Facial Attraction

The mystery of attraction is fodder for more than just gossip over cocktails. Science can help explain a woman’s sexual impulses, inside and out of her relationships. New research examined the fantasies of women in monogamous relationships, and what those stray thoughts said about their male partners.

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Women whose partners had more masculine faces—translation: strong jaws—were more mentally committed to their partners, the findings revealed. The hormonal ramp-up to ovulation creates a sexual peak. That peak is the time when a woman’s unconscious fertility radar turns on, and the good genes that masculinity represents are what turn her on. But boyfriends and husbands should stay calm: the study focused on a very specific element and these wayward thoughts are unconscious, and not an indication that she’s going to cheat.

“Most of it is under the surface. Most of it is not acted on,” said Dr. Steven W. Gangestad, an evolutionary psychologist and lead researcher of the study. The researchers didn’t ask the women if they had cheated, but the results don’t indicate that cheating was related to these fantasies, he explained.

The fantasy is based in evolution and genetics. A woman, however unconsciously, looks for the best genes for her child. The theory is that symmetry, associated with masculine faces, is an outward representation of genetic superiority and stability. But it doesn’t make the bearer of a masculine face a better man.

“It is essentially the difference between sexiness and what you would want in a marital partner,” Gangestad explained. Just before she ovulates, a women’s sexual tastes lean toward the masculine. “The shifts only applied when judging men as short-term partners—when judging their sexiness.”

Gangestad’s study also looked at intelligence as a factor in keeping a woman’s mind in her pants. He found that when it came to hormone-fueled fantasies, the man’s smarts didn’t weigh in.

Depending on what a woman is looking for—a long-term or a short-term partner—factors such as intelligence or masculinity assume different significance, said Jennifer L. Rennels, a developmental psychologist.

“There are a number of different cues we use,” Dr. Rennels said. “It can depend on the goals of the perceiver.” Men with more feminine faces are more likely to commit and to be a parent. More masculine faces indicate better immune systems but come with a higher likelihood of infidelity. At her most fertile, it would make sense for a woman to focus on genes and not personality.

But the best, longest-lasting relationships are formed between a matched set, an equally attractive man and woman, Dr. Rennels said. And this is something seen in real life couples, she added.

Though Gangestad didn’t measure the comparable attractiveness of both partners, his research was conducted on actual couples. Earlier research on how women’s sexual tastes changed prior to ovulation had been done in labs with photographs, or even over the internet, Gangestad said. He wanted to see whether those prior findings had real world implications. They do, he said, and the practical application is a positive one.

The findings can eliminate concerns by explaining why a woman might have dreamed about her trainer instead of her husband, Gangestad explained.  “You might have some fantasy mid-cycle. It doesn’t mean it’s a bad relationship.”
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