Eww! Looking at disgusting images changes what we find attractive

Our mate preferences are not only sensitive to changes in our own attractiveness, but also to changes in the environment. Sometimes the characteristics of where we live mean that a partner with particular traits is more or less suitable, and our tastes subtly vary to take this into account. This explains, for instance, why larger women are more attractive in locations where food is scarce, and why, conversely, in food-rich environments, there tend to be preferences for leaner women.

Preferences for different types of men can also vary. As we’ve seen in previous podcasts, two important indicators of attractiveness are masculinity and symmetry. Men with masculine and symmetrical faces are more attractive, probably because these traits signal healthiness, even though masculine men tend to be less emotionally warm and committed partners.

Some researchers have theorised that cues to healthiness might be especially attractive in environments that are hostile, where there are lots of diseases, because finding a mate who’s healthy can help us to have healthy offspring. Healthy offspring are more likely to thrive in hostile environments. Conversely, other researchers have suggested that preferences for healthy traits could be stronger in less hostile locations. The logic is that when resources are plentiful, women might not need a committed partner to help them raise their offspring, so they should prefer healthy, masculine bad boys over men who are kind, committed and feminine.

Anthony Little of Stirling University in Scotland ran a study to find out which of these two theories was correct. He assessed men and women’s preferences for symmetry and masculinity in opposite-sex faces. Next, he showed the participants a slideshow of images. For half of the participants, the images in the slideshow were of objects associated with germs. For example, a kitchen cloth with a red stain on it that looked like blood. The other half of the participants saw similar images that were not associated with germs, such as a kitchen cloth with a stain that looked like blue cleaning fluid. After the slideshow, the participants repeated the masculinity and symmetry preference tests. This was so Little could work out whether the slideshow had affected their preferences for these two traits.

His results, which were published this month in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society, indicated that when men and women were exposed to a slideshow of germ-related images, they preferred opposite sex faces that were more symmetric. Men’s preferences for femininity and women’s preferences for masculinity were also increased by exposure to the germ-related images. Exposure to the non-germ related images didn’t change preferences at all.

Little, A. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Jones, B. C. (2011). Exposure to visual cues of pathogen contagion changes preferences for masculinity and symmetry in opposite-sex faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B-Biological Sciences, 278(1714), 2032–2039. Read summary

The content of this post first appeared in the January 2011 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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