Are the scientific rules of attraction evolving?

WHAT do you look for in a potential date? Ample curves or a rippling six-pack? Are money and social standing important, or are wit and intelligence perhaps the attributes you go for?

The chances are your priorities will be somewhat different from people a few decades ago. Recent research shows that, as women become more empowered and in control of their own finances, they may care less about the size of a man's pay packet and more about the way he looks or how reliable and committed he is.

So what is it that's really driving modern mate choice? Do we have hard-wired tendencies to choose particular attributes in a partner, or are we at the mercy of the demands of our cultural environment?

Research suggests the physical characteristics we prefer in the opposite sex are consistent, to some extent, with trying to maximise the number and quality of our children. It's no accident that men tend to prefer women with an hour-glass figure, and a feminine face with big eyes and fine features. These are all signs of fertility.

Women, on the other hand, tend to prefer a man with a symmetrical face and body, indicating that he has the genetic quality to avoid having his body growth plan disrupted. When they are ovulating and therefore likely to get pregnant, women prefer masculine faces and deep voices in the opposite sex, which are associated with high testosterone levels and good genes that can be passed on to the kids. But we can't all aspire to having partners who look like Angelina Jolie or David Morrissey - there aren't enough of them to go around, and as the celeb magazines keep showing us, gorgeous people tend to pair off with other gorgeous people. If we don't cut it on the physical front, we need to lower our expectations or find something else to offer.

The dating game is essentially a marketplace where we trade in different currencies, such as good looks, wealth, personality, intelligence and youth. This is well illustrated in what people advertise and ask for in lonely hearts columns, as Dr David Waynforth and Professor Robin Dunbar, of the universities of Durham and Liverpool respectively, found in a study of columns in US newspapers. They found that advertisers who had less to offer - men who failed to mention cues to wealth and status and women who didn't advertise themselves as attractive in some way - were less demanding of prospective partners.

But the attributes we go for depend on the prevailing social conditions. Analysis of advertisements in traditional societies such as in 19th-century England, show that women placed a heavy emphasis on the wealth and resources of aspiring suitors, since they depended on these resources to ensure the survival of their children.

In Western society nowadays, increased female employment, and access to healthcare make survival much less of an issue. Thus in modern advertisements we see a shift in emphasis to other qualities a man can bring to the partnership, with more women seeking cues associated with commitment.

In a new study looking at the effect on women's partner preferences of the changing roles of men and women in society, Fhionna Moore and her colleagues at St Andrews University analysed completed questionnaires from 1851 heterosexual women between the ages of 18 and 35. The researchers found that women with a high level of control over their own finances were more likely to place higher importance on physical attractiveness in a man than on his financial prospects.

"Now that women can provide for themselves and their children, they can afford to place less emphasis on a partner's wealth, and no longer need to trade off other partner attributes such as good looks, which could bring good genes for their kids," says Moore.

So, what is a man to do? "It is possible that the costs and benefits of male preferences are also diverging from the traditional," says Moore. "If increasing female economic power leads to greater demands by females for physically attractive partners, it may also pay off for men to invest in their appearance."

And it seems that men are doing exactly that. Men are buying cosmetics and grooming products. Men are trying to lose weight - 25 per cent of them, according to a recent survey by Mintel. Men read magazines dedicated to the physique such as Men's Health or Men's Fitness, and other men's magazines such as GQ and FHM have at least as many fashion pages as their women's counterparts.

It seems that the bases for our partner choices are flexible and can adapt to changes in our circumstances. So could we see the day when the converging roles of men and women in society cause our mate choice criteria to do likewise?

Moore argues that as progress in society and technology erode men's advantage as breadwinners, then we may see even greater similarity in the mate preferences of men and women. However, she counters: "It is difficult to imagine a time when our biological sex differences no longer impose sex-specific constraints."

We can't avoid the fact that women are the ones who get pregnant and bear children, so perhaps some of the differences in what men and women prefer will never go away.