Sexual attraction is a mystery. Scientists and artists alike have long tried to crack the magic formula, and are steadily piecing together a picture of how it works. Now, a study has revealed a not so obvious factor that explains why some women find themselves irresistibly drawn to masculine men. Quite simply, it's because they're healthier. And from an evolutionary perspective, good health has great value in the mating market because it increases the probability of reproductive success.
Previous research shows that masculine features are associated with markers of healthfulness, including upper body strength, less oxidative stress, and fewer bouts of illness. In addition, elevated testosterone levels are linked to a powerful immune system response. In keeping with these positive associations between men's masculinity and health, several studies have found that macho facial features make these men appear healthier and brawnier.
But such good looks come at a price. Although healthy and strong, these men lack the qualities that women desire in a long-term romantic partnership. Research shows that by comparison to their less masculine peers, macho men have a penchant for short-term, uncommited liaisons, are more prone to cheating, and are less likely to share resources equitably. Men who possess higher levels of testosterone also invest less time and resources in their partners and children. What's more, masculine men are seen as bad fathers, untrustworthy, and emotionally cold.
These findings reveal that women face a trade-off when it comes to masculine men. On the one hand, such a man can offer his future children a hardy constitution that will confer good health. On the other hand, he tends to be less willing to invest resources in his family. As part of our evolutionary make up, then, women have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of mating with macho guys. But given their uncharitable qualities, why do they continue to be so spellbinding?
One clue can be found in pathogen disgust, which refers to sensitivities about health and disease. Previous research has found that in disease ridden regions, women prefer men with masculine faces over men with relatively more feminine ones. Along similar lines, women who perceive their own health to be poor also demonstrate stronger preferences for masculine, deep voices.
Now, a series of three studies led by Benedict Jones of the University of Glasgow has lent further insight into the matter. He and his team wanted to explore the ways pathogen disgust might influence women's preferences for more masculine voices, faces, and bodies. Women completed a questionnaire that assessed their sensitivities to three types of disgust: moral disgust (e.g., deceiving a friend), sexual disgust (e.g., hearing two strangers having sex), and pathogen disgust (e.g., stepping on dog poop). It is comprised of 21 items along a seven-point scale (0 = not at all disgusting, 6 = extremely disgusting).
In the first study, the researchers tested whether disgust was linked to women's preferences for men with deep, manly voices. Participants listened to 6 pairs of male voices that were manipulated to be masculine (lower-pitched) or relatively feminine (higher-pitched) versions of the same recording. The women were then asked to identify which voice they found more attractive.
In the second study, the investigators tested if disgust was associated with women's preferences for men with macho facial features and muscular bodies. Participants were presented pairs of images of men that were rated as “high masculinity” and “low masculinity.” Participants expresed their preferences by selecting one of four options: “much more attractive,” “more attractive,” “somewhat more attractive,” and “slightly more attractive.”
In the third study, the team explored the relationships between disgust and the masculinity of the women's actual and ideal romantic partners. Unattached women were asked to rate the masculinity of their ideal partner, and attached women were asked to rate the masculinity of both their actual and ideal partner on a scale of one (much less masculine than average) to seven (much more masculine than average).
What did the researchers find? Women with concerns about health and disease – that is, those who were more sensitive to pathogen disgust – preferred men with macho facial features, deeper voices, and muscular bodies. Pathogen disgust also correlated with women's increased preferences for masculine men, whether they be ideal or actual partners. Moral and sexual disgust were not found to be significant predictors of women's preferences for macho features or their choices in a romantic partner.
Science still has a ways to go in determining the alchemy of physical attraction, but this research establishes some fascinating clues as to what underlies the phenomenon.
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More about the Blogger: Vinita Mehta, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist in Washington, DC, and an expert on relationships, managing anxiety and stress, and building health and resilience. Dr. Mehta provides speaking engagements for your organization and psychotherapy for adults. She has successfully worked with individuals struggling with depression, anxiety, and life transitions, with a growing specialization in recovery from trauma and abuse.
Dr. Mehta is also the author of the forthcoming book Paleo Love: How Our Stone Age Bodies Complicate Modern Relationships.
You can find Dr. Mehta's other Psychology Today posts here.
Jones, Benedict C., et al. "Pathogen disgust predicts women’s preferences for masculinity in men’s voices, faces, and bodies." Behavioral Ecology 24.2 (2013): 373-379.