Who to woo?

Negotiating the mating market is tricky, because we need to locate someone who’s the best match for us, and who also agrees that we’re the best match for them. It doesn’t make sense to try our chances with someone who’s out of our league, because the chances are we won’t get very far. But we also want to make sure we pair up with someone who’s as attractive as possible. How do we work out where to expend our efforts?

Drew Bailey of the University of Missouri recently theorised that men should be able to perceive very slight differences in the attractiveness of women who are similar in attractiveness to those men. Putting it another way, if we take a man of roughly average attractiveness and ask him to say whether Jessica Alba or Megan Fox is better looking, he might find it difficult to judge. At the very least, more difficult than he would find it to differentiate two girl-next-door types. That makes sense because most average Joes have very little chance of wooing a Hollywood star, so a preference for Alba over Fox or Fox over Alba is moot. However, average Joe may have better luck with average Jane or Janet, so it would be advantageous to be able to ascertain whether Jane has the edge over Janet or vice versa.

Bailey showed 150 men pairs of photographs of women. Rather than viewing pictures of famous actresses, the men saw photographs of student women who ranged from high to low attractiveness. The women were photographed at different points during their menstrual cycle, and this was because we know from previous research that women are more facially attractive around the time when they ovulate. No one knows quite why, but it may have something to do with hormonal effects on face shape or make-up use. By collecting photographs in this way, the researchers could ensure that their face pairs looked very similar, but that one image would be predictably more attractive than the other: the one taken around ovulation.

Bailey found that, when men were shown pairs of photographs of women who were of roughly similar attractiveness to them, they tended to choose the photograph taken when the women was ovulating — and more attractive.

Interestingly, these perceptions are somewhat variable: when men were given a fake attractiveness test and told that the results indicated that they more attractive than they really were, their behaviour changed. They were more sensitive to variation in the attractiveness of especially beautiful women.

Gotta love that flexible and fragile male ego.

Bailey, D. H., Durante, K. M., & Geary, D. C. (2011). Men’s perception of women’s attractiveness is calibrated to relative mate value and dominance of the women’s partner. Evolution and Human Behavior, 32(2), 138–146. Read summary

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

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