Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

How big is your limbal ring?

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on April 30, 2011

Of all the qualities that give an attractive person an edge, here’s one you’ve likely overseen:  the limbal ring,  the dark circle around iris.  The limbal ring is the line that separates the colored part of the eye from the white (the sclera).   

It’s completely unconscious, the way we all judge others’ limbal rings. In the 20 milliseconds or so it takes to assess a person’s attractiveness, you’re factoring in the size and shade of the limbal rings. The bigger and blacker they are, the more attractive the eyes. People with the prettiest eyes have the most prominent limbal rings.  

This, anyhow, is the upshot of a recent study by Darren Peshek and his colleagues at the Department of Cognitive Science at the University of California at Irvine. The researchers showed volunteers eighty pairs of male and female faces.  Each pair of faces was identical except the eyes: one had dark limbal rings and the other had no limbal rings.  The volunteers were asked to pick which face was more attractive and to indicate their degree of preference.

Men thought women with the dark limbal rings were more attractive than those without, and women thought the same of men with dark limbal rings.  Men and women also judged faces of the same sex as more attractive when the limbal rings were large.

Looking into my baby daughter’s eyes, I see the blue of her iris is framed by a thick black limbal ring.  The contrast makes the white of her eyes so white they look blue. The very young have the thickest, darkest limbal rings.

Which is exactly the point.  The limbal ring serves as an honest signal of youth and health-desirable qualities, reproductively speaking. The ring fades with age and with medical problems.  It’s thickest from infancy through the early twenties.  A thick, dark limbal ring may make us appear younger.  It makes the whites of the eyes whiter.  This might be why so many people think light eyes are so sexy:  the limbal ring, when present, shows up more.  

There are so many ways to fake the appearance of youth. You can wear makeup and wigs and get tummy tucks, plastic surgery, Botox, and boob jobs.

But a fake limbal ring?

Yes, this too. Long ago, Japanese schoolgirls discovered the edge a limbal ring can give you by wearing “limbal ring” contact lenses. They make the eye look bigger and more defined. And while you’re eyeing these contacts, you might as well buy a set that expands your pupils too. Big, dark, dilated pupils signal emotional arousal. They, too, act on the unconscious favorably.

The limbal ring is well-named. Limbis means border or edge, and it’s related to limbic, meaning emotion or drives. The limbal ring, seen from inches away, is an intimacy zone. Don’t flirt until you see the whites of their eyes.

What Singles Can Learn from Baby Talk

Posted in news, psychology, science by jenapincott on March 28, 2011

When you become a new parent you get a lot of advice on how to connect with your infant. To win her over, you’re told, talk the way she talks.  If Baby says “bah-bah-bah,” you say, “bah-bah-bah” back. You can make your “bah” sound like a real word by saying BAH-tel” or “BAH-th.” The content doesn’t really matter.  You just need make sure you sound like her.  Researchers call this “language style matching.” It draws the infant in and helps her connect with you. Experts can predict a baby’s attachment to her mother by how much they bah-bah back and forth during baby talk.

            Singles seeking love and connection can learn from this, according to a new study led by James Pennebaker and Molly Ireland at the University of Texas at Austin, and their colleagues at Northwestern University.  What the psychologists investigated is whether people on a first date who use similar words hit it off better than those who don’t.  Could language style predict whether you and your date will decide to see each other again and even have a strong and stable relationship eventually?

            To find out, the researchers recorded college students on speed dates. Thrown together for four-minute pairings, the men and women warmed up by asking each other the usual questions:  Where are you from?  What’s your major? How do you like college?

 Using a computer algorithm to analyze the speed-daters’ conversations, Pennebaker and Ireland found that men and women that wanted to see each other again matched each other’s function words significantly more often than those that had no interest in each other. Function words are like glue. They are not nouns or words; rather, they show how those words relate.  They are words like the, a, be, anything, that, will, him, and well. They are the yeses and okays and the pauses and interjections between words. They are the ifs, ands, and buts. By themselves they don’t sound like much, but they set a mood.

            The more a couple’s language styles matched, especially the function words, the likelier they were to hit it off. Couple whose speaking styles were in sync more than average were nearly four times as likely to desire a second date as those that were not.  About 77 percent of similar-sounding speed-daters desired a second date compared to only about half the dissimilar speakers.  Similar-speakers were also significantly more likely to be dating three months later.

            Language style matching is usually unconscious, according to the researchers.  It’s verbal body language.  Just as couples on the most successful dates make more eye contact, lean in toward one another, and otherwise echo each other’s body movements, they also echo each other’s choice of words.  We put ourselves in sync with people with whom we want to get close and stay close. 

Pennebaker and his team also used the alogrithm to test written correspondence for language style, and found that couples who had been dating a year or more were likelier to stay together if their writing styles in text messages matched. 

You can predict if you and your date or partner are in sync by taking Pennebakers’s online test at   Enter your and your love’s email or text correspondence and you’ll get a number that assesses how much your language matches up — which in turn may predict how well your relationship will hold up.

If you and your partner use actual baby talk to communicate — that is, speaking in a high-pitched voice with elongated syllables to your ickle-bitty-peshus wuv –you may have an especially healthy long-term relationship. According to a study by researchers Meredith Bombar and Lawrence Littig, baby talk helps lovers enhance feelings of mutual intimacy and attachment to each other.  Compared to other couples, babytalkers are more secure and less avoidant in romantic relationships.

Why?  In effect, baby talk, when mutual, is not only a form of language style matching but also a way to reactivate primal circuits of attachment. It taps into the unconditional love of a parent for child.

The old “play” circuits are activated; as in any form of fantasy, baby talk allows a couple to step outside the limits of self, space, and time. Stress is reduced — the same reason why a recent study on light S&M found that couples who spank together stay together. Babytalking lovers get a blast of dopamine and oxytocin in areas of the brain involved in reward and bonding — the ventral tegmental area, orbitofrontal cortex, and anterior cingulate cortex.

Mutual use of high-pitched voices, soothing whispers, cooing, lisping, and making expressive faces is also a way of “looping” or “mirroring” affection. Along with the other bonding benefits, baby talk may be a way of flaunting one’s healthy emotional neural circuitry — suggesting not only love and commitment but also strong nurturing instincts.

Do babytalking couples make better parents?  Who knows — but secure, loving, long-term ones do.

What your date’s fingerprints reveal

Posted in news, psychology, science, sex by jenapincott on February 6, 2011

Not long ago, people everywhere started to do the “finger game” on a first date. This is not as naughty as it sounds. As I describe in BLONDES, the finger game involves asking your companion for a look at his (or her) right hand. If his ring finger is longer than his index finger it’s a sign of prenatal exposure to high levels of testosterone. People with longer ring (than index) fingers are likelier to be more aggressive, better at sports, and more musically inclined. They may have more sex partners in life.

Now you can take the game to the next level: fingerprints.

Take a close look at the ridges on your companion’s fingers. (Actually, they’re best seen under a magnifying lens or photocopied and enlarged.) Most people have slightly more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other.

More ridges on the right-hand fingers: This indicates higher levels of prenatal testosterone. He or she might master mental rotation – knowing which one of four abstract figures, revolved in three-dimensional mindspace, matches a diagram (a “masculine” task). Right-ridge dominant people are also better at aiming at a target and getting a bull’s eye.

More ridges on the left-hand fingers:
This indicates lower levels of prenatal exposure. He or she may be a whiz at games like word associations, taking a word like clear and coming up with glass then Philip then opera then ghost, or naming as many round objects as she can in three minutes (considered “feminine” tasks). Compared to straight men, gay men have more ridges on their left pinkies and thumbs.

Four or more ridges on the fingers of one hand than the other: This reflects how much stress your companion weathered when he or she was a second-trimester fetus. For instance, researchers found that women who were 14-22 weeks pregnant when an epic ice storm hit Canada were more likely to have babies whose ridge counts varied greatly between hands. In nature, dramatic asymmetry is often a sign that the fetus has been stressed in some way. The more stress, the less symmetry. In fact, those with significantly asymmetric ridge counts between right and left hands were more likely to score lower in language and intellectual development as toddlers. Both fingerprint development and the brain may have been affected by constriction of blood flow to the placenta or stress hormone levels.

Other ridge count studies have also found interesting correlations: a significant difference between the ring and pinky fingers of the right hand is associated with less muscle mass in the lower extremities and a bulked-up upper body, including a thicker waist. A difference of around three or four more ridges between the thumb and pinky fingers is also associated with diabetes later in life. Asymmetries are also connected to cleft lip, dyslexia, schizophrenia, infections, and other prenatal problems.

Around ten weeks after conception is when the bottom (basal) layer of fetal skin outgrows the top (epidermis), and the tension between the two causes the skin to buckle. At this time fingerprints are like wet cement: any disturbance until mid- pregnancy may leave a lifelong impression. At this time the skin and the brain are both are made of the same raw material — fetal ectodermal tissue. Any disruptive event in the womb left its mark on both. This means that fingerprints give us clues about the brain.

You would like to know more about the minds of the people you date, which is why you’re analyzing their fingers. Of course if you could read their minds, you’d know they think you’re crazy.

How a hot partner makes you seem hotter

Posted in news by jenapincott on February 28, 2010

Ask a veteran E-Harmony or user to list her peeves about online dating, and she’ll surely mention the “cropped-ex shot.” Why do so many people include pictures of themselves with seemingly unattached body parts — a slim bangled arm thrown around their shoulder, or hairy fingers around their waist? Those body parts, assumed to belong to an ex, are maddening in part because of what they don’t reveal: the ex herself (or himself).

That’s because we rate another person’s attractiveness, at least in part, on the attractiveness of his or her partner.

Researchers call this mate-choice copying. As I detail in BLONDES, mate-choice copying happens in many animal species, and there’s mounting evidence that human animals are no exception. If that male has an attractive partner, then there must be something worthwhile about him. It’s a wisdom-of-crowds approach.

The latest mate-copying study, published by researchers at Duke University and the University of California Davis, involves 30 male and 30 female volunteers who all described themselves as straight. One group of volunteers was then asked to rate the attractiveness of men and women pictured alone in photos. Another group was then shown pictures of the same men and women paired together and asked how desirable they would find long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex in the pictures. They were told the people in each photograph had been engaged in a long-term romantic relationship but their relationship ended.

These exes were not cropped out.

No surprise to evolutionary psychologists: Both male and female volunteers rated people in the pictures as more desirable when they were paired next to attractive companions than when they were pictured alone. This was true for both men and women. By using cameras to track eye movements during the experiments, the researchers also saw that when volunteers spent more time looking at a potential mate’s unattractive partner, they were less interested in that mate. Interestingly, even though judges were only asked to rate the person of the opposite-sex, they all spent significant time looking at that person’s partner. Having a homely ex can hurt you.

The exception, the researchers found, is if you’re a hot woman. While women downgraded otherwise hot men if they were paired with a dumpy partner, men gave high ratings to the most attractive women regardless of their partners. As found in other studies, women, generally the choosier and more cautious sex, are more likely to rely on social cues such as whether other women find the target guy attractive.

By no means does this warrant that you leave your ex, in full or in part, in your profile photo. Unless your ex is your only asset.

Why women eat salads on dates

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 8, 2009

Is she resentful?

I have a friend who only orders salads when she goes out on a date. Me, I’d order the pasta and make sure to leave room for dessert. Turns out I’m unusual that way.

According to the latest study at McMaster University, women consume far fewer calories in the presence of a man (or men) than when eating alone or with another woman. Of over 450 people observed in a cafeteria setting, only the women revealed different consumption habits around the opposite sex.

What I was oblivious to when dating is the fact that what you eat, and how much, can affect impressions of your habits, world-views, social appeal, and attractiveness. According to the authors, psychologists Meredith Young and her colleagues:

1. In [groups of two], women selected foods with lower caloric value if their companion was male than if with another woman, whereas men’s choices were not affected by partner’s sex.

2. In our study, women’s total calories were not just reduced in the presence of a male, but also decreased further as a function of the number of male companions (and tended to show a reverse effect of female companions).

3. Women, in particular, adjust their eating to accord with consumption stereotypes, specifically that smaller eaters are viewed more favorably. The women we observed adjusted food selection not so as to match men, but perhaps in accordance with beliefs about what men find attractive.

Is a lusty appetite really less attractive?

How it’s possible to be too nice

Posted in news by jenapincott on October 24, 2009

A few weeks ago, my friend G. went out on a date with a man she met online. She had liked the guys’s profile: mid-thirties, lawyer, yogi, middle child (like herself), vegetarian. He was cute, too, with green eyes and a boyish grin. In his profile photo he included a shot of himself hugging his niece. And when G. met him, he hugged her, too — a great bear hug. He held the door open for her when they went to the restaurant and picked up the check at the end of the meal. All this she liked, but she said certain things about him annoyed her. When pressed, she said sheepishly: “I know this sounds weird, but he was just too nice.”

G.’s date not only opened doors for her, but also for the women behind her. He struck up conversation with the people at the next table and helped them get the waitress’s attention. Strolling together in the park after dinner, she caught him smiling at people who passed.

That’s odd, I thought. Studies show that kindness is one of the top qualities that men and women seek in a partner. But then I found a new study by University of Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologists Aaron Lukaszewskia and James Roney that offers a little more nuance.

Yes, the psychologists found: people prefer partners who are kind, altruistic, and trustworthy. In fact, people desire as kind a mate as possible. But what most studies fail to take into account is to whom the kindness is directed. Most people agree that prospective partners must be kind and generous with their companions, friends, and family. But what about people in the larger social context?

Lukaszewskia and Roney embarked on their investigation by asking nearly 60 women and more than 70 men to rate various personality traits in their ideal partner: kindness, trustworthiness, and dominance. Do you want your ideal partner to be less, equal, or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average man/woman? Do you want you partner to be less, equal or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average with other men or other women?

Here are the results:

Both sexes preferred very high levels of kindness and trustworthiness only when considering behaviors directed toward self or close friends and family, and much lower levels of these traits when considering behaviors directed toward other classes of individuals. In fact, people may actively prefer that their partners not be too kind or too trustworthy toward people who are not companions, friends, or family.

My friend G. hated it when her date expressed as much kindness with strangers as with her. A turn-off, she said. Men apparently don’t like it either. Nice guys and gals appear to finish last when they’re too nice to everyone.

Women preferred higher levels of dominance when considering behaviors directed toward other men than when considering behaviors directed toward self. Although not predicted in advance, men’s dominance preferences showed the same pattern as women’s preferences, with higher levels of dominance preferred when considering behaviors directed toward other women than when considering behaviors directed toward self.

Curiously, many studies suggest that women value kindness over dominance in long-term relationships, but this only applies to their partner’s dominance in a broader social context. Men also prefer women who are dominant among other women (but not dominant in the context of the relationship). As an interesting side note, the evolutionary psychologists suggest that men in ancestral environments may have benefited from having partners who were dominant within female status hierarchies (offspring more likely to survive).

Going on what G. told me about her date, I suspect there’s another explanation for why excessive kindness to others can be a turn-off in a partner. We all want to feel special, sought out. As other studies I’ve described in BLONDES have shown, homing in on one person and making that one person feel unique and exemplary is key. G.’s date may have been an extremely nice guy, but he didn’t make her feel special. Who knows how he’d be as a boyfriend — would his eye wander?

He who loves all may not love one. It’s as George Orwell said: “Love means nothing if it does not mean loving one person more than others.”

Foot-in-the-door as a pickup technique

Posted in news by jenapincott on September 27, 2009

kick_open_doorFrench psychologist Nicolas Gueguen is fun. He’s the guy who asks the pressing questions we’d all like answered, whether we admit it or not: Does makeup really make a woman more attractive to men?; Are dog owners more likely to get dates?; How much does cup size really matter?; and How does priming men to think about love change their behavior?

And now Gueguen strikes again, this time with a study on courtship and “foot-in-the-door-technique.” The latter is an actual term in psychology. “Foot in the door” is a compliance tactic in which an initial, small difficult-to-turn-down request is made (as in a solicitor asking passers-by on the street for their signature). Once people acquiesce to an easy request, they are likelier to agree to a larger request (to donate money, time, etc.). Kids seem to implicitly know the foot-in-the-door effect, as when they ask for a small treat, followed immediately by a request for a larger one.

But what about men looking for love (or sex)?

Gueguen wanted to know if the foot-in-the-door technique would work in a pick-up context, so he recruited a nice-looking guy in his twenties to solicit young, hot women in the street. Over a series of days the man approached 360 different ladies, and asked them if they’d like to have a drink with him. Some of the time he approached them, greeted them, and made the drink offer right away. In the foot-in-the-door condition, however, he asked them for directions or requested a light for his cigarette before inviting them to have a drink with him.

Turns out, the technique works. Women were significantly more likely to say yes to a drink with the guy if he made a minor request immediately beforehand. That’s how foot-in-the-door works, by fostering compliance. It’s easier to say no when the no hasn’t been preceded by a yes. (Incidentally, it’s also more difficult to say no after nodding your head.)

Of course, for most men the aim is to get much more than a foot in the door. For that, I suspect the actual nature of the second, larger request counts a lot. Ask too much, guys, and you’ll get a door-in-the-face.

Night owls have more lovers

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 13, 2009

vampire2Early birds may get worms but not chicks. That is, according a recent study by Davide Piffer at the University of Pisa, the mean number of sexual partners for morning-oriented men was 3.6 versus 16.3 for evening-oriented men. This means that guys who are night owls have about four times as many sexual partners as morning birds.

Drawing on evolutionary psychology, Piffer offers a few theories:

1.) Throughout human history social activities have taken place at night. (In fact >60 percent of the people Piffer polled met their latest partner in the evening or night.) The evening is commonly reserved for courtship activity — dancing, drinking, having sex. Over time, the male night owl attends more social events, meets more women, and has more sex.

2.) “Eveningness” is a sexually dimorphic trait. Across cultures, “more males than females stay up late at night (due to biological differences involving the timing of peak melatonin levels). Piffer speculates that men evolved to stay up late because, in the deep past, the most reproductively successful males were night owls and they passed along their genes to subsequent generations. In terms of Darwinian sexual selection, evening orientation benefits males more because it gives them an increased opportunity to acquire multiple lovers — all at one go, or over time. Women, however, don’t achieve greater reproductive success by having sex with more men (it only takes one to get pregnant), which is why fewer women are evening-oriented. Men with an evening orientation have a competitive advantage over men with a morning orientation.

3.) Evening-orientation, Piffer speculates, may also be a direct product of sexual selection. That is, women may actively choose night owls over morning birds. Piffer draws on the “cads-versus-dads” theory; that is, women often go for bad boys, especially at a certain stage of life, and men who stay up into the night are likelier to fall into this category.

4.) Being a night owl may also be a form of “handicap signaling.” Staying up late at night (possibly drinking and smoking) can take a toll on one’s health. Only a man who is fit and healthy would be able to compensate for his lifestyle. Assuming a man seems unaffected by little sleep, his evening orientation indicates a strong constitution — a sexy quality.

Mind you, Piffer’s theories are allextremely speculative (but fun!). Of course there are many unanswered questions: By nature, is there something about a night bird’s personality that makes him more promiscuous than a morning bird — or is it only that he has more opportunities to meet women? Do night owls in all cultures get more sex? The study took place in Italy — it would be interesting to repeat the same experiment in non-Western cultures.

At least this may explain the otherwise inexplicable female obsession with vampires.

What makes women less picky when dating?

Posted in news by jenapincott on June 16, 2009

78366393 On a speed date, men usually rotate around the room while women demurely receive them. Each guy gets to chat with a woman for a few minutes, a timer goes off, and he gets up and moves on to the next seated damsel. At the end of the night, every participant fills out a card that indicates who they’d like to see again. Study after study has found that women are pickier than men.

Women’s choosiness has been long attributed to evolutionary theory. The gist of it is that women are pickier than men because we’re limited in the number of children we can produce. Women invest more in each child than men do, and they take on the burden of pregnancy and (at least traditionally) child rearing. With so much at stake in each pregnancy, and with the possibility (at least before birth control) that each mate could impregnate her, it makes sense that women are choosier when dating.

So what makes women less picky?

A speed-dating study to be published this month offers some insight.

Psychologists Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick at Northwestern University decided to shake things up a bit by making women rotate for a few sessions while men remained stationary. And that, according to duo, made all the difference. He found that, regardless of gender, people who were required to approach a date were less picky than people who were seated. This was extraordinary. For the first time in a dating experiment, women appeared to be no choosier than men.

Some readers have suggested that the study topples evolutionary theory. Women are not actually choosier than men, they say; we just have a long-standing cultural tradition for men to hit on women and women to choose whether or not to be receptive. The way to make women less picky is to make them initiators. From a psychological perspective, whoever makes the first move has more invested in a positive outcome. If it were more culturally acceptable for women to make the first move, they say, women would be less selective.

I agree that investing effort in making a person like you will make you more receptive to that person. You’ve initiated the contact, so subconsciously you’re rooting for rapport. But I disagree that this speed-dating study poses any real threat to evolutionary theory. And I offer an additional interpretation on why women on speed-dates are so much less selective when they are the approachers rather than the receivers: female rivalry (and inflated mate value).

People are attracted to those who attract others. I describe in BLONDES a few studies that found that women find a man more attractive when he’s in the company of a good-looking woman, or when he makes other women smile. This increases his so-called mate value (another tenet of sexual selection). When shown alone or paired with a woman who appears uninterested in him, the man receives lower attractiveness ratings.

I propose that women are more receptive when they are the “approachers” because they’re more actively competing with the other women in the room. By circulating around the room they could see other women approaching the men they recently met. The guys seemed more attractive because so many other women appeared interested in them. While men who approach a new women every four minutes may well appear desperate, men who are approached by other women appear desired.

But how well do the men do on a second date all alone with a woman — no other fawning females? That, I think, is the real test.

How women’s brains light up to macho men

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 29, 2008

campaign_marlboroDo Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? is a book about unconscious, under-the-radar biases when it comes to dating and mating. Of those blind biases, one of the most fascinating, at least to me, is the way women’s tastes in men shift in favor of masculinized faces and dominant behaviors when women are most likely to conceive.

A new brain imaging study led by Heather Rupp at the Kinsey Institute found neural evidence that brain activity is different during the high-fertility phase of the cycle. Near ovulation, gals who look at masculine Marlboro Man-type faces light up in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain associated with decision-making and the evaluation of risk and reward. The ACC is activated when you’re in conflict about something, and it also helps regulate blood pressure and heart rate. (Interestingly, artificial stimulation of the ACC has also been found to ease depression.)

Tough guy types might be riskier but more rewarding, which gets the ACC all hot and bothered. From an evolutionary perspective, a dominant macho man seems like a good mate because his high-testosterone traits suggest good genes and healthy development. Unconsciously, you might want to bear this man’s child. But not all macho types are exactly daddy types. Consciously, you might know better.

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