Tuesday, May 06, 2014

A Pretend-Review Of New Evolutionary Psychology Research

This is a pretend-review, and mostly about the write-up of the study,  because I couldn't read the study without paying for it, so all I have to go is the abstract and the one write-up I found.  Let's begin with the write-up:

Big eyes and full lips may turn male heads in Japan, but in Nepal, men aren't as interested in pretty, girly faces.
Those are the findings of a new study of men's preferences for female faces in 28 nations. The results reveal that guys are drawn to feminine looks – large eyes, pillow lips and a soft jaw — to a greater extent in countries that are the healthiest.
The reason for this difference isn't clear, but scientists suspect that evolution may drive these attractions, at least subconsciously. Men in harsh conditions may have a better chance of fathering children who survive if they mate with a woman who can hold on to resources, said study researcher Urszula Marcinkowska, a doctoral candidate at the University of Turku in Finland.
There ya go!  Except that big eyes and full lips are not defined exactly the same for different racial and ethnic groups, right?  The study is one of those look-at-photographs-and-decide-whom-you-want-to-mate-with ones, and the photographs are manipulated to get versions which the researchers (but perhaps not the subjects of the study?) deem to be more or less feminine or masculine.  I fervently hope that the photographs showed women of the racial or ethnic group the men belonged to, by the way, and that they didn't define "feminine" features on the basis of white faces only.  I'm going to assume that they did all that correctly.

So what were the findings?  We are told that men in Japan, Australia and the United States preferred "feminine" faces whereas the men in Nepal, Nigeria and Colombia didn't, or at least not to the same extent.  If "feminine" means big eyes and full lips, then that's what Japanese men like the best, right?


What are we going to do with these findings?  Here's where my pretend-review turns into nothing but questions, because we are told a) that women with more feminine faces are more fertile and b) that women with less feminine faces are more dominant in the society and have more access to resources:

Feminine looks are an evolutionary signal of fecundity, said Dan Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan. In healthy environments, men may subconsciously look for women who can bear lots of children.
In unhealthy environments, however, it might be more important that your potential mate survive to have any children at all. Social dominance — marked by relatively masculine features — might signal that a woman can do just that.
"It seems like there's a trade-off going on, where in the harsher environments, men are putting less preference on femininity," Kruger, who was not involved in the research, told Live Science.

Is there an actual study somewhere in the archives of evolutionary psychology which conclusively demonstrates that women with more feminine faces indeed are more fecund?  Likewise, is there a similarly well-done study in those archives which proves to us that women with more masculine features indeed are socially dominant?

I have no idea.  But Dan Kruger does seem to suggest that all this is the case.

The problem I have with these deep-dives from data to some fundamental explanation is not just the possibility that the data we need to prove relationships between social dominance and masculinity in women or between feminine features and greater female fecundity might not exist, but also that had the findings been reversed (so that more feminine faces would have been preferred in the poorer countries) the obvious explanation would have been that having lots of children is important when most of them are going to die young!  Along the lines the leading researcher speculated:

Earlier cross-cultural research found that "macho" men with stereotypically masculine faces are most preferred in less-developed nations. A strong jaw, squinty eyes and a dominant brow might signal that a guy has strong genes to pass to his child, researchers suggested in March 2013 in the journal Biology Letters. [5 Things Your Grin Reveals About You]
Marcinkowska and her colleagues were interested in turning the tables and examining male preferences for female faces. It was possible, she said, that harsh conditions might promote a preference for sexual dimorphism: Women would want masculine dudes, and men would want girly-girls.

Bolds are mine.

Who knows what studies of this kind mean?  Perhaps the researchers are correct, though I'd truly like to see some sort of controls for the cultural impact of Western ideals of female beauty.  Those ideals are by now fairly widely spread, though they may not be as common in Nepal, Nigeria or Colombia as they are in Japan, Australia or the United States.  That alternative cultural theory is worth keeping in mind when evaluating studies of this type.