Hey, kids, it’s time for another round of Bullshit Evo-Psych! YAAAAAAY!
Title of article: Do Men Find Dumb-Looking Women More Attractive?
A new study says yes.
Oh, you know this one’s going to be fun. It’s also another entry in the classic genre of “equally dim views of men and women”.
In an article soon to be published in Evolution and Human Behavior, University of Texas–Austin graduate student Cari Goetz and her colleagues explored what they called the sexual exploitability hypothesis. The hypothesis is based on the differences between male and female reproductive strategies as humans evolved. For ancestral women, casual intercourse with an emotionally unattached man who had no clear intention of sticking around to raise any resulting offspring constituted a massive genetic gamble. By contrast, for a man with somewhere around 85 million sperm cells churned out every day—per testicle—the frivolous expenditure of gametes was far less detrimental to his genetic interests.
An classic framework. Kind of a bit too classic, given that this basic assumption can suffer a lot when the life histories of species or entire groups are taken into account. As I will go into in further detail.
Goetz and her team began with the assumption that—because our brains evolved long before prophylactics entered the picture—female cognition is still sensitive to the pregnancy-related consequences of uncommitted sex and women remain more reluctant than men to engage in it
You don’t need… “female cognition” to understand that random sex can have more potential negative consequences for her than for him. Not all of them or even most of them have anything to do with pregnancy, either. What’s foremost in a woman’s (or, well, a female North American college student, but at least the two study demographics were the same) mind when considering accepting or rejecting casual offers from men actually seems to be the twin questions of whether he presents a physical threat to her safety, and whether he’s likely to be any good in bed.
I mean, you can and apparently these authors are making the argument that it’s actually our primitive ladybrains evaluating the chances of pregnancy completely outside our consciousness, but assuming we do things for secret hidden reasons rather than conscious reasons that are actually perfectly sound and utilitarian is questionable at best.
They set out to test the idea that any indication that a woman’s guard is lowered—that she’s “sexually exploitable”—is a turn-on for your average man. “[T]he assessment of a woman’s immediate vulnerability,” surmise the authors, “may be central to the activation of psychological mechanisms related to sexual exploitation.”
Fill in the appropriate square on your “misogyny and misandry are buddies” bingo card.
This is an inflammatory hypothesis, of course, and the language employed in the field doesn’t help matters. It’s worth noting that in the evolutionary psychology sense, the word exploitable simply means that a woman is willing or can be more easily pressured into having sex—which takes her own desires, rather disturbingly, out of the equation. Even if she’s the aggressor, a prostitute, or a certifiable nymphomaniac, having casual sex with her would still constitute “exploiting” her (or at least her body), according to this model.
Thank you, author, though I’m not going to be very nice to you in this post, for at least acknowledging that if not continuing to think it through- specifically that it assumes the viewpoint that a sexual encounter that doesn’t result in marriage involves the man “winning” and the woman “losing”.
From a strictly biological viewpoint, this worldview is baffling. Translated into terms evolution actually operates on, the strategy makes one party more fit and another party less fit or no more fit. In order for the male to increase his fitness, the mating has to result in offspring and the offspring have to grow to become reproductively successful themselves, which is exactly what needs to happen for the female to increase her fitness. There is no scenario in which the male increases his fitness but the female does not. There are scenarios in which the male gains fitness at less cost or risk to himself than the female and vice versa, but none in which, biologically speaking, all sexual encounters that result in a fitness gain for the male are exploitation.
Underlying this entire model (not to mention article) is a conflation of mating events with reproduction. This is a frequent weakness in sexual selection research, but at least researchers studying wild animals have a somewhat plausible excuse in that the difficulty of observing their target population makes definitively tying matings with offspring by parent, event, and identity difficult, but no one studying humans has this excuse. We have geneaology, interviews, and DNA tests to answer nearly any possible question we may have about someone’s grandchildren, lack thereof, and what in their life path led to children, grandchildren, or none of the above. Which is one of many reasons why making your study demographic one that almost entirely consists of people who aren’t yet ready or willing to reproduce* for the purposes of this kind of study insane.
Using matings and offspring as interchangeable things with any hope of producing useful results depends on several things about your target species: you need the window in which its members are willing to mate and the window in which they are fertile to be identical or nearly so, and you need the cost of raising offspring to be relatively low, so that an individual who mates is pretty much the same as an individual who reproduces. If you are studying, say, snakes, this model is fine and dandy. If you are studying (most) birds, you have half of what you need; an obvious window of fertility and matings, but costly offspring that are by no means guaranteed to make it to reproductive age without a great deal of investment. If you are studying humans neither is true; humans are willing to mate regardless of fertility status, and the cost of raising offspring is extremely high.
So high, in fact, that it would have been impossible for a lone woman to raise an infant to adolescence on her own during our evolution. So high that some anthropologists estimate it couldn’t be done in the environment we evolved in with just the mother AND the father alone, either. “WOOP FOOLED YOU SURPRISE BABY OFF TO SPREAD MY SEED KTHX BAI” would have been a complete nonstarter as a reproductive strategy just because the only way the baby would actually survive would be if the child had substantial investment from other people besides the mother.
Chimpanzee mothers don’t need or want paternal investment from the males because the period of dependence is much shorter and the nutritional needs of the infant are less dramatic; they raise their babies entirely by themselves and are very protective, and possessive, of them. Human women, in all cultures around the globe, seek out helpers to help them with their children- and also unlike chimps and most other primates, are vastly more willing to abandon or kill a baby, especially under stress. (And even the devoted single moms of primatehood have their thresholds.) It’s not just us, either; in birds with very high investment requirements to raise offspring, abandoning eggs or chicks when confidence in the mate’s investment (or, more compassionately, confidence in the odds of raising them being possible) drops sufficiently is a common thing.
This is not to say that promiscuity cannot be a perfectly workable reproductive strategy, for a male OR a female; the mother simply needs to have sufficient investment from other sources, like relatives, a social network of friends (who like as not are mothers themselves), or those who will help with childcare in trade for something else. Under this model, however, what should make a woman attractive to a promiscuous male isn’t her exploitability, but rather her support network, especially if she’s successfully raised at least one other child to prove she can do it. A promiscuous male seeking out a female looking for strong paternal investment a isn’t win/lose fitness arrangement if he gets her pregnant, it’s lose/lose. Promiscuous men/promiscuous women in which all the men invest a little bit and family helps is win/win. Highly invested man/highly invested woman is win/win. Some blend of the two in invested polygyny or polyandry is also win/win. Humans are very flexible like that, and each arrangement as its advantages and disadvantages; but promiscuous/low or no investment plus individual seeking high investment is a combination that’s much less effective for anybody**.
Back to the article.
So how did this team put their sexual “exploitability” hypothesis to the test? Goetz and her colleagues planned to call a bunch of undergraduate males into the lab and ask them to rate a set of women in terms of attractiveness based on their photographs. But first they needed to pick the appropriate images. To figure out which sorts of women might be deemed most receptive to a sexual advance or most vulnerable to male pressure or coercion, they asked a large group of students (103 men and 91 women) to nominate some “specific actions, cues, body postures, attitudes, and personality characteristics” that might indicate receptivity or vulnerability
I see no possible way in which this line of approach could be compromised or confounded by cultural variables. How bout you guys?
These could be psychological in nature (e.g., signs of low self-esteem, low intelligence, or recklessness), or they might be more contextual (e.g., fatigue, intoxication, separation from family and friends). A third category includes signs that the woman is physically weak, and thus more easily overpowered by a male (e.g., she’s slow-footed or small in stature). According to the authors, rape constitutes one extreme end of the “exploitation” spectrum—cheesy pickup lines the other.
The sad part is this would function just fine as a study of how people seeking to actually sexually exploit someone select victims. It’s just a complete failure as a study of evolved reproductive strategy.
By asking students for the relevant cues, the experimenters reasoned, they’d keep their own ideas about what makes a woman “exploitable” from coloring their study. When all was said and done, the regular folks in the lab had come up with a list of 88 signs that—in their expert undergraduate opinions—a woman might be an especially good target for a man who wanted to score. Here’s a sampling of what they came up with: “lip lick/bite,” “over-shoulder look,” “sleepy,” “intoxicated,” “tight clothing,” “fat,” “short,” “unintelligent,” “punk,” “attention-seeking,” and “touching breast.”
Attempting to keep out confounding variables fail. The next paragraph is also pretty much just a quick and dirty anthropological review on straight male undergraduates’ ideas of which women are “easy”. Although the fact that they took their study images off the internet is possibly relevant, in a “their study was pulling people’s photos off Facebook and OKCupid” kinda way.
Now it was time for the test. A fresh group of 76 male participants was presented with these images in a randomized sequence and asked what they thought of each woman’s overall attractiveness, how easy it would be to “exploit” her using a variety of tactics (everything from seduction to physical force), and her appeal to them as either a short-term or a long-term partner. The results were mixed.
That should not be surprising.
Physical cues of vulnerability—the pictures of, say, short women and hefty ones—had no effect. These women were not necessarily seen as easy lays, nor were they judged as especially appealing partners for either a casual fling or a lifelong marriage.
I’m… glad we had a study to determine this.
On the other hand, the more psychological and contextual cues—pictures of dimwitted- or immature-seeming women, for example, or of women who looked sleepy or intoxicated, did seem to have an effect: Not surprisingly, men rated them as being easy to bed. But more importantly, they were also perceived as being more physically attractive than female peers who seemed more lucid or quick-witted. This perceived attractiveness effect flipped completely when the participants were asked to judge these women as potential long-term partners. In other words, the woozy ladies were seen as sexy and desirable—but only for fleeting venereal meetings. They lost their luster entirely when the men were asked to rate these same women’s attractiveness as prospective girlfriends or wives.
One might almost take this as a hint that sex is actually not the same thing as reproduction, psychologically speaking.
The possible evolutionary logic behind this interaction is fairly straightforward: In the latter case, the man would risk becoming the cuckoldee, not the cuckolder. (Of course you could also argue that men might rather marry a woman who looked like she could hold up her end of the conversation over French toast.)
Oh, obvious and non-hateful explanation, you so crazy. Alternatively, there’s an important and substantial difference between what people seek when they’re after the pleasure of sex itself and what they seek when they’re after a partner to relate and reproduce with- and this need not be complex evolutionarily produced psychology, but rather basic observation and reasoning skills.
In a follow-up study (that ended up being published first), the authors tried to add some nuance to their sexual exploitability hypothesis. Graduate student David Lewis led a project to narrow in on the specific type of man who would be most alert to the sort of “exploitability” cues outlined above. Not every man, it seems, is equally proficient at homing in on these weak spots in women. So he and his colleagues asked 72 straight men to evaluate the same photos as before, and in the same way. But this time, the researchers also measured some key personality traits in the male raters, as well as the extent to which they desired and pursued uncommitted sex. The students were asked, for instance: “With how many different partners have you had sexual intercourse without having interest in a long-term committed relationship with that person,” and, “How often do you experience sexual arousal when you are in contact with someone you are not in a committed romantic relationship with?”
Again, this would be an excellent sociology study of sexual exploitation.
The main finding to emerge from this follow-up study was that the more promiscuity-minded men who happened also to have deficiencies in personal empathy and warmth were the ones most vigilant and responsive to female “exploitability” cues. Men without this critical calculus—say, a disagreeable man who prefers monogamy, or a caring one who likes to play the field—are more likely to have these cues fly right past their heads and miss the opportunity to capitalize on an “easy lay.”
….Framed this way it almost seems like some sort of defect in these guys.
o rather than the sexual exploitability hypothesis summing up the male brain as one big ball of undifferentiated stereotype, the caveat here is that there are multiple subtypes of reproductive strategies in men. Not all men are pricks, in other words.
Happily I didn’t need either the author of the article or the architects of the study to tell me that. And the exploitative men are still much likelier to be the losers in the fitness game. Sadly they won’t disappear in a few generations as a result, because evolution almost certainly didn’t directly create them in the first place.
It’s easy to see the sexual exploitability hypothesis as misogynistic, but I don’t believe the authors are advancing a chauvinistic ideology
Nah, I just think they’re using a chauvinistic ideology to inform their ideas of what constitutes fitness instead of thinking through the reproductive math and taking into account what raising children requires for a savannah forager*** instead of a North American youth.
Take those kinds of complaints up with natural selection, not the theorists untangling its sometimes-wicked ways. The authors are trying—admirably, I think—to decipher an implicit social algorithm in the hopes of better understanding gender relations.
Why is it the people saying “IT’S JUST SCIENCE YOU CAN’T ARGUE WITH IT” are almost always citing lazy, shoddy science?
I’m not going to bother fisking the rest of it; the upshot is the author takes some stabs in the dark at recognizing that there’s more to fitness than mating events, that their “easiness” variables are hopelessly muddled, and also that evolutionary psychology is cripplingly prone to just-so storytelling. Read the rest of it if you like (it may make you think better of the author), but as for salient points to make, I’m done right here.
*This is not the same as “young people”, see also, rates of teen pregnancy in which the parents willingly set out to have a child. But these people don’t usually go to college, at least not then.
**Bear in mind I’m talking about African hunter-gatherers and NOT modern North Americans. The environment in which we developed our reproductive behavior did not contain any form of social services, food banks or food stamps, orphanages, easy long-distance travel, charitable organizations, free clinics, or anything else that makes an unintentional child with minimal paternal/family investment possible to raise to adulthood. Infanticide of children whose needs were beyond low available resources was a sad, unfortunate norm until we developed civilizations- and our sexual psychology must have evolved millions of years before that happened.
***Another thing missing from this model is that humans don’t occur in lone, ranging patterns outside of civilization, they form small, tight communities. Exploitative behavior of all kinds tends to have a very high social cost unless it’s embedded in the structure of the culture itself. (Which sometimes happens, but generally only in cultures richer in resources that can afford to outbreed the loss of children due to neglect.) In other words, a serial deceiver generally isn’t fooling anyone after long at all.