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Animal Masks Probably Don’t Make for Better Dating Decisions

Hiding things from our evolved mating psychology will hinder more than help.

Key points

  • TV shows that try to help mate choice by hiding traits are based on false premises.
  • Mate choice is guided by a mating psychology evolved over an extended period of human history.
  • This psychology relies on being able to make a holistic judgement of prospective partners. Hiding things will likely hinder this process.

When a reporter from The Guardian got in touch with me to ask for my views on Netflix’s new show Sexy Beast, I thought I might be asked to play spirit-animal astrology. The new dating show, which conceals people's faces using elaborate masks, lends itself to obvious overinterpretation. ‘Should I pick the lion, a symbol of strength, or the panda, a symbol for infertility?’

Fortunately, they wanted to know more about the idea of concealing something in the early stages of courtship. Can people make better mate choices by shelving their initial shallow judgments based on looks, allowing someone’s personality to shine through? Today on Darwin Does Dating, animal masks probably don’t make for better dating decisions.

An old format revisited

Colourful masks from the animal kingdom (and beyond; I see you, Tin Man) aside, the format of Sexy Beast seems familiar. From Blind Date to Naked Attraction, TV shows have tried to remove pieces of the mate choice puzzle for decades. In Blind Date, “choosers” get but a glimpse of personality and are blind to looks. In Naked Attraction, the contestant makes a dating choice based on their suitors' slowly revealed naked bodies, only hearing their voice toward the very end of the process.

The underlying principle is the same: take something away in the hopes that people will make better date choices. Sexy Beast focuses on the physical attractiveness angle. Faces hidden, potential suitors will have to focus on the “other stuff” that people don’t see until they spend a bit of time together. A benevolent aim and an appealing solution but one I think won’t work.

It’s not just about the face

First, let’s acknowledge what this show gets right. People do make snap judgments based on physical attractiveness. One explanation for this puts the role of society front and centre. Our shallow culture encourages people to prioritize and over-emphasize physical attractiveness. I offer a more practical explanation—no matter how important we consider physical attractiveness to be, it is always the top answer to the question “What can I evaluate first?” (If you don’t agree, try evaluating someone’s kindness from 30 feet away in a few seconds.)

We might be forgiven, then, for thinking that covering up the face, perhaps with fancy and furry prosthetics, might dethrone physical attractiveness. Here we encounter our first problem: Physical attractiveness is much more than the face.

Voice pitch, relative height, waist/shoulder to hip ratio, muscularity, and even gait are just some of the many measures of physical attractiveness that can be assessed without the need to observe the face. (Those are the less controversial ones!) These traits also correlate—attractiveness ratings for one correlate with ratings for another (Hughes, Dispenza, & Gallup, 2004). Physical attractiveness is a full package of related traits and so very hard to conceal. Ironically, researchers, including some from my own institution, have demonstrated that aspects of personality, including extraversion (Jones, Tree, & Ward, 2019) and the desire for uncommitted sex (Boothroyd et al., 2008), can be somewhat inferred from the face. Ironically, hiding the face might remove cues to those things this format is trying to promote.

Establishing priors

How would we even know if removing access to a given trait would help mate choice? Very few couples from these types of shows continue dating and form enduring relationships. There are always one or two examples covered well in the media. But ask a first-year psychology undergraduate and they’ll point out a lack of control group. To truly tell, we would need to compare a large number of “concealed” dates against those where mate choice is allowed to run its natural course. I doubt TV producers will be in a rush to do this any time soon—it might be a death sentence for the format.

Evolved mate choice mechanisms

Let’s suppose the producers pull one out of the bag. A final episode airs that presents just the data we’re looking for. Will removing access to facial cues have helped? I’m not confident. Our mate choice psychology is highly complex, its recipe forged by the evolutionary successes of thousands of generations of our human ancestors and the hominids before them.

Our mate choice mechanisms evolved to draw us towards people who are likely to be good partners and parents with whom we can produce high-quality offspring. So deeply ingrained are these preferences that you can find remarkable cross-cultural consistency. As much research shows, despite cultural idiosyncrasies, people from Eastern and Western countries tend to prioritize like kindness, physical attractiveness, and social status in remarkably similar ways (Thomas et al., 2020).

While physical attractiveness might act as a first “hurdle” in abnormal cases (such as Tinder), in most dating scenarios it doesn’t restrict people from picking up on a lot of information about someone quite quickly (including personality, which can even be judged through email; Gill, Oberlander, & Austin, 2006).

Once this happens, they are able to assess how people’s combination of traits weighs up against their ideals. And research shows that it is how well the combination of traits someone has compares to someone’s ideal that predicts relationship flourishing—including the likelihood of divorce several years on (Eastwick & Neff, 2012).

Though we possess a mating psychology honed over millennia, it is tested by some unusual aspects of modern Western societies. We have a mass of options, a lack of involvement from family members, and easy anonymity in the mating market.

Masking people might give the illusion of “giving other traits a chance” but in reality, it simply handicaps an already pressured mate selection system by preventing it from making an inevitable well-rounded comparison that takes into account personality, values, physical attractiveness, and a host of other things. This begs the question: Why would we expect a system to work more effectively when limits are imposed upon it? My answer is that we shouldn’t.

What if you’re wrong?

Much like the cologne “Sex Panther” in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, when I ask my brain to make accurate predictions, ‘60% of the time, it works every time.’ I could be wrong. If that’s the case, I’ll make an attempt to save a bit of face by making a prediction—facial covering will be more beneficial for men than women.

Why? Because women tend to rate the physical attractiveness of male photographs more harshly than the other way around. Given a 1 to 10 scale and hundreds of pictures to rate, men will tend to produce something that’s roughly akin to a normal distribution—most women are rated as a 5 or 6 and far fewer are rated as a 1 or 10. Women, on the other hand, tend to be incredibly discerning. The average is closer to 3 and rarely is any man rated as 9 or 10.

Recently in my lab, we gave participants access to a near-limitless number of pictures, presented one by one. The goal—and only an initial part of the study—was to identify 40 people that they would consider attractive enough to go on a date with. We allocated participants about 20 minutes of the hour-long protocol to do this. Typically, men were done within 15 minutes. But a significant proportion of the women were unable to finish the task—they were so picky that they either ran out of photographs or took so long that the study had to be abandoned.

Take what you will from this artificial setup. But if there is even a grain of truth to the idea that women are pickier about looks than men, then making it harder to assess physical attractiveness from the outset might just give some men the chance to shine brightly before their underwhelming face is revealed.

And shine they would need to—notable for their mere existence are the small number of unconventionally attractive men who women find irresistible. These tend to have something grand about them including Hollywood credits, platinum records, and American Express black cards. They possess super-normal levels of a desirable trait “too good to be true” and easily make up for other less than stellar attributes. Such men are unlikely to be cast in Sexy Beast, which seems to have gone out of its way to find contestants who are young and conventionally attractive—perhaps making the use of the intricate prosthetics redundant.

The bottom line

The format of these types of dating shows is entertaining, and perhaps that’s the real goal. If the participants are willing and don’t take things too seriously, then no harm done. But if the aim is to help people form enduring happy relationships, then the arrow will fly far from the target without a thorough understanding of our evolved mating psychology and a more scientific approach.

References

Boothroyd, L. G., Jones, B. C., Burt, D. M., DeBruine, L. M., & Perrett, D. I. (2008). Facial correlates of sociosexuality. Evolution and Human Behavior, 29(3), 211-218.

Eastwick, P. W., & Neff, L. A. (2012). Do ideal partner preferences predict divorce? A tale of two metrics. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3(6), 667-674.

Gill, A. J., Oberlander, J., & Austin, E. (2006). Rating e-mail personality at zero acquaintance. Personality and Individual Differences, 40(3), 497-507.

Hughes, S. M., Dispenza, F., & Gallup Jr, G. G. (2004). Ratings of voice attractiveness predict sexual behavior and body configuration. Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(5), 295-304.

Jones, A. L., Tree, J. J., & Ward, R. (2019). Personality in faces: Implicit associations between appearance and personality. European Journal of Social Psychology, 49(3), 658-669.

Thomas, A. G., Jonason, P. K., Blackburn, J. D., Kennair, L. E. O., Lowe, R., Malouff, J., ... & Li, N. P. (2020). Mate preference priorities in the East and West: A cross‐cultural test of the mate preference priority model. Journal of personality, 88(3), 606-620.

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