Science of Love, Sex, and Babies

Are women more interested in men who are taken?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 25, 2009

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If you believe that all the good men are already taken, doesn’t it follow that you’d be more interested in a married (or otherwise engaged) guy? It’s been found to be true of other female animals — even fish and birds — they all prefer to “poach” males already chosen by other females. And I describe in BLONDES, studies have found that men who are in the company of an attractive woman (especially if they’re smiling at him) are more desirable to female judges.

But are women more likely to chase that guy if he’s already taken?

Psychologists at the University of Oklahoma wanted to know, so they recruited nearly 200 heterosexual men and women, some of whom were single and others who were in relationships. Told only that they were participating in a study on attraction, they were shown a photo of an opposite-sex stranger and answered questions about their attraction to that person: How likely would you show interest? How likely would you be to initiate conversation? How likely would you be to initiate a romantic relationship with this person? The psychologists also attached a relationship status to the person in the photo: either single or in a relationship.

Turns out the relationship status made a tremendous difference — but only when it comes to women choosing men, and not the other way around. As expected, women in relationships were less attracted to the stranger than single women were, regardless of the man’s relationship status. But here’s the interesting result: single women were more attracted to the man, and more likely to initiate a relationship with him, when told he was in a relationship than when told he was single. According to the psychologists, an attached man signals desirable resources and a willingness to commit to family life. He’s been tested, “pre-screened.” Simply put, commitment makes men more attractive.

As for men, a woman’s relationship status, at least in this study, had little effect on her attractiveness Single men were slightly (although not significantly) more attracted to the woman when told she was single. Attached men were slightly (although not significantly) more attracted to a woman when told she was attached.

Of course, bear in mind that this study is based on photos and is hypothetical. I suspect a man’s partner has some influence over whether a single woman dares move in on her territory. Is she beautiful? Is she the jealous type? And what happens after a divorce or break-up? Is a divorced man more attractive than one who never committed?

Are Americans more loving?

Posted in news by jenapincott on August 20, 2009

23-heidi-montag-spencer-pratt-american-flagI love the large cross-cultural surveys done by evolutionary psychologist David Schmitt and his colleagues at Bradley University. His latest adds evidence to the conviction that love is universal. Repeat: love is universal. To be universal, there must be a evolutionary reason — in other words, it must help our species to perpetuate somehow. As Schmitt explains:

Love can rivet our attention to a single mate, instigate the process of romantic flirtation, lead to systematic patterns of courtship behavior, and on occasion culminate in marriage. Love helps parents bond in healthy ways with newborn offspring, leads to informative adolescent infatuations before more serious romantic pursuits, and serves as a social glue for functional interchanges of support amongst family and friends.

But even if love is universal, there are some very interesting cultural distinctions that emerge in the study. Here are a few outcomes/insights derived from the answers of 15,234 participants from 48 nations:

Nationality affects emotional investment, an indicator of love. As measured by an Emotional Investment Scale, countries in which people scored highest are the United States, Slovenia, and Cyprus. Low-scoring nations were Tanzania, Hong Kong, and Japan.

Focusing on men alone, the countries with the most emotionally invested males are the United States, Brazil, Portugal, Argentina, Philippines, and Greece.

The countries with the most emotionally invested women are Slovenia, the United States, Malta, Cyprus, Australia, and Argentina.

In almost every country, women reported higher levels of emotional investment than did men. But there are a few notable exceptions: In Bolivia, men and women were identical in their average levels of Emotional Investment, and Malaysia, men scored higher than women (though not significantly so). The researchers suggest there is something restricting women’s reporting of their romantic investment in these two cultures.

Oddly, sex differences in emotional Investment were larger in nations with high gender equality (e.g., Switzerland, Australia, and Germany) and were smaller in nations with low gender equality (e.g., Turkey, South Korea, and Bolivia). The researchers claim: “What appears to be happening is that greater gender equality is associated with higher Emotional Investment among both men and women, but the accentuating effects of gender equality on Emotional Investment are greater among women, leading to larger levels of the naturally-occurring sex difference in Emotional Investment.”

Stress reduces emotional investment. In cultures with high stress (e.g., Bolivia, Indonesia, and Malaysia), levels of Emotional Investment were significantly lower, especially among women. High national levels of stress (Infant Mortality rates, Childhood Malnutrition rates, and the Pathogen Stress experienced in local environments) —were also linked to lower levels of Emotional Investment. This is predicted by evolutionary theory: harsh conditions lead people to develop insecure attachment levels that result in lower emotional investment.

Emotional investment doesn’t lead to higher fertility rates.To the contrary: countries with lower emotional investment levels among women were related to higher fertility levels.

Countries scoring high in emotional investment don’t have stronger marriages. To the contrary: national levels of emotional investment were positively correlated with divorce rate, unrestricted sociosexuality, short-term mating interests, and the tendency to engage in short-term mate poaching (i.e., stealing someone else’s partner for a short-term sexual affair)

Emotional investment is linked with commitment, but there are nationwide exceptions. Individuals from North America who reported more unrestricted sociosexuality reported lower levels of emotional investment. Similar results were observed within the world regions of South America, Eastern Europe, and Oceania. However, unrestricted sociosexual individuals from South/Southeast Asia and East Asia reported higher levels of emotional investment. Moreover, individuals from Africa who were interested in short-term mating reported significantly higher levels of emotional investment.

Emotional investment peaks when dating one person. It’s somewhat lower among those who are living with someone, married, or currently single (in that order); and is significantly lower than that among those who have never had sex.

Schmitt admits that people from different cultures may express emotional investment differently (have different response biases) and in ways hard to quantify on a standardized scale. Moreover, the questions were written in English and translated into the native languages of the participants. Could this possibly bias the U.S. results — or are Americans really more loving?

(My book, BLONDES, provides a more detailed description of some of Schmitt’s fascinating work with the International Sexuality Description Project.)

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.

Remind a man of love and his behavior changes in minutes

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 20, 2008

gallantprincessLeave it to the French to figure out how to make men gallant. In BLONDES I describe a touching French experiment in which a strapping young man, code-named Antoine, successfully picks up women on the street and at dance clubs. That study was led by French psychologist Nicolas Gurguen, and now Dr Gurguen and his colleagues have made another fun discovery.

In the current study, 253 male and female participants were approached on the street by researchers recruited by Gurguen. Approximately half were asked to think about a piece of music they love. The others were asked to remember “love episodes” — the most romantic moments in their lives: their first kiss, the blissful initial months of a love affair, the cherished times in their current relationships, etc. In psychological parlance, these latter participants were “primed” to think of love.

After being released, the participants continued walking, and were later stopped, seemingly randomly, by a female stranger asking for money to buy a bus ticket. The stranger, of course, was complicit in the study.

The results? Men who had been primed to think of love were three times more likely to help out a “damsel in distress” than men who were primed to think about their favorite music. Only 13 percent of the music-primed men gave money compared to 38 percent of the love-primed guys.

Interestingly, love priming didn’t have any effect on women’s generosity, which leads the researchers to speculate that cultural and evolutionary impulses trigger generosity in men alone. Why? For one, women value wealth and chivalry in men more than men do in women, so men in love may be unconsciously more generous than women in love — and with any woman, not just their beloved. (There’s also a neurological basis here. As detailed in BLONDES, lust and love activate and deactivate various regions of the brain.) Of course, it would be more interesting to see the study conducted with a variety of stangers in need — old ladies, young men, people of different races, and so on.

In any case, one lesson from the French study is that it behooves charities and advertisers to induce feelings of love in men. Open men’s hearts and their wallets follow suit — at least for a few minutes. Of course, Frenchwomen have known this all along.

POLL: Would you take a drug to stay madly in love?

Posted in news, Polls and Surveys by jenapincott on November 19, 2008

The truth about romantic outliers. At last, a preliminary report on the brain scans of couples who have been passionately in love for decades! I was particularly excited about this research because it promised to give us insights into why some people are able to preserve the intensity of their initial love, while for most couples passion fades or becomes something more like a comfortable companionship. The researchers — Bianca Acevedo, Lucy Brown, and Helen Fisher — found that these outliers, madly in love for more than twenty years, have something in common with people who have just recently fallen in love: an active ventral tegmental area (VTA), a “reward region” of the brain. The VTA releases dopamine, the hormone of pleasure and addiction (also activated by cocaine and chocolate).

While a super-stimulated VTA defines most early-stage love affairs, it’s exceptional in twenty-year marriages. But what separates these late-stage lovers from early-stage lovers is calm in the the brain regions associated with anxiety and compulsion. They get passion without obsession.

The results inspire further questions: Love is expressed in so many different ways; how to measure its intensity? What makes some people romantic outliers in the first place — good genes or the right partner, or both? What are the other characteristics of romantic outliers — are they Panglossian iby nature? When, exactly, does the VTA dim in most relationships, and why, and how to prevent it?

We know from other studies (detailed in BLONDES) that there are certain hormone receptors in the VTA that influence pair-bonds in romantic relationships, and genes for these receptors vary among individuals. Some people have receptor genes that have been associated with commitment problems. Other genes that have yet to be identified might do the opposite — facilitate long-term love and bonding.

To be madly in love with one person for decades! Too many couples are nostalgic about the first years of their relationship, wishing they still felt that old fervor and zeal. If you could take a gene-altering drug to help sustain intense passion for your partner — to maintain the flame that burned so brightly in the beginning — would you do it?

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