Supernatural Stimuli: Why Women Love Vampires
What’s so attractive about the bloody night life?
Posted Oct 29, 2016
(this post was coauthored by Jaimie Arona Krems and David Lundberg Kenrick)
Halloween is the season of scary monsters, and a vampire is a classic monster. We are repulsed by monsters, right? But wait. From tween girls flocking to see “Twilight” to more mature women furtively reading Anne Rice on their Kindles, women are actually attracted to vampires. What is it about the variously tortured and torturous souls of Edward Cullen (“Twilight”), Eric Northman (“True Blood”) Lestat and Louis (“Interview with the Vampire”), or Niklaus Mikaelson (“The Originals”) that draws women in?
The victims in vampire stories are often described as under some sort of unnatural magical spell. But, this doesn’t explain why real life women find vampires so supernaturally sexy.
Maybe there’s an explanation grounded in something more natural – in the very structure of our evolved brains. The concept of a “supernormal stimulus” is a simple idea from the study of evolution and behavior that might shed some deadly sunlight on this dark question.
The Nobel Prize winning ethologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen demonstrated that an animal’s instinctive drives could often be triggered by stimuli that were unnatural amplifications of the normal cues for which their sensory systems were designed to light up. Male stickleback fish will viciously attack blocks of wood that are painted with red undersides (a feature normally only found on other males in the stickleback’s natural environment). Birds who normally sit on their own small light blue eggs will preferentially sit on much larger eggs that are painted a brighter shade of blue). This tendency is exploited by cuckoos, which pursue their strategy of cuckoldry by laying their own extra large eggs in the nests of innocent little warblers, who dutifully raise the little cuckoos to the detriment of their own reproductive success.
Research in evolutionary psychology has outlined what it is that women naturally find desirable in prospective male mates. Across cultures, women tend to prefer men with resources (e.g., money)— and men able to protect them and their potential offspring (e.g., Buss, 1989, Li, et al., 2002). As it turns out, vampires often represent exaggerated versions of the features women find attractive in real life.
Let’s consider the key features that make a vampire a vampire.
Research on mate preferences shows that women are attracted to men about their own age, but they often marry older (Kenrick & Keefe, 1992; Rudder, 2014). Being old and wrinkled is not itself attractive, but it may be a cue to already-accumulated wealth. Vampires have the advantage of being able to live forever. So, they have thousands of years to acquire resources. From Dracula’s massive Transylvanian castle to the Cullens’ sprawling modern mansion, most vampires don’t live like paupers. And their immortality allows them to maintain a youthful appearance, so the women who fall for them don’t have to choose between a guy with resources and a guy with healthy youthful features such as symmetrical faces, masculine physiques, and overall vigor (cues of good genes that can be passed on to their offspring, Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999).
Beyond material wealth, women are also attracted to features that would help their mate protect them and their future offspring. With their supernatural strength, accrued wisdom, ability to withstand any physical attack other than a direct blow to the heart, vampires easily overtake most mere mortals. Even their large canine teeth may help – these are reliable cues of male dominance in the mammalian world (e.g., Plavcan, 2012).
3. They like the night life.
Vampire’s active hours all occur after dark, and they spend many of those twilight hours seducing women (a perk of unlimited resources). Unlike bumbling zombies and werewolves, vampires rarely chase their victims down the street. Instead, vampires are quite charming, polite but direct with women, and they are often sought by multiple other females, demonstrating high mate value through the principal of social proof.
To summarize: Vampires not only possess the cues that play into women’s evolved preferences, but they have them in supernormal proportions. Vampires don’t just have some money, they have bottomless wealth; not only are they strong and wily, they are super-strong and often super-wily (or at least super-experienced); not only do they have large canines, they have actual fangs; not only are they older, they’re practically ancient; and they still have nice abs! In various ways, then, male vampires fit the definition of supernormal stimuli.
Jaimie Krems is a doctoral student in evolutionary social psychology at Arizona State University, and author of several recent scientific papers on women’s intrasexual competition (e.g., Krems, et al., 2015, 2016).
Douglas Kenrick is author of Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life: A psychologist investigates how evolution, cognition, and complexity, are revolutionizing our view of human nature
The mind as a coloring book: Discusses a society in which all the young women are married to ancient men.
Buss, D. M. (1989). Sex differences in human mate preferences: Evolutionary hypotheses tested in 37 cultures. Behavioral and brain sciences, 12(01), 1-14.
Kenrick, D.T., & Keefe, R.C. (1992). Age preferences in mates reflect sex differences in mating strategies. Behavioral & Brain Sciences, 15, 75- 91.
Krems, J., Neel, R., Neuberg, S.L., Puts, D.A., & Kenrick, D.T. (2016). Women selectively guard their (desirable) mates from ovulating women. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Jan 14, 2016, Online First. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000044.
Krems, J.A., Neuberg, S.L., Filip-Crawford, G., & Kenrick, D.T. (2015). Is she angry? (Sexually desirable) Women ‘see’ anger on female faces. Psychological Science, 26, (11) 1655-1663.
Li, N.P., Bailey, J. M., Kenrick, D.T., & Linsenmeier, J.A. (2002). The necessities and luxuries of mate preferences: Testing the trade-offs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82,947-955
Plavcan, J. M. (2012). Sexual size dimorphism, canine dimorphism, and male-male competition in primates. Human Nature, 23(1), 45-67.
Rudder, C. (2014). Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One's Looking). New York: Random House.
Thornhill, R., & Gangestad, S. W. (1999). Facial attractiveness. Trends in cognitive sciences, 3(12), 452-460.
Tinbergen, Niko (1951). The Study of Instinct. Oxford, Clarendon Press.
Cover image: Clipart Pal: Public Domain Clipart.
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