Decoding the science behind gender attraction

By Traci Scott,
Portland writer

What do women find attractive in men? Sure, handsome men get plenty of attention and are definitely sought-after. But if this painted the whole picture, how do you explain all the physically average and below-average men who end up happily married to physically beautiful women? Apparently, it’s more than meets the eye when it comes to what attracts women to men, according to several recent studies on attractiveness.

According to a new study by Wake Forest University psychologist Dustin Wood, there is much more consensus among men about what they find attractive in women than there is among women and what they find attractive in men. The study appeared in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Men agree a lot more about who they find attractive and unattractive than women agree about who they find attractive and unattractive,” says Wood, assistant professor of psychology, in an interview with Science Daily. “This study shows we can quantify the extent to which men agree about which women are attractive and vice versa.”

The study found that men generally judged women’s attractiveness based solely on physical features. Not surprisingly, men rated women who looked thin, seductive and confident as the most attractive.

The women’s preferences were less clear-cut and sometimes polarizing. Some preferred thin, muscular men, but they disagreed on how attractive many of the men in the study were. For example, some women gave high ratings to men other women said were not at all attractive.

Time recently reported on a study on facial attractiveness originally published in The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, in which researchers found that, when considering possible partners, women process facial attractiveness on two levels: overall aesthetic appeal and sexual attractiveness. Aesthetic appeal is based on a woman’s perception of the entire face, while sexual attractiveness was tied to specific facial features.

Why the complex processing and lack of consensus among women?

Wood speculated to Science Daily that women may encounter less competition from other women for the specific men they find attractive. Men on the other hand need to spend more time and energy in their efforts to attract and guard their mates from potential suitors, given that other males are likely to find their mate equally attractive.

The results also have behavioral repercussions, particularly among women who are trying to attract men. For example, eating disorders may occur more frequently among women who are trying to impress men because they feel they need to live up to certain physical standards. Men’s attractiveness to women, on the other hand, isn’t as closely linked to their physical features.

“The study helps explain why women experience stronger norms than men to obtain or maintain certain physical characteristics,” Wood said in the Science Daily interview.

According to the facial features study, the reason for the discrepancy in perceived attractiveness has to do with the complex way women process facial appeal. Even though women may be looking for both sexual attractiveness and overall aesthetics in potential partners’ faces, there are two separate processes taking place. The researchers hope to someday understand from an evolutionary perspective why women make “these dual evaluations that are both complimentary and unique”.

Possible other reasons as to the non-consensus among women may have to do with: 1) women being at different states of their menstrual cycles when they rate the subjects (monthly hormonal variations may cause women to feel more attraction to alpha men with more masculine features during ovulation than they would during other times of the month); 2) the different ages of the female participants in the study (younger women may rate different features more attractive than older women do) ; and, 3) the age of the subject in the photo being viewed (does a woman’s or man’s perceived attractiveness diminish with age?).

It would also be interesting to know if other factors play a part in what men and women are attracted to in one another. These factors would include intelligence (do smart people find other smart people attractive?), race (do people of one race consider people of another race as attractive as someone from their own race?) and geography (do people from the Northern U.S. measure attractiveness the same as people from the Southern U.S?).

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