I recently posted an article about research on what women find attractive about men (Women Go for Smart and Generous Guys), and it received quite a lot of attention, so I thought I would add a post that delves a bit deeper into what men and women find attractive in each other.
The branch of science that has explored human attraction most thoroughly in recent years is known as socio- biology. It is perhaps worth pondering on the socio-biology project a moment before delving in. Socio-biology is the are of science that uses evolutionary theory to explain social behaviour in animals. As sex is perhaps the most important of social behaviours, it stands to reason that socio-biologists spend a lot of their time researching sexual behaviour in animal species and human beings.
From a socio-biological perspective, we find others sexually attractive who are most likely to maximise our genetic success. That is to say, give us healthy and fertile children.
This brings us to the first observation in socio-biology in that women invest 9 months of pregnancy and then years of nurturing into their children, whereas the male investment in creating a child is potentially much less. According to this view, men are ‘salesmen’ and women are ‘sales resistant’ and this is important as it forms the context for what men and women find attractive in each other.
For men the case is simpler than for women in that all men are concerned about is that the women is healthy and fertile and capable of bearing and rearing his child. What are the cues for this?
Well according to researchers at the University of St. Andrews, men are attracted to women with higher levels of estrogen as they are more fertile. The effect of this hormone on the body is:
The researchers also found that women who wear makeup are subtly altering their appearance in the direction of demonstrating greater levels of estrogen.
Interestingly women tend to be rated by men as more attractive at their most fertile time in their menstrual cycle.
Estrogen is not the only factor that determines male attraction to women. Clues that give a hint of a women’s capacity to lactate are also thought to be important. What is important to lactation is that women are not too thin or too heavy. As a consequence, women ‘advertise’ their body weight in certain highly visible areas (men’s body weight tends to be more evenly distributed). These tend to focus on the right amount of visible body fat in the following areas:
But what do women find attractive in men? Well this is a slightly more complicated question because it appears that women’s biology encourages a duel strategy.
Going back to first principles, women need men who will advance the prospects of her genes being reproduced into the next generation. This means she needs a man who will stick around, contribute to childcare, and invest in her offspring. She also needs a man with good genes who will contribute to the fitness of her offspring. The important point here is that it does not have to be the same man. Let me explain.
Most of the time women are attracted to men with more feminine features. These men are seen as kinder, and more co-operative, than men with more masculine features, meaning they are more likely to be good fathers to her offspring. In addition, women find generous and smart guys more attractive, again for similar kinds of reasons. Men also invest in what are referred to as ‘sexual ornaments’, that is to say behaviours that do not add to fitness directly, but that demonstrate an abundance of resources to the woman, indicating a good mating choice. A good example of a sexual ornament in men is wit and savoir fare. Perhaps this is the reason why most stand up comics are men.
Being a good father to her children is not the same as giving good genes to her children, and although most of the time women go for good fathers, at the time it really matters, when she is most fertile, women switch strategies, and fancy men with the following characteristics:
In other words, more ‘masculine’ men.
Controversially the implication of this is that women’s best strategy is to settle down with a more ‘feminine’ man and be unfaithful to him to secure offspring. Perhaps this accounts for why 10% of men are unwittingly bringing up the child of another man.
So what should we make of this research? Well it has been argued that this socio-biological perspective lacks ecological validity. That is to say the effects that are found in the laboratory are too small to have any major impact on real people’s choice of sexual partner or mate. I can see the sense in this argument. After all for most of us, most of the time, our sexual partners are a compromise between what we desire, and what is available to us. However it is useful to have some perspective on those subconscious processes that impact on our decisions. How can we hope to transcend our animal heritage without it?
Dr Phil Tyson is a Men's Psychotherapist based in Manchester in the UK. He offers:
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