Opposites attract? Only if you’re stressed

When we’re stressed, we often notice changes in our mood or behaviour. We might become anxious, restless, or forgetful, start eating too much or too little, or argue more frequently with our partners or family members.

But one thing we may not consider is that stress can influence the type of people we find attractive.

It’s been known for some time that when animals are placed under stressful conditions, their mate preferences change. For example, certain species of insect or fish will make do with mates of lower quality if they’re under greater threat from predators, most likely because it’s more important to avoid being eaten than to search for the most attractive mate.

Previous work in humans has shown that when women are asked to imagine themselves living in a stressful, risky environment, their preference for masculine-faced men decreases, as does men’s preference for feminine-faced women. So, stress may cause us to lower our threshold of what we find attractive, just like it does in other animals.

A recent study by Johanna Lass-Hennemann of the University of Trier in Germany has contributed further to this bank of knowledge by examining how stress and pain affect men’s preference for similarity in their mates. Other researchers have shown that the old maxim “opposites attract” is generally untrue, and that in fact people prefer to pair up with others who resemble them both in terms of personality and appearance. Lass-Henneman and colleagues wanted to see whether stress disrupted this normal pattern of preferences.

They split their male recruits into two groups. Half of the men placed their arm into a basin of ice-cold water and kept it there for three minutes, a task that we know causes mild stress. The other half of the men put their arm into a basin of warm water. Afterwards, all the men viewed a series of photographs of women. But what they didn’t know was that the researchers had made some of these photographs resemble them.

Lass-Henneman had combined photographs of the participants with the images of the women. This resulted in images that subtly resembled the participants, but not enough for it to be obvious.

She found that men who were allocated to the warm water, low stress group responded more positively to self-resembling women. But men in the cold water, stressed group responded more positively to pictures of women who had been made to resemble other, unfamiliar men.

One possible explanation for this effect is that individuals under stress have a stronger preference for short-term relationships, because we know from the work of other researchers that we tend to prefer dissimilar partners more when we’re looking for a casual fling as opposed to a long-term commitment.

Lass-Hennemann, J., Deuter, C. E., Kuehl, L. K., Schulz, A., Blumenthal, T. D., & Schachinger, H. (2010). Effects of stress on human mating preferences: stressed individuals prefer dissimilar mates. Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences, 277(1691), 2175–2183. Read summary

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

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