What Women Find Sexy, Part Two

Why do some women find macho men so irresistible?

Posted Mar 31, 2013

Physical attraction is a mystery that scientists, philosophers, artists, and others have tried to solve. Now, a new study expands our understanding of how environmental factors can influence women's preferences for certain types of men.

Previous research has revealed that under certain environmental conditions women favor macho men, simply because they're healthier. From an evolutionary perspective, good health has great currency in the mating market because it boosts the probability of reproductive success. Indeed, studies show that masculine features are associated with various healthful characteristics, including upper body strength, less oxidative stress, and fewer episodes of illness. In addition, higher testosterone levels are linked to a powerful immune system response.

But such good looks are not without their drawbacks. Despite their health and strength, macho men lack the criteria that women desire in a long-term romantic relationship. By comparison to their less masculine peers, macho men are more likely to have short-term flings, are more likely to cheat, and are less likely to share resources equitably. Similarly, men who possess higher levels of testosterone also invest less time and resources in their partners and children. Masculine men are also perceived to be bad fathers, untrustworthy, and emotionally cold.

These findings demonstrate that women face a trade-off when it comes to macho guys. On the one hand, such a man can offer his potential children genetic gifts that confer good health. On the other hand, he is typically less willing to invest resources in his family. Evolutionarily speaking, then, women have to weigh the pros and cons of mating with these attractive men. But given their unflattering qualities, why do women continue to find them so sexy?

A growing body of research shows that environmental factors can influence women's preferences for masculinity. For example, in a previous post I reported on a study which found that women who were more sensitive to pathogen disgust (i.e., they showed greater concerns about health and disease) favor men with macho facial features, deeper voices, and muscular bodies. Along similar lines, a new study led by Anthony Little of the University of Stirling investigated how the factors of competition between males, violence, and wealth influence women's preferences for masculine men.

Prior research has uncovered a relationship between external factors and women's preferences in men. In particular, studies suggest that an environment lacking in resources would encourage women to favor men who are less masculine, but more invested in his family. Conversely, women living in a context with ample resources may be less concerned about investment, and thus prefer genetically gifted sorts. Extending this line of thought, the authors argue that in environments where men control resources, it is likely that they would be distributed inequitably. These conditions, in turn, may then encourage women to favor guys who can outcompete others for control of resources. Additionally, in groups where male status — and even survival — hinges on successful mano-a-mano competition, women would again be drawn to the best competitors. In other words, they would attracted to macho men who possess physical prowess.

Across a series of three experiments, Little and his team tested whether exposure to visual cues of male competition, violence, and wealth would influence women's preferences for men with macho facial features. The main experiment was broken down into three steps.

First, female participants were shown images of men and women that had been manipulated to be masculine or feminine versions of the same face, and were asked to rate each face for their attractiveness.

The women were then shown a slideshow. In the first experiment, they were randomly selected to observe images depicting either high-competition or low-competition sporting competitions. The high-competition series presented direct competition, including boxing, wrestling, judo, and cage fighting. The low-competition series presented indirect competition, including golf, snooker, gymnastics, and pole vaulting. The women were then instructed to rate the image for how “directly physically competitive” they believed the sport to be.

In the second experiment, the women were randomly selected to view a slideshow that depicted either violent or peaceful scenes. The violent series was comprised of images of weapons, including hand guns, shotguns, knives, and knuckledusters. The peaceful landscapes series presented images of trees, lakes, and flowers. The participants were then instructed to rate the image for how “violent” they thought it was.

In the third experiment, the women were randomly selected to watch a slideshow that depicted either a wealthy or less wealthy environment. The wealthy environment was represented by images of expensive food, expensive cars, expensive watches, and male torsos in suits. The less wealthy environment was captured by images of cheap food, cheap cars, cheap watches, and male torsos in t-shirts. The participants were then instructed to rate the image for how “expensive” they thought the item was.

After viewing the slideshow, the women were then presented with the same sequence of masculine and feminine faces that they had observed before the slideshow, and were asked once again to rate the them for their level of attractiveness.

What did the researchers find? Women preferred more masculine looking men after they were shown images of direct male-male competition, violence, or high wealth by comparison to images depicting the opposite. There were no significant findings for the images of female faces.

The authors note that their findings are in keeping with burgeoning research showing that women's preferences for masculine men can be influenced by environmental conditions. In this case, just brief exposure to images was enough to shift which types of men women found more sexy. Science still has a ways to go in untangling the nature of physical attraction, but this research offers provocative clues as to how it works.

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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.

My other PT posts can be found here.

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