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Romance Novel Titles Reveal Readers' Desires

An analysis of titles of Harlequin romance novels provides evidence that evolutionary impulses help explain our choice of mate.
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Great thinkers from Sigmund Freud to Mel Gibson have profitably pondered the timeless question “What do women want?” Now, two Canadian researchers — one of each gender — have taken a novel approach to solving this purported puzzle.

In a paper titled "The Texas Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride," recently published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary and Cultural Psychology, they analyze the titles of Harlequin romance novels. Anthony Cox of the Center of Psychology and Computing and psychologist Maryanne Fisher of St. Mary’s University contend these best-selling volumes — and in particular their market-tested titles — provide a unique insight into their buyers’ desires.

Coming from an evolutionary psychology perspective, they hypothesized these titles would reflect mating preferences that have evolved over the millennia — specifically, a desire for a long-term relationship with a physically fit, financially secure man who will provide the resources needed to successfully raise a family.

They found considerable support for this theory, although some of their speculative specifications were spelled out more directly than others.

The scholars created a database of just over 15,000 romance novels published between 1949 and 2009. Not surprisingly, they found the most frequently used word in the title was “Love,” which appeared 840 times. “Bride” was close behind at 835. “Baby” was slightly back at 696, followed by “Man” at 672 and “Marriage” at 612.

These words “clearly suggest long-term commitment and reproduction are important to readers,” Cox and Fisher write. Indeed, commitment was the most common theme they discovered, with words like marriage, wedding, bride, groom and honeymoon. The second-most common was procreation, with words like baby, child, mommy, daddy and pregnant.

The list of frequently used words does not specifically point to a desire for wealth or good looks in a man. Surprisingly, “Handsome” turns up only six times, and the word “Athletic” does not appear at all. Figuring such desires were coded within the characters, the scholars decided to compile a list of the 20 most frequently occurring professions in these fictional works.

Doctor came in at No. 1, with 388 characters practicing medicine. No surprise there: The authors note physicians “take care of others and earn a generous salary,” making them something of a two-fer as potential mates go.

But who would expect Cowboy to come in second, at 314? Apparently the archetype of the rugged frontiersman retains its appeal.

“We propose that the Western theme might relate to women’s preference for attractive mates,” the researchers write — “attractive” not in the male-model sense, but rather in the muscular mold. “Cowboys are athletic and have high physical fitness, as their duties primarily involve physical labor,” they note. That would presumably make them effective protectors against a variety of physical threats.

Nurse was the third most frequent occupation mentioned in the book titles, at 224 (a lot of these stories feature doctors falling in love with nurses). Otherwise unspecified “Boss” was fourth at 142 (many feature bosses falling in love with their secretaries). Prince was next, at 122 (the Sleeping Beauty myth lives!), followed by Rancher at 79 (the Western motif returns), Knight at 77 (there’s something about a man who needs his armor polished) and Surgeon, also at 77 (see doctor, above).

There is, of course, some danger in assuming women who purchase romance novels are representative of their entire gender. While sales are admittedly huge (almost $1.4 billion in 2007, making it the largest fiction category in the U.S. by far), a significant number of women have no interest in them, and this study does not measure their desires.

Nevertheless, this smart, seductive study has inspired us to wonder if we can reposition headlines to appeal to what is clearly a huge demographic. Keep an eye out for our coming exposè The Doctoral Candidate and the Ravishing Researcher.

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