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Faces more important than bodies in mating game

25 September 2009, by Tom Marshall

Scientists have discovered that if you're trying to attract a partner, an athletic body helps but a good-looking face is more important.

Facial proportions

The science of attraction is complex; researchers have highlighted numerous cues that may affect how attractive someone is. Suggestions have ranged from facial symmetry to the ratio between body volume and height.

Many previous experiments tended to focus on just one of these factors at a time. But a study published in Evolution and Human Behavior is among the first to shed light on the relative importance of two traits.

The scientists set out to look at the relative importance of faces and bodies in making someone attractive. They showed 127 male and 133 female volunteers ten images of members of the opposite sex. The experiment took place over the internet, letting the scientists test more subjects than would have been possible if they had tried to get everyone into the lab.

The volunteers were asked to rate each image's attractiveness, both for a long-term relationship such as marriage and for a short-term fling. First they rated separate images of body and face, before finally seeing and rating pictures showing both.

In both sexes, the scientists found that faces were more important than bodies in determining who the volunteers found attractive overall – scores for facial beauty were a better predictor of the model's overall rating than scores for bodily attractiveness.

They write that this implies 'facial attractiveness is more important than bodily attractiveness in human mate choice decisions.'

Intriguingly, though, men seem to look for slightly different things in short-term and long-term partners. Whether they were being asked to evaluate partners for long-term or short-term relationships made no difference to female volunteers. In both cases, faces were more important than bodies.

But for men, an attractive body becomes relatively more important when choosing potential short-term partners than for long-term relationships – although faces were still the bigger factor in their decisions.

This may be because women evaluate the balance between face and body differently from men, or because the way the choice was posed didn't affect their assessments in the same way as it did those of the male volunteers.

'I certainly think that women's preferences are probably different depending on whether they are looking for a short-term or a long-term relationship,' comments Dr Tom Currie, a post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive and Behavioral Science at the University of Tokyo and co-author of the paper.

'However, because we are only looking at overall facial attractiveness and overall body attractiveness we may not be picking these differences up.'

In evolutionary terms, the challenge we all face is to find a partner who has good genes and is in prime condition to conceive and raise healthy children. Many of the things that attract us to a potential partner may be signs that they would be such a high-quality mate.

For example, a man's body may give clues to his athleticism and strength - qualities that would have been important for his ability to provide for his children in the environments in which humans evolved.

The various cues that scientists have suggested as forming the basis for attraction may act as back-up signals, all giving information about the same basic qualities.

But according to the paper's authors, their results support a different hypothesis - that different traits give potential partners information about different aspects of their fitness as a mate. A woman's face and body, that is, may be telling potential partners different things about her.

A symmetrical face may provide information about her genetic quality. Bodily characteristics, for example volume-to-height ratio, may provide different information, perhaps to do with health, sexual maturity and not being pregnant at the moment. It's possible these factors become more important for males considering a short-term relationship.

Why should faces be so vital to romantic success? One idea, the authors note, is that they have a lot of anatomical features packed into a relatively small area. This may mean it's easier to spot genetic or developmental abnormalities that may make someone less attractive as a prospective mate by paying close attention to the face than by looking at other parts of the body.

'Because the face contains a number of features in close proximity, deviations from symmetry may be more readily assessed in the face rather than the body,' Currie explains.

More generally, in most human societies facial expressions are vital to all kinds of social interactions. It could be that our social development has predisposed us to focus on faces, and that our sexual choices now take account of this focus.

In real-life mate choices, other factors that are harder to measure in the lab may also play a role. For example the way people move may give clues to their physical coordination, fitness, weight or social position. Currie notes that other researchers have been using motion-capture technology to deal with this question, and that such research may help us understand the complexity of how people go about choosing mates.


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Your comments

I doubt seriously that any modern woman is pondering the genetic makeup of a man when she looks him over before going on a date. Social factors weigh far more highly. Like whether he's going to behave himself, bite her on the neck...

Razna, Greenville
Monday, 28 September 2009 - 10:46

I agree that face wins over body if a man is forced to choose one over the other. But interestingly, at least in my experience, a woman may not have been initially attractive, considering her face (or body) alone, but as I've come to know her, I can't "see" what I saw early on as "unattractive". Thus I would conclude that faces and bodies serve the purpose of "marketing" attractiveness at the outset, but the substance of a person (both positive and negative)takes over quickly as one begins to learn who a person really is.

Bill, Atlanta
Monday, 28 September 2009 - 13:43

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