Category: news

RIP Robert Zajonc, who proved couples grow to look alike

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 8, 2008

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One of the sweetest studies I describe in BLONDES involves long-married couples. The longer and happier the marriage, the more likely a couple is to resemble each other (and no, not because they looked similar as newlyweds). The Stanford University psychologist who explored this phenomenon is Robert Zajonc, who passed away last week. In Zajonc’s study, married couples look more like each other on their silver wedding anniversaries than they do as newlyweds. Why? For one, emotionally close couples tend to mimic each other’s expressions.
According to his Times obituary, Zajonc pursued many fascinating questions in his research: Does birth order affect IQ? (in short, yes, the IQ of each successive child decreases by an average of three points due to social effects); can smiling be a cause of a good mood? (yes, another topic addressed in BLONDES); and does familiarity breed attraction? (yes, but we all knew that already).
The question of whether Dr Zajonc and his wife grew to look similar over the decades isn’t straightforward. Zajonc’s first marriage ended in divorce, and he later remarried the renowned sociologist Hazel Rose Markus.

Where in the world to have a fling

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 4, 2008

90937I devoted a page or so of BLONDES to places in the world where people are most promiscuous, based on the findings of the International Sexuality Description Project (IDSP). Now here’s an addendum — a new study, also by the IDSP, that has found links between national character and sexuality based on surveys taken by more than 13,000 people in 46 nations. The researchers found that nations vary in character — for instance, some have more “extroverted” and “neurotic” cultures than others.

Unsurprisingly, extroversion is linked with promiscuity, and men and women in “introverted” nations — South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, and Ethiopia — reported less promiscuity and desire for flings. Women who scored highest on both extroversion and promiscuity tend to be from Europe — in particular, Serbia, Croatia, Switzerland, and Austria. Extroverts were also more likely to “poach” mates, i.e. steal another person’s partner.

Neuroticism (defined by anxiety and high stress) was another factor, and countries with the highest scores on this count — Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong — had fewer people reporting or desiring flings than those in the relatively laidback countries of Finland, Slovenia, Croatia, and New Zealand. However, there’s a notable exception to the rule: North American women who scored high in neuroticism were more likely to be promiscuous.

As the researchers themselves point out, there are limitations to the study. For one, some nations might be more truthful in surveys than others, or have different conceptions of promiscuity and short-term relationships. Perhaps “conscientious, neurotic, introverted” nations such as Japan are actually more promiscuous than one might imagine….

How women’s brains light up to macho men

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 29, 2008

campaign_marlboroDo Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? is a book about unconscious, under-the-radar biases when it comes to dating and mating. Of those blind biases, one of the most fascinating, at least to me, is the way women’s tastes in men shift in favor of masculinized faces and dominant behaviors when women are most likely to conceive.

A new brain imaging study led by Heather Rupp at the Kinsey Institute found neural evidence that brain activity is different during the high-fertility phase of the cycle. Near ovulation, gals who look at masculine Marlboro Man-type faces light up in their anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a region of the brain associated with decision-making and the evaluation of risk and reward. The ACC is activated when you’re in conflict about something, and it also helps regulate blood pressure and heart rate. (Interestingly, artificial stimulation of the ACC has also been found to ease depression.)

Tough guy types might be riskier but more rewarding, which gets the ACC all hot and bothered. From an evolutionary perspective, a dominant macho man seems like a good mate because his high-testosterone traits suggest good genes and healthy development. Unconsciously, you might want to bear this man’s child. But not all macho types are exactly daddy types. Consciously, you might know better.

POLL: Would you take a drug to stay madly in love?

Posted in news, Polls and Surveys by jenapincott on November 19, 2008

The truth about romantic outliers. At last, a preliminary report on the brain scans of couples who have been passionately in love for decades! I was particularly excited about this research because it promised to give us insights into why some people are able to preserve the intensity of their initial love, while for most couples passion fades or becomes something more like a comfortable companionship. The researchers — Bianca Acevedo, Lucy Brown, and Helen Fisher — found that these outliers, madly in love for more than twenty years, have something in common with people who have just recently fallen in love: an active ventral tegmental area (VTA), a “reward region” of the brain. The VTA releases dopamine, the hormone of pleasure and addiction (also activated by cocaine and chocolate).

While a super-stimulated VTA defines most early-stage love affairs, it’s exceptional in twenty-year marriages. But what separates these late-stage lovers from early-stage lovers is calm in the the brain regions associated with anxiety and compulsion. They get passion without obsession.

The results inspire further questions: Love is expressed in so many different ways; how to measure its intensity? What makes some people romantic outliers in the first place — good genes or the right partner, or both? What are the other characteristics of romantic outliers — are they Panglossian iby nature? When, exactly, does the VTA dim in most relationships, and why, and how to prevent it?

We know from other studies (detailed in BLONDES) that there are certain hormone receptors in the VTA that influence pair-bonds in romantic relationships, and genes for these receptors vary among individuals. Some people have receptor genes that have been associated with commitment problems. Other genes that have yet to be identified might do the opposite — facilitate long-term love and bonding.

To be madly in love with one person for decades! Too many couples are nostalgic about the first years of their relationship, wishing they still felt that old fervor and zeal. If you could take a gene-altering drug to help sustain intense passion for your partner — to maintain the flame that burned so brightly in the beginning — would you do it?

The more sex a woman has with her partner, the more committed

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 15, 2008

42-15225272The more sex a woman has with her partner, the less attracted she is to other men. That’s the upshot of a study by medical psychologists Ursula Hess, Stuart Brody, and their colleagues, who asked female subjects to report the details of their sex lives and rate the facial attractiveness of twenty-four men. Sexually sated women gave hot guys significantly lower ratings than did women who weren’t having as much sex. Simply put: the more sex women recently had with their partners, the less attracted they were to hunky alternatives. It’s as if biology blinds them to other opportunities.

Several factors may be at play here — and hormones are implicated. As I describe in BLONDES, the hormone prolactin, released after orgasm, makes a person feel sated, at least for awhile (two days, according to some studies, and up to a week according to others). The hormone oxytocin — released when touching, caressing, kissing, and orgasming — makes a woman feel more attached to and trusting of her current partner, even if he’s just a fling (the study didn’t measure relationship strength). Naturally, the more attached a woman feels, the less likely she’ll be on the lookout for another beau. Or it just might be love. A separate study led by evolutionary psychologist John Maner also found that women (and men) in love are automatically less likely to pay attention to the faces of good-looking strangers.

(Of course the whole phenomenon could be a virtuous cycle: the more committed, the more sex — and the more sex, the more committed.)

As a separate and interesting side note, researchers in the sex study also found that depressed women — even those with partners — masturbate more, which the researchers think may either be self-soothing or actually exacerbate depressive symptoms. That, or it just might be that these women are down because they haven’t found the right partners. Perhaps they’ve blinded themselves to other opportunities.

I’d like to know if the same is true for men.

orang-utans prefer blondes, too

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 12, 2008

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According to an amusing Reuters article today, Sibu, an organg-utan in a Dutch zoo, is sexually aroused only by human blondes. Of course, it just might be that Sibu’s primary caregiver, who fed him and reared him, happens to be a blonde. Like many males, he prefers mates who remind him of Mom.

the clued-in cuckold

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 11, 2008

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In the book I write about the overperception bias — that is, the tendency of the average guy to overestimate a woman’s sexual interest, thinking she wants him when in fact she has no interest whatsoever. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s better for a man to overperceive a woman’s interest and get rejected than to underperceive it and miss out on an opportunity to spread his genes.
According to a recent study led by Paul Andrews at Virginia Commonwealth University, men are also more likely than women to perceive — and also overperceive — infidelity in a relationship. When 200 couples filled out confidential questionnaires that asked whether they’d ever had an affair, men detected 75 percent of the reported infidelities and women detected only 41 percent (29 percent of men admitted to cheating, compared with 18.5 percent of women). Not only were men more likely than women to tell if a partner cheated, they were also more likely to accuse a partner of being perfidious even when she was faithful. (Then again, who knows? Maybe women are less likely to report infidelity, even confidentially.)
In the end it all comes down to that old evolutionary bias: Men have evolved to be on the lookout for infidelity as a way of ensuring paternity. On an unconscious level, hthey’re safeguarding their genes. No matter how many people a woman sleeps with, she knows the baby is hers. A guy doesn’t have that certainty, so he compensates with suspicion — which is sometimes justified.

A smart man is just sperm’s way of spreading more sperm

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 6, 2008

super_spermEvolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind and the famous stripper study described in BLONDES, recently found another interesting connection: smart men have better sperm.

Analyzing the data of 425 veterans who took IQ tests and submitted sperm samples, Miller found a statistically significant link between men’s IQ and their sperm quality (higher scorers had higher sperm count and motility). Miller is the biggest propagator of the theory that intelligence is a sexually selected trait. Women, the choosier sex, are attracted to intelligence — expressed in anything from problem-solving to songwriting — because it’s a sign of “sexy” high-quality genes and overall developmental fitness. And because a woman can’t test a man’s sperm directly for these qualities, she has to judge him by what comes out of the head sitting on his shoulders.

Like moths to a flame

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 3, 2008

The hottest new study on attraction shows that men are more attracted to women who wear red. Researchers at the University of Rochester, Andrew Elliot and Daniela Niesta, asked men to rate the attractiveness of women in various experiments: 1.) in a photo bordered by either red or white; 2.) in a photo that contrasted red with a background of gray, green, or blue; and 3.) with a shirt that was digitally altered to be either red or blue.

In all three experiments, the women shown wearing or framed by the color red were considered more sexually desirable by the men (but not more likable, intelligent, or kind). Moreover, when men were asked how much money they’d spend on a date with women in the photos, the guys were more likely to say they’d spend more on the women in red.

The researchers also say that they have preliminary evidence that women are also more attracted to “gentlemen in red” and that “neither sex takes the evolutionary high road.”

Adding a bit of fun is a previous study by the same researchers that found that the color red has a negative effect on IQ test performance.

What about red turns people on (and decreases intelligence)? It could be cultural conditioning; after all, red is the color of love and Valentine hearts. The researchers also suggest that the attraction is an unconscious biological bias for the color signal of sexual excitement: blood-engorged sex organs. Reading the two studies, one wonders if blood drains from the brain to the genitals.

In the study on men’s attraction to red is a line that sounds like a page out of my playbook:

As much as men might like to think that they respond to women in a thoughtful, sophisticated manner, it appears that at least to some degree, their preferences and predilections are, in a word, primitive.

Perhaps there’s another explanation for the red bias. Could it be that the judges are voting Republican?

Poor little down-and-out T

Posted in news by jenapincott on October 30, 2008

I devote a chunk of BLONDES to the Environmental Security Hypothesis (ESH), which says that in tough times men prefer women who are slightly older, heavier, taller, more mature-looking, and less curvaceous.  In good times, men go back to their default:  younger, shorter, lighter, curvier, big-eyed, feminine-looking damsels.  It’s as if men unconsciously seek what is practical when the going gets tough — strong and robust women.   (FYI – women’s preferences in men don’t fluctuate under adverse conditions.) The ESH has been supported in a variety of studies, including one with  ravenous college students, another with men in a “crisis” mind-set, and a famous one that tracks the dimensions of Playboy Playmates of the Year over several decades of economic ups and downs.

What exactly drives men into “Environmental Security” mode?  Low blood sugar levels are one possibility, as noted in the study of hungry men.  Low testosterone (T) levels are another, and men’s T levels fluctuate all the time. They’re known to surge when men win a game or have a confrontation and dip when they’re feeling down. A new study led by Lisa Welling at the Face Research Lab found that when men’s T levels are high, they report stronger attraction to femininity in women’s faces.  When levels are relatively low, men report a weaker preference for femininity.  Put another way:  High testosterone loves high estrogen.  Low testosterone might not mind lower estrogen.

The results inspire some prurient speculation.  Do guys who are generally low in T have a preference for “more masculine” women? In the current economic environment, are testosterone-deficient Wall Street traders trading in their trophy wives for sugar mamas? Are curvy, girly strippers making less than their heavier, hipless dominatrix colleagues?

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