Masterclass: Myths of Attraction by Mairi Macleod, PhD
Ever been intrigued about what makes us attractive to others, or why we are drawn towards the people we fancy ? Dr Mairi Macleod has been researching this and casting light on the science of attraction for many years. Now based in Edinburgh, she writes for publications such as New Scientist Magazine and various national newspapers, and gives public lectures at the University of Edinburgh and elsewhere. This article for the Ragged University is a taster of her in-depth work.
We’ve been hearing for decades now that evolutionary processes have honed our preferences when it comes to romantic liaisons in ways that increased the reproductive success of our ancestors, and that this has led to predictable and universal gender differences in our desires and sexual proclivities. But do you buy this?
Increasingly people working in the field do not, and there is a growing consensus among evolutionary scientists that our behaviour has evolved to be flexible, that we look for the best mate possible with the constellation of features that might be good in our particular social and physical environment, and fit with our own set of attributes and attitudes. We have plenty of stereotypes about what men and women want and don’t want in a romantic partner, but here I explain how the reality is highly dependent on the particular situations we find ourselves in. Read on…
Women go for macho dominant men?
We know that masculine looking men tend to have high testosterone levels and this is thought to demonstrate good genetic and biological quality that can be passed on to kids. Dominance in men is a good thing too as a guy who excels in competition with others should be good at protecting and provisioning his mate. So the sexiest men are the masculine, muscular, dark and brooding ones like David Gandy or David Morrissey, yes?
Well actually mostly no. Not all women are crazy about highly masculine men all of the time and in fact research suggests that most women, in western societies at least, prefer slightly feminine, Ryan Gosling types:
The thing is, masculinity in men is associated with relationship aggro and infidelity so really there’s no point in going for a macho hunk with the associated costs unless you can get the good gene benefits, that is unless you can get pregnant:
The hypothesis that women shift their preferences towards masculine men when they’re at the fertile time of month will be familiar to many and there is ample evidence that women around ovulation prefer men with more masculine faces, voices and even body odour:
But research is increasingly demonstrating that the fertility and hormone level changes that occur throughout a woman’s life also have an effect on her penchant for macho types. For instance, one study by Tony Little of the University of Stirling and his colleagues demonstrated that pre-pubescent girls and post-menopausal women have a liking for more feminine looking faces in men than women of reproductive age. It makes sense; neither group are in a position to have babies and are more likely to be interested in good companions than good genes:
Hormone changes are also thought to be responsible for the marked decrease in liking for masculine faces in women who have just given birth:
“This can be explained by the fact that women experience a substantial drop in their oestrogen and testosterone levels post-partum,” says Kelly Cobey of the University of Stirling. These hormones are thought to be affecting women’s attractiveness judgements and this change is likely to reflect the need to shift the focus away from sex and sexually attractive features like masculinity, and towards maternal care, she says.
Your perceived risk of getting sick counts too. Lisa DeBruine of the University of Glasgow and her colleagues looked at masculinity preferences in women varying in their susceptibility to bugs:
“We found that women who scored high on a measure of individual differences in pathogen disgust – those who were more “grossed out” by things like touching a bloody cut or stepping in dog poo – also tended to be the women who preferred relatively more masculine male faces,” says DeBruine. The team also found that in parts of the world where disease risk is high women are more attracted to masculinity in men, while in the more benign places femininity is favoured. DeBruine suggests that good genes for healthy kids, and therefore masculinity in male partners are especially important where resistance to disease is needed.
DeBruine’s study involved online respondents, but in another study of masculinity preferences, this time comparing women with and without internet access in El Salvador, Carlota Batres of St Andrews University found that those who didn’t have access to the internet, and were therefore also likely to live in a poorer environment with more health risks, actually preferred more feminine looking men:.
Batres suggests that the reason for the discrepancy between her results and those of DeBruine could come down to which form of hardship is most influential on preferences. She points out that previous research has shown that when women are primed with pathogen prevalence they prefer good-gene traits, such as ‘muscularity’, but when they are primed with resource scarcity they prefer good-dad traits, such as ‘nurturing’. In El Salvador both disease risk and poverty are real threats, she says, but for women without internet access the latter may be more influential on women’s preferences, leading women to prefer more feminine, perhaps more helpful and less threatening men.
The really attractive men though, according to DeBruine, are the ones who have it all: “Sexiest is the hunky, masculine, dominant man who shows that he doesn’t fit the macho, anti-social stereotype,” she says. “Which is why we love hunks holding babies or puppies.” Finally, it’s all very well mating with a masculine man for his genes, but while a recent study suggests it may well make your sons sexy, it’s not likely to have the same effect on your daughters [Variation in Women’s Preferences Regarding Male Facial Masculinity Is Better Explained by Genetic Differences Than by Previously Identified Context-Dependent Effects Psychological Science September 1, 2015 26: 1440-1448].
“Women who select a facially masculine partner are effectively increasing the facial masculinity of their daughters as well as their sons,” says Brendan Zietsch of the University of Queensland, one of the study’s authors. “Whether a masculine face is advantageous for a son is debatable, but in daughters it’s a definite disadvantage because more masculine faces are less attractive than feminine faces, making it harder for more masculine-faced daughters to pass on genes when the time comes.”
Men prefer women with ultra-feminine physiques?
All else being equal men are especially attracted to women with feminine features such as big eyes, pert little noses, small chins and a curvy hour glass figure – we’re talking Beyoncé or Kim Kardashian here. Such features are thought to signal high levels of the hormone oestrogen and to be linked to high fertility and health, so it makes sense for men to find these attractive. So does this mean that women who don’t possess the signs of extreme femininity can never be deemed attractive? No it doesn’t, for the simple reason that not all else is equal.
The pros and cons of femininity in women, and therefore men’s preference for this vary depending on a lot of things. Again, harshness and healthiness of the environment is a factor. Urszula Marcinkowska of Jagiellonian University led a study that examined men’s preferences for femininity by getting men in 28 countries to rate pictures of women’s faces which had been digitally manipulated to make them more feminine or masculine and found that men in harsher, less healthy countries had a lower preference for femininity:
“Women who are highly feminine are perceived to be less dominant and less effective in competing for resources,” says Marcinkowska. “It is possible that in harsh conditions men, as a result of the trade-off between high fertility and good resource acquisition potentially lower their preference for femininity,” she says. Another possibility is that men brought up in high pathogen areas are likely to have lower testosterone levels, a hormone known to be linked to femininity preferences in men.
And there could be something similar going on with body shape preferences. In women, although a waist to hip ratio (WHR) of 0.7, that is, a small waist relative to hips, is deemed optimal in terms of signaling maximal fertility and health and being attractive to men, the average WHR of women in most countries is closer to 0.8. Why so? Elizabeth Cashdan of the University of Utah has suggested that there may be advantages in a thicker waist in certain situations:
She points out that women with higher WHRs have higher levels of testosterone and cortisol, which she suggests may help them outcompete their wasp-waisted sisters in resource competition, especially under stressful circumstances, and this could be a big advantage where women are charged with providing for the family..
And it does seem that men find a higher WHR more attractive during hard times. One study tracking socioeconomic changes from 1960 to 2000 found that the waist circumference of playboy models increased during periods of recession…:
….and there is some evidence that men in more gender-equal societies and men who are less sexist place less importance on a feminine figure [Men’s Oppressive Beliefs Predict Their Breast Size Preferences in WomenArchives of Sexual Behavior October 2013, Volume 42, Issue 7, pp 1199-1207].
And finally, while many men do covet women with a highly feminine appearance, there is a price to pay. Research by Kristina Durante of the University of Texas finds that women with consistently high oestrogen levels, that is, ultra-feminine, are less satisfied with their partners more prone to trading up:
Not only are these women getting more attention from other men, says Durante, but highly feminine women are more likely to be evaluating other options in case she can get something better, especially if she’s in a league above her partner. “You can get away with being partnered with Angelina Jolie if you’re Brad Pitt, but for Billy Bob Thornton it would likely have been constant vigilance,” she says.
Men want casual sex while women want commitment?
Men want sex, lots of it, with as many women as possible and they’re not too fussy who with. Women, on the other hand, tend to be much more coy and choosy about their mates. That’s the stereotype and actually there’s some truth in it. When we compare genders in their sociosexuality scores – a measure of a person’s propensity to have sex without commitment – men as a group come out on top. But it’s important to note that there’s a massive overlap in the scores of men and women and there’s more variation within the sexes than between them.
But why is there a difference between men and women at all? Sexual selection theory provides an explanation, points out Stewart-Williams:
“In species where one sex invests more in offspring than the other, the higher-investing sex will be choosier about its sexual partners, and the lower-investing sex will be more interested in multiple partners,” he says. “In some species – peacocks and deer, for instance – males invest little or nothing in offspring, and thus you get massive sex differences.”
Human fathers though often invest hugely in their offspring, he says, which is beneficial for the kids and therefore male as well as female reproductive success, and so gender differences in our sexual proclivities are much smaller than in these other animals.
“And the stereotype is that men will ‘sleep with anything that moves,’ not that they will marry or have children with anything that moves. In long-term, committed relationships, men are about as choosy as women,” says Stewart-Williams
The costs and benefits of different mating tactics will depend a lot on the man’s own qualities and for many men, pursuing casual sex is simply not a great option, says Durante. She thinks that we figure out our mate value as we’re growing up – “am I the quarterback or am I not doing so well?” – and that sends us down the path of a particular strategy.
“We all know men who if they try to be George Clooney or John Mayer, they’re going to hit a reproductive dead end,” says Durante, “so for these men it makes sense to lock down on a long term strategy where they’re not even interested in casual sex, and they’re oriented to finding that long term mate and investing in her.”
And even the real players are likely to change their ways at some point, according to Stewart-Williams: “These men – the most eligible bachelors, the highest status males in our species – often do what male chimpanzees never do: They fall in love and form long-term pair bonds.”
As for women, they can’t have more babies by having more sexual partners as men can, but there all sorts of reasons why it might be beneficial to have sex with multiple men, from getting better genes for the kids to getting access to better stuff for them as well as improving her social network and prospects. Whether or not women do this however, will depend to a large degree on socially imposed rules and threats of punishment, which are often linked to religiosity, or the scarcity of women, or economics.
Michael Price of Brunel University and his colleagues have found a positive relationship between female economic independence and moral acceptance of promiscuous male and female sexual behaviour:
“People who report knowing more financially independent women in their social networks also express less moral aversion to promiscuity,” he says. It comes down to paternity certainty, says Price. Does the daddy know for sure he’s the daddy? If we have a situation where fathers are being depended on to bring home the bacon to feed the kids, he wants to know they are his kids. Investment in children is undermined if either his partner is sleeping with other men or if he is diverting his resources to other women. In this situation promiscuity is frowned upon big-time.
On the other hand, when women are earning their own cash they aren’t so reliant on fatherly investment and the less risky promiscuity becomes. “As the gender pay gap has decreased in the UK and other Western countries, and women have become more financially independent, the relative costs of engaging in promiscuity versus pair bonding have gone down, and so cultural rules against promiscuity have become more relaxed,” explains Price.
And this could explain why a recent survey published in the Lancet (ref) demonstrated an increase in the average number of lifetime sexual partners reported by women in the UK.
First Impressions matter the most?
When we first come across a potential mate we can assess their desirability very quickly and as we’ve seen a lot comes down to physical attractiveness. It turns out that people are pretty much in agreement about somebody’s “mate value”, or their appeal as a partner – most will agree that actors Jennifer Lawrence or Jean Dujardin are pretty hot stuff. So are these the kinds of people that we dream of getting together with?
In teenage fantasies perhaps. But Paul Eastwick of the University of Texas argues that there is another, measurable quality that affects a person’s attractiveness: Uniqueness. Sally might rate a 6 out of 10 on average, but men vary in how attractive they think she is. Bob finds her geeky conversation boring so rates her a 3 while computer nerd Eddie is charmed and gives her a 9.
So which wins out in the battle for our affections: consensual mate value, or uniqueness? It depends on whether we have time to get to know someone and discover their delightful (or annoying) idiosyncrasies, according to research by Eastwick and his graduate student Lucy Hunt. In one of their studies, they asked 129 heterosexual undergraduates to rate how attractive their opposite sex classmates were on a range of qualities both at the beginning and end of the semester:
The consensus on how attractive students were was high at the start but dropped as they got to know each other over time. So people have increasingly differing opinions of who would make a good romantic partner as they get familiar with each other’s unique foibles. Does this mean it’s better to meet people somewhere you can get to know them over a long period, say, at work?
Eastwick says yes and no: “For somebody who’s consensually very desirable you’re going to have a lot of choices available to you in the context of people making their first impression of you. Get to know people over time and some might start liking you less.” But if you’re feeling not so desirable, it’s worth giving people a chance to get to know you and your idiosyncrasies, and this can level the playing field, he says.
Eastwick’s latest research demonstrates that couples who got together romantically soon after meeting are likely better matched in attractiveness than those who have become familiar with each other over a longer period, say a year, before becoming a couple. In the latter case, unique appeal is likely to have made up for any attractiveness deficit.
It’s true that in general, attractive people tend to pair up with attractive people – this is called assortative mating. “But it’s not that the wonderful people all mate and the rest of us settle for each other and are miserable,” says Eastwick. We find people that are idiosyncratically desirable to us specifically and many people move on happily because of that.”
Eastwick argues that this is how human mating evolved to work: “We’re largely a pair-bonding species,” he says, “and if that’s what it took to raise offspring in our evolutionary past, then finding little idiosyncratic things about our partners appealing will facilitate the formation of our particular stable dyad. It’s not going to work if we all go for the same desirable person.”
Scientists are agreed that we have a long way to go in untangling the contextual factors and personal qualities that come together to influence our desires and predilections when it comes to romantic relationships. But it’s clear that what we find attractive depends very much on the situations we find ourselves in; on our physical, social and cultural environment.
And what’s more, so much of what is deemed attractive is highly personal and idiosyncratic and is affected by our family background, our own attractiveness, our education level, the kind of relationship we’re looking for, our financial independence, our personalities and our attitudes.
The point is, according to the science, there is no single way to be attractive. A very positive message comes out of this; there is potentially someone out there for everyone.
Mairi Macleod, PhD.
* An edited version of this article first appeared in New Scientist Magazine
“Science of Attraction & Relationships” Workshops
led by Dr Mairi Macleod (biologist & evolutionary psychologist)
New sessions starting 10th, 11th & 12th November 2015
For booking & info go to
Tired of the fluffy relationship pseudo-psychology in self-help books or on TV?
Would you like to understand the real science behind our desires and preferences and how it can help you in your own relationships?
Come along to our workshops where we’ll explain what the latest research in psychology and biology tells us about attraction and relationships in men and women.
Through various short questionnaires in each session you will be able to determine your own personality type, your sociosexuality score, your attachment style and more and then enjoy a multimedia presentation on the science with presenter led discussion among participants. You will learn how the research findings apply to you, helping you to understand your own and others’ relationships, feelings and desires, and allowing you to predict outcomes and make the best relationship decisions.
Also, have fun, make new friends, and enjoy tea/coffee and cakes. Grown-ups of all ages welcome!
For more information and booking go to: