Attractive results

by The Listener / 23 June, 2013
Good looks can make the difference between life and death.
Every year I ask students to vote for whatever subject they want me to teach in their last lecture. In previous years, I’ve done improvised lectures on lying and deception, cults, happiness or whatever else is the flavour of the day.

This year, it was actor Ryan Gosling. Or at least that’s what one person asked for: “Ryan Gosling … shirtless … or not. [Please teach about] Relationships so you can give me advice on how to win Ryan Gosling over.” As it happens, if you Google “psychology” and “Ryan Gosling”, a surprising amount of material comes up, suggesting Ryan’s wife-to-be isn’t alone in her obsession. Indeed, one good blog post from Psych Your Mind addresses the question of why people are obsessed with RG.

One study has suggested less-attractive people are more likely to be declared dead on arrival at hospital. Photo/Thinkstock

While preparing my final lecture (relationships, with a bit of Ryan thrown in), I learnt a fair bit. Long before I’d picked up a scientific journal, life had already taught me that women tend to prefer attractive men to, well, bug-ugly ones.

Good looks can help when it comes to the ladies, but they can also make the difference between life and death. Maybe your grandma told you to make sure you wear clean underwear every day just in case you get run over and other people see your undies? Research hasn’t looked at undies-related mortality, but – and this caused a furore when first reported – it transpires one study has suggested less-attractive people are more likely to be declared dead on arrival at hospital (paramedics work harder to keep good-lookers alive). And to think there was a fuss over a recruitment company soliciting attractive people as clients.

Similarly, I’ve already heard of the evolutionary theories that suggest manly men are popular because they bring the promise of being able to provide for, and protect, their offspring.

Not everyone picks Gerard Butler over Zac Efron, though. Why? There’s no accounting for taste, but there are meaningful national differences in the relative preference for manly, as opposed to girly, men (sorry, Zac).

Lisa DeBruine and colleagues in the UK asked participants in 30 countries to indicate their preference
for photographs of men who varied from very masculine to very feminine in proportions.

They found that countries with a shorter life span and greater mortality and communicable-disease rates tended to prefer Butler over Efron. The reverse was true in many Western countries with better standards of living. DeBruine and friends suggest this is because the more threatening the context, the greater the need for a rugged man who can fend off threats to life and limb.

But it gets worse – for me, at least (I’m not a manly man, unless I wear a Vin Diesel mask and you squint). As well as cultural variation in preference for classical masculinity, women at different times prefer masculine more than at other times. In fact, research suggests women looking for a long-term partner are happier to eschew ruggedness than if they were considering a short-term dalliance. Evolutionary psychologist David Buss goes so far as to imply that I, as a girly man, need to keep an eye on my mate when she is at her most fertile lest she be seduced by Daniel Craig’s bulky biceps and well-turned calves. As if I don’t have enough to think about.

Of course, women aren’t always the baddies. Here’s a question: what is the minimum level of acceptable intelligence (in terms of percentage of the population) for a partner you anticipate going on a date with? Dating regularly? Sleeping with? How about marrying? Women typically show a fairly linear increase from about the 50th to 65th percentile the more intelligent, the more intimate and long-lasting the anticipated relationship. And men? Identical. Except for “sexual relations”, where the minimum acceptable intelligence is a little over able-to-tie-own-shoes. As sad as it is predictable.
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