So, did you see that recent paper in Evolution and Human Behaviour1 about the different ways that men and women evaluate attractiveness in potential long- and short- term partners? You’d remember the title: “More than just a pretty face“.
If you didn’t, or don’t want to follow the link, here’s the abstract:
Studies of physical attractiveness have long emphasized the constituent features that make faces and bodies attractive, such as symmetry, skin texture, and waist-to-hip ratio. Few studies, however, have examined the reproductively relevant cues conveyed by faces and bodies as whole units. Based on the premise that fertility cues are more readily assessed from a woman’s body than her face, the present study tested the hypothesis that men evaluating a potential short-term mate would give higher priority to information gleaned from her body, relative to her face, than men evaluating a potential long-term mate. Male and female participants (N375) were instructed to consider dating an opposite sex individual, whose face was occluded by a “face box’ and whose body was occluded by a “body box,’ as a short-term or long- term mate. With the instruction that only one box could be removed to make their decision about their willingness to engage in the designated relationship with the occluded individual, significantly more men assigned to the short-term, compared to the long-term, mating condition removed the body box. Women’s face versus body information choice, in contrast, was unaffected by the temporal dimension of the mating condition. These results suggest that men, but not women, have a condition-dependent adaptive proclivity to prioritize facial cues in long-term mating contexts, but shift their priorities toward bodily cues in short-term mating contexts.
While I’m not terribly surprised to find that men behave like dogs when explicitly looking for a one-night stand, I am comforted to see that most humans gravitate to the face when selecting with the longer term in mind. This means I am not as unusual as I sometimes feel when people2 discuss their “breast man”/”ass man” status. Of course I’m probably still a bit of an outlier with respect to the weight I give to hair when judging attractiveness.
Anyway, while the results are interesting, I’m skeptical that they say anything about evolution necessarily, and I’d explain why, but Newsweek has already done that work for me:
The study may provide new insight into people’s romantic preferences today, but critics say the findings may tell us more about Western values than about human biology—which may often be the case with research that attempts to assign evolutionary motives to modern behavior. Indeed, the study looked only at 375 college students on one campus, the University of Texas at Austin. Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher at Lehman College of the City University of New York, says that further research across cultures and time would be needed to make a compelling case for evolution’s role in the results. Moreover, Pigliucci suspects that some cultural forces are at work. “We live in a society where it’s OK for a man to look at a body, but for a woman it’s considered a little beneath her to be interested in physical appearance,” he says. “I would be surprised if that were true in a culture where there are no TV ads and where people go around naked on a regular basis.”
I wonder what kind of experiment you could do to distinguish evolutionary preferences among sexes from socially programed ones?