Monday, May 30, 2011

Smiling Guys Finish Last

In sexual attraction, that is. I have been told this by at least eighteen Internet popularizations of a new study about emotional expressions and sexual attractiveness among heterosexual North American men and women. Here is the summary of the study:
This research examined the relative sexual attractiveness of individuals showing emotion expressions of happiness, pride, and shame compared with a neutral control. Across two studies using different images and samples ranging broadly in age (total N = 1041), a large gender difference emerged in the sexual attractiveness of happy displays: happiness was the most attractive female emotion expression, and one of the least attractive in males. In contrast, pride showed the reverse pattern; it was the most attractive male expression, and one of the least attractive in women. Shame displays were relatively attractive in both genders, and, among younger adult women viewers, male shame was more attractive than male happiness, and not substantially less than male pride. Effects were largely consistent with evolutionary and socio-cultural-norm accounts. Overall, this research provides the first evidence that distinct emotion expressions have divergent effects on sexual attractiveness, which vary by gender but largely hold across age.
The emotional expressions tested in the studies were shown by photographs, many showing the top half of a person, and were listed as a) a neutral expression, b) a smiling expression, c) a proud expression (head back and arms raised in the air or head back and arms akimbo) and d) an expression of shame (head bent forwards). In some cases photographs were rated by a panel of psychology students as expressing happiness, pride, shame or neutrality, without the arm positions and so on.

Leaving aside my thoughts of how we are creating a brand new science about people looking at photographs and how this relates to our overall lives, I should still notice that we cannot be certain if the expression of "shame" indeed looks like "shame" to the viewers or if the expression of "pride" registers just that in the viewers.

But that's not what I want to write about. It is how the studies are interpreted. An example (thanks to Jennifer Armstrong for this link):
Women find happy guys significantly less sexually attractive than swaggering or brooding men, according to a new University of British Columbia study that helps to explain the enduring allure of "bad boys" and other iconic gender types. The study – which may cause men to smile less on dates, and inspire online daters to update their profile photos – finds dramatic gender differences in how men and women rank the sexual attractiveness of non-verbal expressions of commonly displayed emotions, including happiness, pride, and shame.


Tracy and Beall say that other studies suggest that what people find attractive has been shaped by centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. For example, evolutionary theories suggest females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring.
According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. "Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women," he says.
The researchers say more work is needed to understand the differing responses to happiness, but suggest the phenomenon can also be understood according to principles of evolutionary psychology, as well as socio-cultural gender norms.
For example, past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the "submissive and vulnerable" woman, but inconsistent with "strong, silent" man, the researchers say. "Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression," Beall adds.

Note, first how the "expression of shame" became brooding! That's not what the study was calling it. The popularization changed something rather important, I think, and the whole "allure of the bad boys" is similarly tagged on. There was nothing in the studies (at least based on the draft I got hold of) which attributed any of the emotions to being a "bad boy."

That is an example of the slippage which keeps happening in these popularizations.

Now to something which is not slippage. The above quote argues that the expression of pride was preferred in men by women because it is linked to status and the ability to provide for the offspring. But then how do the researchers explain why women, especially younger women, rank expressions of shame in men fairly high, too?

Ah. The answer is to tack on a different theory altogether!
Displays of shame, Tracy says, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviors, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame's surprising attractiveness to both genders, she says, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust.
Let's remind ourselves that women pick the picture depicting pride most often because, supposedly, that picture is all about male dominance and ability to provide for any offspring. But then the women pick a picture of depicting male shame next often, even before the neutral picture and certainly the smiling picture! Male shame is certainly not about dominance. As the manuscript I downloaded* tells us in its introduction:
In contrast to these generally positive emotions, shames' low status message may reduce attractiveness, at least in male expressers. Women who display shame might benefit from the gender-norm consistent message of low status and submissiveness, but, when sent by men, this message would be both gender-norm inconsistent and indicative of low mate value.
The results didn't support this part of the theory. Thus, a different explanation was adopted to explain this:
Women picked the high-status guys as most attractive (high-status being arms up in the air or akimbo on the hips)
Women picked the really low-status guys as the next attractive (the ones with drooping heads)

I understand that different theories can be applied to explain parts of the same set of data. But in this particular case the explanation for the two highest ranked male expressions of emotions by women contradict the underlying overall assumption that heterosexual women pick sexual partners on the basis of the men's high societal status. Despite this, the favored explanation for why the smiling expressions were ranked lowest by men returns to the social status scheme: Smiling is a sign of submissiveness and thus not something that makes men attractive to women, though of course it makes women attractive to men as men like submissive and low-status women!

It's time to point out that the draft I read does pay some attention to possible alternative societal norm explanations** by discussing how women are expected to be low-status and submissive and men high-status and dominant.

Hmm. Well, I guess that's one very concise way to add alternative explanations to the evo-psycho ones.

It also tries to avert some of the worst types of popularizations, such as the idea that men shouldn't smile at women at all or be nice. But this is not really possible, because all the popularizations in this particular class are going to be about those very ideas!

Finally, the manuscript ends with this:
In sum, although future studies are needed to test explanatory accounts for these findings, and examine how widely these results generalize (e.g., whether they hold in other cultures)...
You might have to kiss your backside goodbye on the possibility of doing untainted work on this question in the future if a sufficient number of those Internet popularizations are read by future test subjects. Just by reporting on how happy guys finish last and how bad boys are still in the fashion, the popularizations might change what will be reported and which theories people believe to be the correct ones. So it goes.
*It is possible that the final article differs from the manuscript which is labeled "in press."
**Though not enough when it comes to the idea that women prefer men with resources for evolutionary reasons. The obvious reasons that a) resources have mostly been in male hands throughout the known history, and b) that the routine way for women to acquire any resources at all has been through marriage or other sexual encounters with men are ignored in the draft copy.
As a final post-script, the researchers simply removed the responses by gays and lesbians because the study subjects were shown different-sex individuals. But this seems a real waste. The responses by gays and lesbians could have told us more about the societally learned ideas of what is supposed to look sexy or not, even when the respondent had no direct sexual interest in the pictures.