that "Mom knows best" -- but the interesting question from a scientific perspective is why this conflict occurs at all.

Abraham P. Buunk, Justin H. Park and Shelli L. Dubbs at the University of Groningen, who recently published their findings in the Review of General Psychology, said the consistency of the conflict across cultures suggests the hand of evolution: Parents and offspring clash, the researchers argued, because their genetic self-interests, while overlapping, are not identical.

The reason young people care so much about intellectual and physical attractiveness, the scientists suggested, is that these characteristics are markers of genetic fitness. By contrast, they said, parents care about group affiliations because parents are primarily interested in whether an incoming member of the family is likely to make a good parent -- and a good all-around team player.

When a potential mate has both sets of qualities, parents and young people are likely to agree on the appropriateness of a match. But often, the researchers said, the qualities don't go hand in hand: The tall, dark and handsome guy might make the bride swoon but turn out to have a roving eye, whereas the bald and bespectacled fellow might never be a GQ model but could make a great dad and caregiver.

"When it comes to mating, the key is that the kinds of mates who score high on 'good genes' traits" -- such as attractiveness and sense of humor -- "tend to score low on 'good parent' traits, and vice versa," said Park, a social psychologist who studies relationships.

As with many aspects of evolution, the process by which parents and offspring reach their different conclusions is not a conscious one. Young people don't explicitly check with their genes about what to do; rather, their genes predispose them to find certain characteristics appealing, just as genes predispose parents to find other characteristics more suitable.

"The 'good genes' mates offer relatively higher reproductive payoffs to the offspring (while potentially imposing costs to the parents), whereas 'good parent' mates offer relatively higher payoffs to the parents," Park added in an e-mail exchange. "So, to the extent that parents try to meddle in their children's mating business, they may want to tip the scale toward what's more beneficial for them."

While acknowledging the role of biology in shaping human behavior, historian Stephanie Coontz argues that the researchers did not draw a clear enough distinction between love and marriage. Evolution might play a big role in shaping the reproductive drive, she says, but it would be a mistake to think that the institution of marriage has primarily been about either love or reproduction.

Until very recently, Coontz contends, children and parents were rarely in conflict about whom to marry -- they both agreed that marriage was not about love, but about social and economic ties.

As recently as four decades ago, most American men said they wanted wives who would be good housekeepers. Most American women said they wanted husbands who were "industrious." In contrast to such expectations, U.S. men and women today invariably say they want partners who are intelligent and attractive.

Nearly everyone in the West -- and growing numbers of young people elsewhere in the world -- believes in the ideal of marrying for love, an idea that would have been ludicrous and dangerous a century ago, said Coontz, author of "Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage." Coontz traces the change in attitudes about marriage to the fact that growing economic self-reliance has made it less likely that people need to marry for money.

"Until the 1960s, marriage was the best way a woman could invest in her economic future," Coontz said. "Now marriage is a risky proposition, especially for a low-wage woman, given her pool" of potential mates. A woman who marries someone who is an economic and social drain, in other words, might be better off single today because she can earn her own living.

"Marriage as an institution is a completely unique human invention, and a very political one," Coontz said. "It has to do with making alliances beyond the mating pair, which is why there are so many cultures that allow you to marry someone who is not mate-able. In ancient Sudan, parents would engage their children young, and if one of the children died, the parents would marry the living child to the tablet of the dead child -- to the 'death certificate.' "

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