Vying for a soul mate? Psych out the competition with science
Deep-seated cultural cues play a role in snagging a romantic partner at a party.
By Regina Nuzzo
Wondering what to wear at the holiday party to lure a new love for '09? That expensive, sequiny dress? A handsome new holly-green vest and some knock-'em-dead after-shave? Too bad fashion writers don't read science journals. Instead of just lecturing on clothing, perfume and makeup, they could draw on research from human mating for their tips on boosting one's attractiveness at holiday parties -- ones that don't involve buying a thing.
Details such as the color of the walls, who you stand next to, whether the crab cakes at the buffet run out early -- strange to say -- may change how others perceive us in small (yet potentially useful) ways. "People are differentially attractive under different circumstances," says David M. Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of "The Evolution of Desire."
So we trawled the scientific journals to find holiday party mating strategies that draw upon this fact. Here are the fruits: arcane tips for maximizing your irresistibility at parties this month, no expensive bling required. (Apologies to some up front: Most of the experiments we found focus on the attractiveness of heterosexual women.)
Party pointersHang out by the spiked eggnog bowl.
"The world -- or at least people in it -- looks better after a couple of drinks," says Marcus Munafo, a professor of biological psychology at the University of Bristol in England. In a study published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism, Munafo and colleagues invited 84 college men and women into a lab for a happy-hour "beer goggles" experiment. Half of the participants got a strong vodka and tonic (equivalent to a couple of beers or a large glass of wine); the rest got a look-alike straight-tonic placebo.
Men who got the vodka rated photographs of women's faces as more attractive than did non-drinking men. Likewise, drinking women scored men's faces higher than did sober women. The next day, the boozy effects had faded -- except for men's rating of women, which remained high.
Why it might work: Alcohol changes how we perceive facial symmetry. In a study in a Brazilian bar, men and women, when drunk, had a harder time spotting small deviations of symmetry in pictures of geometric shapes.
Normally, our brains are highly sensitive to whether the right and left sides of faces match up like mirror images. Across cultures, we deem symmetrical faces to be the most beautiful. Women even tend to have orgasms more easily with symmetrical-faced men, research suggests. Our hearts thrill to this geometric perfection as it's a sign of good genes and overall good health, researchers suspect -- mateworthiness, in other words.
The bottom line: For maximum benefit, stay sober and keep your mate-discrimination skills in top shape -- but pour eggnog liberally for others.
Go to parties in the winter -- preferably in cold climes. Remove your coat and go mingle.
Women's bodies are never more beautiful than when they've been covered up. It's not that winterized bodies, pasty-white and plumped by holiday feasting, are necessarily more attractive. But men's opinions of them magically change when the weather turns cold and people bundle their figures out of sight.
Researchers discovered this by knocking on doors during the dead of winter in Poland. They asked men to flip through a notebook containing photographs of women -- bodies in bathing suits, face shots and bare breasts -- and rate the attractiveness of each. Then researchers tracked down the same men in the spring, summer, autumn and the following winter, asking about the same pictures.
Men loved the breasts and bodies most of all in the winter; in the summer, they gave the same photos the lowest ratings. (Opinions of faces stayed steady year-round.)
Why it might work: In the summertime, bare flesh is everywhere. As a consequence, any one body (or bosom) seen in July will probably seem less attractive than the same one seen in January, says study coauthor Boguslaw Pawlowski, a professor of anthropology at University of Wroclaw But in the winter, even blah-looking anatomy temporarily on display in a party dress instead of swathed in a thick sweater could be a sight for sore eyes. This could explain why men rated faces the same each season: Unlike breasts, faces are always visible.
The bottom line: Sadly, Southern California -- with its year-round sunshine and abundance of tanned, young skin -- might create a disadvantage in the holiday-party circuit. Women should consider trying their luck while visiting folks in Minneapolis or Buffalo.
Break out the sexy-Santa suit. And pose by the poinsettias.
"The red that women wear for festive purposes during the holiday may be having unintended effects on the males they encounter," says Andrew Elliot, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester. In a survey of 181 men and women, he and colleagues found that when straight men see a picture of a woman against a red background or wearing a red shirt, they're more likely to want to ask her on a date, spend more money on the date and have sex with her -- than a woman surrounded by, say, blue. "They do not find such women more likable or intelligent," Elliot says, "just more sexy."
Why it might work: Red means "ready" in primate language. Some monkeys and apes advertise their sexual prime times on their skin, turning bright red throughout their vulvas, buttocks, chests and faces during ovulation. Male primates prefer to mate with these flushed females. We humans may not have red rumps, but men may be drawn to the color -- whether gleaming from lips, splashed across camisoles or in the blush on a face -- all the same, Elliot says.
The bottom line: Women on the make should adorn themselves in red, but for the company party, consider a cool blue instead.
Get there before the food is served (or attend stingily catered parties).
Ravenous men prefer a slightly heavier woman than do men who have recently eaten. (Women don't display such preferences.)
In two studies, researchers staked out the doors to college cafeterias and queried students about weights and shapes of their ideal mates. Men who were waylaid prior to dinner chose pictures of heavier, relatively thick-waisted women more than did men who were interviewed full of food.
The difference in weight preference wasn't huge: about 4 pounds, according to one study. "A hungry guest may have a very slight preference for a heavier body mass," says Martin Tovee, a professor of visual cognition at Newcastle University and coauthor of one of the studies. "But I think you have to get your guests pretty hungry."
Why it might work: In times of famine, fat is good. And if you're feeling hungry yourself, food might be scarce in your neighborhood -- so you want to make sure the mother of your children has the padding she needs to survive. (Men can get by with far less body fat, so a woman's preferences should depend less on whether she managed to grab a few mini-quiches from the buffet.)
The bottom line: A guy's growling stomach might tip the scales in your favor -- but don't count on meager finger food alone to camouflage saddlebag thighs.
Men, surround yourself with women. Women, surround yourself with women too.
In a study, college women rated men who were photographed sitting in a courtyard with female companions as the most attractive, desirable and suitable for romantic congress. Less desirable were men sitting with groups of men; solitary men were at the bottom of the hunkiness pile.
Male participants found women equally enticing whether they were alone or with other women. But women in a group of men dropped dramatically in attractiveness.
Why it might work: Simply looking at a man won't reveal if he's got what it takes, evolutionarily speaking -- the ability to provide for a mate and kids. So a smart woman looks to a man's buddies for clues, says Sarah Hill, professor of psychology at Texas Christian University and coauthor of the study. If he's surrounded by other women, that means other women have sized him up and like what they've found.
For men, however, if a woman is surrounded by men, chances are good that she's already spoken for -- and probably not worth the effort.
The bottom line: Whichever gender you are, bring along a wing woman.
Mingle with the down and out if you're carrying a few extra pounds.
Men who feel poor prefer plumper women -- about four pounds' worth, according to a 2005 study in which 257 college men and women were manipulated to feel poverty-stricken through a depressing financial survey while others were made to feel flush. The have-nots reported preferring a heavier ideal mate than the fat-cat group. (Women didn't change their preference.)
All it takes is the feeling of relative deprivation -- not actually living a life of ramen noodles and no cable TV, says Leif Nelson, a professor of marketing at UC San Diego. The observation may be especially useful to opportunistic females this year, with the economy in the toilet.
Why it might work: "In wealthy cultures, thin women are idealized, whereas in poorer cultures, a heavier form is idealized," Nelson says. When economic times are tough, men can't afford to choose a skinny wife who's at risk for malnutrition. (Not that men are worrying about malnutrition when they check their 401(k) plan for the umpteenth time: It's all unconscious.)
The bottom line: Recessions might as well be good for something. Rubenesque women: Feel encouraged to crash parties on Wall Street.
Don't shave your face the day before.
That's the advice from a study published in June in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, in which women were asked to evaluate five stages of beard growth on computer-generated male faces. A man with a light stubble was the most attractive. A man who cultivates a light beard will look especially dominant to a woman. One preferring to follow Al Gore's lead and grow a grizzly on vacation will be perceived as more masculine, aggressive and socially mature -- and older-looking. Smooth-skinned, baby-faced men appear, not surprisingly, young and unaggressive, and the least attractive.
Why it might work: Women are unconsciously looking for a balance between boy and beast. Pre-pubescent men don't make good mates. So any bit of facial hair is a sexy reassurance. Full beards signal aggression, perhaps by calling attention to a man's jaw and teeth. Women want a bit of manliness, but not too much. A bit of stubble might be just the right compromise.
The bottom line: Think "Miami Vice," circa 1985. Don Johnson knew what he was doing.
Snacking on vegetables highlights your attractiveness and intelligence. Digging into chocolate cake shows off your fun-loving side. A 2000 studyfound that people considered a hypothetical chicken-sandwich-and-salad eater to be more intelligent and less likely to have cheated in college -- but they still preferred to socialize with someone who ordered a burger and fries. Another study of 100 college students in 1999 found that people who ate low-fat foods were seen as more attractive, intelligent and middle-class -- but also more serious, high-strung, unhappy and antisocial than folks who ate high-fat foods. Strangely, how much you eat seems to have a less clear effect on attractiveness.
Why it might work: You are what you eat, or so we subconsciously feel. Many cultures have traditionally believed that people take on characteristics of animals they eat -- think pig hearts for strength and snake tails for virility. Even in Western cultures, we ascribe "goodness" to people who eat good-for-you foods and "more fun at a party" to people who eat fun foods.
The bottom line: Eat celery at office parties and cupcakes everywhere else.
Stick around until the end of the party.
Country music fans knew it a long time ago. "Don't the girls all get prettier at closing time?" sang Mickey Gilley back in the mid-1970s. Yes, they do, and so do the men -- well, hunkier.
In a classic study in 1979, college bar patrons reported to researchers that members of the opposite sex were suddenly a lot more attractive between 10:30 p.m. and midnight than at 9 p.m. The researchers didn't factor in alcohol, however, of which there was plenty. Other, more careful studies have found the closing-time effect in drinkers and teetotalers alike, but only for those not in a relationship.
Why it might work: As the evening wanes, our chance of finding a soul mate at the party drops drastically. To feel happier about our options, we persuade ourselves that the stragglers left at midnight aren't the picked-over dregs of the party but the crème de la crème that we'd overlooked before.
The bottom line: Stick around until the last call -- but don't be surprised the next day at who you end up with.
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Evolution of Male Beauty
The Love That Dare Not Squeak Its Name