Friday, October 01, 2010

And Your Daily Dose of Evolutionary Psychology Popularizations!

It's like vitamin pills, these doses I administer. Most of them will come out in the urine.

Today's study is about mating preferences, depending on whether the suggested relationship is a short-term or a long-term one:

Confer and her colleagues asked 192 men and 183 women, all heterosexual and in college, to consider entering into either a short- or long-term heterosexual relationship. The students were given a masked picture of a potential date, with boxes covering both the head and clothed body. They could choose to remove either the box covering the head or the box covering the body, but not both.

On the whole, 61 percent of men and 69 percent of women chose to see the individual's face. But among the men who were thinking short-term, the interest in viewing the woman's face decreased. Of the men considering short-term relationships, 52 percent chose to see the body. If men had been picking more or less randomly, with no particular rhyme or reason, statistics predict, 39.5 percent would have looked at the woman's body.

Similarly, if men had been choosing randomly, 55 percent of the men considering a long-term relationship were expected to look at the woman's face. In actuality, 68 did.

As for women, they preferred looking at the man's face regardless of relationship type, the researchers reported in the September issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior
I should probably tell you that I looked hard and long before finding the above quote. The alternative summaries of the study tend to accentuate the differences and to cover up the similarities between men and women in what they selected.

For example, Shakespeare's sister found this report on the study:

Ladies, hit the gym (and hold the makeup). Unless you're gunning for a long-term relationship, it's your hot bod — and not your winsome face — that guys are after.

New research from the University of Texas at Austin shows that men seeking a short-term lover are more interested in a woman's body than those desiring a long-term commitment, who zeroed in on a woman's face.


Only men, not women, showed a significant preference for body vs. face when seeking short- vs. long-term partners. Women were more interested in a man's face for both short- or long-term relationships.

That makes sense since men's fertility doesn't decline rapidly like women's. Assume, says Confer, that any man under the age of 80 can get a woman pregnant. If that's the case, there's no reason for a woman to be concerned with a man's fertility, and, hence, his body.

To reach their conclusions, the researchers showed 375 college students a representation of a person of the opposite sex, whose face and body were hidden. Half the participants were instructed to evaluate the images as a potential short-term mate; the rest were told to consider the image as a potential long-term mate by uncovering face or body — not both.

Just over half of the guys — 51% — who were told to pick the proverbial one-night stand chose to look at the woman's body. On the other hand, 75% of men who were directed to consider the woman as a long-term partner decided to check out her face.
Most of the other summaries I found resemble this latter one. They have erased the fact that the percentages of men and women choosing to look at the face were fairly similar overall, and they have also erased the fact that the percentage of men choosing to look at the face even in the short-term relationship is roughly one half of the total. They have also erased the fact that 31% of the female students chose to look at the body.


Isn't this fun? Let's move on a bit. That the study found a difference between men and women in terms of uncovering the head or the body of the potential partner doesn't actually prove the proposed evolutionary explanation, which is rather rudely stated here:

For instance, a woman's face can predict how many years of baby-making she has ahead of her. Is it wrinkled? Move on, fellas. Smooth and supple, of course, indicates youth. A 16-year-old girl, for example, is not at the peak of her fertility – that happens around age 24 — although she is at the peak of her reproductive potential. Seeking a long-term mate able to incubate lots of offspring? Choose her.

The female body, on the other hand, offers different fertility clues: Can she get pregnant right now? Is she pregnant already? And don't forget the waist-to-hip ratio, which research has suggested decreases at ovulation. Ergo, a curvy woman is highly desirable as a short-term mate since there's ample evidence she's a Fertile Myrtle in the making.

Men hone in on these fertile cues, which are more concentrated in a woman's body," says Confer. "We are talking about evolved psychological mechanisms to prioritize access to immediately fertile women. Men care more about can she get pregnant right now than her long-term reproductive potential."
There are other possible explanations, though only one of the popularizations I found even suggests them:

The study may provide new insight into people's romantic preferences today, but critics say the findings may tell us more about Western values than about human biology—which may often be the case with research that attempts to assign evolutionary motives to modern behavior. Indeed, the study looked only at 375 college students on one campus, the University of Texas at Austin. Massimo Pigliucci, an evolutionary biologist and philosopher at Lehman College of the City University of New York, says that further research across cultures and time would be needed to make a compelling case for evolution's role in the results. Moreover, Pigliucci suspects that some cultural forces are at work. "We live in a society where it's OK for a man to look at a body, but for a woman it's considered a little beneath her to be interested in physical appearance," he says. "I would be surprised if that were true in a culture where there are no TV ads and where people go around naked on a regular basis."
I'm getting increasingly fascinated by what the media chooses to grab for popularization purposes and how that popularization is treated. It's almost like a game of pin-a-tail-on-the-female-donkey.