The Trophy Wife Myth

Andrew Sullivan —  Jun 21 2014 @ 5:28pm

A new study undercuts it:

To get to the bottom of the trophy wife myth, relationship inequality researcher Elizabeth McClintock analyzed attractiveness ratings, professions and socioeconomic backgrounds of couples from a nationally representative survey. McClintock combed the data for statistical correlations, looking for hints that successful men pair with attractive women.

She found, however, that attractive women weren’t necessarily pairing with rich guys – they were pairing with attractive guys. Like tends to attract like. The biggest statistical predictors of whether two people would get together were how similar they were in their educational background, race, attractiveness and religious views.

As Claire Hannum notes, a lot of previous research on the subject was flawed in a way that seems pretty obvious in retrospect:

In examining couples, [previous] researchers only looked at the women’s appearance and the men’s status and disregarded data on women’s status or men’s attractiveness. They were so certain they’d find a specific result (in this case, proof of exchange relationships) that the studies were skewed. More problematic to the skewed data is the fact that rich people are more likely to be good-looking, and vice-versa. …

Young women who marry these rich old dudes could easily have just as much status as their husbands, like the correlation between wealth and looks hints toward. By overlooking a full half of the equation and not even studying these ladies’ status level, researchers could have missed the fact that plenty of the supposed “trophy wife” marriages were actually matches rather than exchanges.

Jesse Singal observes, “McClintock’s study touches on some extremely important, fundamental questions about how we deal with gender in the social sciences”:

No one study can conclusively disprove the idea of beauty-status exchange, but this one certainly puts a sizable dent in it, and it offers a rather compelling-seeming reason as to how so many researchers could have come to believe this idea in the first place. …

Eli Finkel, a psychologist at Northwestern who studies relationships but who wasn’t involved in this study, expanded on this point in an email. “Scientists are humans, too, and we can be inadvertently blinded by their beliefs about how the world works,” he said. “The studies that only looked at men’s (but not women’s) income and only looked at women’s (but not men’s) attractiveness were problematic in that way, as was the peer review process that allowed flawed papers like that to be published. Fortunately, cases like that are the exception rather than the rule, and science tends to do a good job of ferretting them out. That’s what McClintock has done here.”

Update from a reader:

Too bad the episode of Tales From The Crypt that you featured didn’t include Danny Elfman’s great funny/scary intro. (It’s no wonder Tim Burton tapped him to do the songs for The Nightmare Before Christmas.) At 40 seconds into it, we get to hear the greatest squeaking door sound effect ever. I always wondered who created it, when, and in what other movies it’s been used. It never fails to make me giggle.

Listen for yourself: