Hey, Good Looking! – The Science of Attraction

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

When I scroll through my Facebook feed these days, I see an increasing number of my friends from high school announcing their engagements, weddings, and new babies.  These are always accompanied by enough photos and selfies that I want to banish them from my wall, no matter how cute the couple or baby in question.  Aside from making me sound like a bitter old woman, this also makes me wonder frequently about the psychology of relationships.  It’s always a hot topic; we don’t need the overwhelming amount of love songs released every year to tell us that two people getting together is a human interest.  And scientists continue to study what can make or break a relationship.

For instance, is it really true that tall men get more dates?  Chapman University has released a study on how a person’s height and body mass (BMI) affects the number of sexual partners they have had, for both men and women. This study, an online survey of over 60,000 heterosexual adults, asked men (on average aged 40) and women (on average 34) to rate their height, weight, and how many sexual partners they had had since becoming sexually active.  It turns out that only very short men, those who had rated their height as 5’2” to 5’4”, had a significantly lower number of partners than other groups. They reported an average of about 9, compared to an average of 11 to 12 for all other male heights (from 5’5” up through 6’7” and taller).

Researchers also found that men who were classified as “overweight” according to standard BMI measures (25-29.99) had the highest number of sexual partners.  However, it is important to note that BMI isn’t the most accurate measure of what we might socially consider “overweight,” and this did not extend to individuals classified as obese. Since BMI is just a measure of one’s weight for one’s height, it doesn’t account for where and how fat is deposited on the body, so muscular people can have a high BMI but be fit.  Both men and women who were “underweight” had fewer partners, which the researchers theorized could be because being underweight might indicate unhealthiness.  In addition, they thought that very trim women might be very desirable, and so might be choosy about their partners and therefore have fewer.

Height and weight aren’t the only thing that we find attractive about potential mates, though. Even more important, I would say, is a person’s face.  Laura Germine of Harvard University and Jeremy Wilmer of Wellesley College set out to find out what makes different faces attractive.  Their results, as announced in a press release, are that humans only agree about half of the time on what’s attractive and that the rest of one’s preference has to do with one’s own, specific experiences.  Their subjects, hundreds of pairs of identical and same-sex fraternal twins, looked at and rated faces for attractiveness.  The results suggest that even though some traits, like how symmetrical a face is, might be pre-programmed as attractive in our genes, beyond that it might come down to the faces you see every day, or who your first romantic partner was.  This is different even in identical twins.

As long as there are humans, we will be studying love and relationships.  These are just two of many studies on the topic.  Hopefully in the future the samples will broaden to include more non-heterosexual participants so we can learn even more. And hopefully fewer couples I know will spam me with photos.  Hopefully.

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