Time for yet another edition of “you can keep your stereotypes close to your heart because IT’S SCIENCE NOW”. Today’s questionable venture: Women Find Happy Men Less Attractive.
Women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men, according to a new University of British Columbia study that helps to explain the enduring allure of “bad boys” and other iconic gender types.
This may be a bit early in the article for this kind of nuance, but I generally find that when you’re describing something as “iconic”- meaning it has a very prominent cultural profile- I also find that making assumptions that they must be driven primarily by subconscious biological programming is kind of iffy to begin with.
The study — which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos — finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame.
You! The dating pool! Discard everything you know and act on these findings immediately! There is no way you can lose on this!
Very few studies have explored the relationship between emotions and attraction, and this is the first to report a significant gender difference in the attractiveness of smiles. The study, published online in the American Psychological Association journal Emotion, is also the first to investigate the attractiveness of displays of pride and shame.
Which actually does make me a bit more forgiving, given they haven’t had a lot of people screwing this up and discussing it and hashing it out, but it still really could have been approached better.
“While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction — few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” says Prof. Jessica Tracy of UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.”
What they haven’t gotten around to mentioning yet and I think is probably the most important thing about this whole damn study is they didn’t actually use people making displays of emotion. They got some volunteers to strike a pose associated with some emotion and used the still photographs of these people.
In a series of studies, more than 1,000 adult participants rated the sexual attractiveness of hundreds of images of the opposite sex engaged in universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes).
If you’re studying innate, instinctive reactions to displays of emotion, wouldn’t it strike you that it might be slightly important that these displays be genuine? There aren’t that many samples of the photos included, but we’re not talking about about candid shots of people after winning an important game, or getting an award, or laughing their asses off, or getting chewed out by the boss in front of their co-workers. They’re pretty damn obviously just somebody striking a pose, and not professional models or actors, either. Primates have some of the most advanced and complex neurological ability in the world to read and process extremely minute differences in expression and inflection; this is in a lot of ways what our brains are built for, especially detection of insincerity.
Even if the displays in the photographs WERE genuine, there’s the small matter that we’re also not really designed to process people or emotions as still images; photography is such a hard art to master precisely BECAUSE catching a shot of a person with good expression is so difficult. As every political candidate knows, it’s remarkably easy to catch a still shot of someone looking goofy or fanatical or evil or generally insane, because as your face moves through words and expressions, often the still shots strike the viewer as weird and distorted, when they seem normal as part of a living, moving person’s expressions.
Either way I think assuming that still photos of posed models asked to strike a pose represent a 1:1 correlation to “displays of emotion” is just a little questionable.
The study found that women were least attracted to smiling, happy men, preferring those who looked proud and powerful or moody and ashamed. In contrast, male participants were most sexually attracted to women who looked happy, and least attracted to women who appeared proud and confident.
Here’s a question I have that’s not answered in the article: they say how many subjects they used to rate the photos, but how many models did they use?
“It is important to remember that this study explored first-impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” says Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife — we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He says previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners.
Here’s a question for the audience at large: how often have you felt gut-level, carnal sexual attraction to a photo of a stranger that had no other context at all and wasn’t clearly designed to BE sexual?
Tracy and Beall say that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring.
According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he says.
Yeah, but it also accentuates the breasts and the shape of your upper body in general, which would theoretically make the same expression on a woman more attractive and yet somehow doesn’t.
Which doesn’t mean they’re WRONG, but does kinda highlight the just-so nature of the reasoning being employed. It’s almost as if the studies exist to give the researchers exercise in fitting assumptions to data rather than testing assumptions.
The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms.
For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers say. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall adds.
Am I the only one seeing a certain amount of circularity to it, as well? At least this time they’re acknowledging that culturally enforced gender norms likely have as much if not more to do with any potential result than the programming of our inner apes.
Displays of shame, Tracy says, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she says, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust.
I like how there is no irony at all in this statement given the earlier “obviously women would prefer more successful men” above.
I’ve already outlined my primary complaint about this whole thing, i.e. the unnaturalness of both the poses and of still images in general, but let me give an alternative and much more parsimonious theory about why they got the results they did:
The “shame” pose was rated more attractive because it’s the easiest pose in the whole repetoire to be photographed in without distorting your features or otherwise looking goofy or stilted. The “neutral” pose might theoretically be, but it’s also the one we associate with mug shots and driver’s license photos; it’s also not exactly neutral. In a normal social setting, someone who gives you a neutral look is usually not wanting to have any sort of interaction with you at all.
I could continue taking this further- maybe the smiling women are rating higher than the smiling men because women and girls get told to “smile!” a lot more often over the course of their lives and are therefore much more likely to be practiced at faking a grin that looks good enough for photographic purpose, whereas the guys are more likely to look forced and goofy rather than happy when asked to do the same.
This is easy, isn’t it? And equally plausible if not moreso, because it requires less explanation and also fits neatly with existing cultural gender norms without having to make guesses about relative mating success in the unknown past.
Either way… I wouldn’t smile any less or look shamed any more while on a first date, based on this.