Does age at first period influence how women perceive men?

For some time we’ve known that the timing of puberty is related to certain outcomes later in life. For example, women who begin their menstrual cycling at a younger age tend to have children earlier and to be overrepresented amongst victims of sexual assault.

Because improved health care and nutrition, as well as increasing environmental pollution, are implicated in lowering the age at which women reach puberty, we might predict that teenage pregnancy will become more common in developing and industrial nations.

What we don’t yet know is whether an earlier onset of menstrual cycling, also known as the menarche, is related to how women perceive men.

Stefan Belles of the University of Dortmund in Germany carried out a series of studies in this area using an interesting methodology. First he had fifty young women complete a task that required them to identify as quickly as possible whether a word that was flashed up on screen was positive or negative. For example, the word ‘honest’ is positive, while the word ‘barbarous’ is negative.

But before the women saw and rated each word, a man or a woman’s face was flashed up on screen for 150 milliseconds: barely enough time to get a proper look at it.

What can this kind of task tell us about how women perceive men? Well, we know from previous research that people are able to more rapidly identify whether a word is positive or negative if they’re first presented with a so called ‘priming’ stimulus that’s also positive or negative. If you see a negative prime, even for a very short moment, this makes it easier to identify a word like ‘avaricious’ as negative, and if you see a positive prime, you’ll be able to classify ‘righteous’ as a positive word in a slightly shorter time.

So, if we see that a certain type of face makes a person respond faster or slower to either positive or negative words, we can tell if they like or dislike those faces. We don’t have to ask them directly about the faces, which is handy because it means we can rely on their responses to be truthful. It’s not possible to fake how fast we can classify the words.

Belles found that when women saw female primes, the age at which they experienced menarche wasn’t related to the difference in reaction time when responding to positive or negative words. But when they saw male primes, they were faster off the mark when it came to spotting negative words if their menarche was earlier.

To put it another way, women who had their first period when they were younger found male faces more aversive than women who had their first period when they were older, but age of menarche didn’t affect how the women felt about female faces.

Belles, S., Kunde, W., & Neumann, R. (2010). Timing of sexual maturation and women’s evaluation of men. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(5). Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the May 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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