Category: news

Why do women get physically aroused and not even know it?

Posted in news by jenapincott on February 7, 2010

Some women seem to get turned on by almost anything man-on-women action, man-on-man, woman-on-woman, animal-on-animal, and so on. This is what sex researchers find when studying sexual arousal. When female volunteers are asked to watch erotic movies while outfitted with a plethysmograph, an instrument for measuring blood flow to the vagina, they often get very hot and bothered “down there.” Problem is, when many of those same women are asked to report how aroused they actually feel “up there” they often say they’re not turned on at all. Sometimes they even say they’re repulsed.

So what’s going on? Do women even know what turns them on?

Such is the puzzle that has plagued sex researchers for decades. And it’s a topic clinical psychologist Meredith Chivers and her colleagues address in a recent study, a meta-analysis of 132 papers on the genital measures of sexual arousal.

Why don’t women’s genital and subjective responses always agree? Here are a few theories the researchers present:

Women’s genital responses are hidden from view and produce less prominent somatosensory cues. While men may get turned on by feeling themselves get erect, women do not. However, [studies have found that] even when women received feedback about their level of vaginal engorgement, correlations (between genital and subjective arousal) were low and statistically nonsignificant. [Being told we’re getting turned on doesn’t necessarily turn us on.]

Women may edit their self-report of feeling sexually aroused because of socially desirable responding. Positive affect directs attention to erotic stimuli, thereby increasing sexual response, whereas negative affect interferes in the processing of sexual cues, resulting in lower sexual response. Lower concordance among women may reflect their experience of negative affect while watching the
conventional, commercially available erotica that is primarily produced for men.

Interestingly, the authors suggest that genital response to sexual stimuli may be an evolved self-protection mechanism:

Female genital response is an automatic reflex that is elicited by sexual stimuli and produces vaginal lubrication, even if the woman does not subjectively feel sexually aroused… Female genital response entails increased genital vasocongestion, necessary for the production of vaginal lubrication, and can, in turn, reduce discomfort and the possibility of injury during vaginal penetration. Ancestral women who did not show an automatic vaginal response to sexual cues may have been more likely to experience injuries that resulted in illness, infertility, or even death subsequent to unexpected or unwanted vaginal penetration, and thus would be less likely to have passed on this trait to their offspring….Reports of women’s genital response and orgasm during sexual assaults suggests that genital responses do occur in women under conditions of sexual threat. That women can experience genital response during unwanted sex or when viewing depictions of sexual assault suggests that women’s vasocongestion response is automatically initiated by exposure to sexual stimuli, whether or not these stimuli are preferred, and without subjective appraisal of these stimuli as sexually arousing or desired.

During processing of sexual stimuli, brain areas associated with emotional inhibition are activated among women… Genital responses are not affected by involuntary inhibition involving the anterior cingulate cortex, but subjective responses are. [Incidentally, women’s anterior cingulate cortex is most active when we’re ovulating and attracted to macho, high-testosterone men. The ACC is activated when you’re in conflict about something. Is this also a self-protection mechanism warning us to proceed with caution?]

Bottom line: Physical arousal is no proof a woman is really turned on. To really get a woman hot and bothered, you have to start from the top.

Os homens preferem mesmo as loiras?

Posted in news by jenapincott on February 1, 2010

Now in Portuguese (Brazil)!

The case for wearing blush

Posted in news by jenapincott on January 24, 2010

Bad news for pale girls like me: red is hot. Not only do studies find that men are more attracted to women in red, now we find that men prefer women who are red. Their cheeks, that is….

In a new study, evolutionary psychologist Ian Stephen and his colleagues at the Face Perception Lab recruited volunteers of various races and asked them to digitally adjust the color tone on more than 50 faces to make them look as healthy and attractive as possible. Volunteers consistently added more red coloring to the cheeks — whether the face was Caucasian, Asian, or Black. The redder the face, the more suggestive it is of oxygen-rich blood reaching the skin. The more oxygen-rich blood, the more suggestive it is of the person’s general health and youth. An old person, a sick person, a person with hypertension or bad circulation…will not get rosy-cheeked.

And not only is a flush suggestive of good health and fitness….but high sex hormones as well. In women in particular, high levels of estrogen may cause an expansion of tiny blood vessels under the skin. Hence, rosy cheeks. As in monkeys, female facial redness may be associated with fertility and reproductive quality.

As Stephen points out, the human eye has evolved to pick up on fine variations on the color red. “People are sensitive to the subtle color difference between oxygenated and deoxygenated blood (oxygenated blood is a bright red colour, deoxygenated blood has a slightly bluish red colour, and we interpret this difference in skin blood oxygenation colour as a cue to the health status of individuals.”)

But why did the researchers find that volunteers preferred women over men with rosy cheeks? One reason may be the sex hormones, which show up more obviously in flushed female faces. But it may also be due to the fact that men already have ruddier faces than women do — they have higher levels of hemoglobin and arterial oxygen content in their blood. As a result, the male blush is not as obvious a cue of good health and high sex hormones.

There are surely other reasons why a maidenly blush is attractive, as I describe in BLONDES. For one, a flash of color to a woman’s cheeks may suggest youth, modesty, embarrassment, excitement…all of which, depending on context, may appeal to red-blooded men.

Do hypochondriacs prefer macho men?

Posted in news by jenapincott on January 8, 2010

Evolutionary psychologists tell us that one of the reasons why women find masculinity attractive is that high testosterone is a sign of a strong immune system. A strong immune system, in turn, in a sign of good genes and childhood development (testosterone is an immunosuppressant and only men with good genes can overcome its drawbacks). These strong square-jawed macho men aren’t necessarily good dads: they’re more likely to be uncooperative, combative, and aggressive. But they may offer good genetic material for your kids, depending on the circumstances.

So how do you prove that women equate masculinity with good genes and healthy immune systems (subconsciously, at least)? An indirect approach was taken by Lisa DeBruine and her colleagues at the Face Research Lab at the University of Aberdeen. (The Lab conducts many fascinating studies on attraction, some of which I reference in BLONDES.)

In this new study, DeBruine recruited 345 women of all ages to rate faces. The faces were digitally altered, and ranged from very masculine to very feminine. Participants also completed a test called the Three-Domain Disgust scale, designed to measure moral disgust (deceiving a friend), sexual disgust (hearing strangers have sex), and pathogen disgust (stepping on poop).

Turns out that women’s preference for masculinity in male faces was correlated with disgust sensitivity to pathogens, but not in the moral and sexual domains. (Yes, hypochondriacs do prefer macho men!) DeBruine speculates that in certain situations, such as disease-ridden environments, women are wired to prefer high-testosterone males. The benefits of their good immune system genes are worth the tradeoff.

The testosterone-means-good-genes theory, anyway, may explain why women in disease-ridden environments are likelier to choose macho guys. Explains DeBruine et al.:

Because a partner’s heritable health is of greater value when pathogens are a greater concern, concern about pathogens is likely to also be a factor that contributes to the resolution of this tradeoff. Cross-cultural differences in mate preferences and mating systems vary consistently with differences in pathogen prevalence. When people from 29 different cultures were asked to rank a series of attributes based on how important they would be in a mate, people in areas with a high prevalence of pathogens ranked physical attractiveness higher than people in areas with a relatively low prevalence of pathogens did. Also consistent with these
findings, rural Jamaican women prefer masculinity more than British women do…

So do hypochondriacs, fearful of disease, marry more macho men (e.g. self-professed hypochondriac Susie Essman and her new husband?) As environments become more sterile, will we prefer men with softer, sweeter faces and personalities? Or will the next swine flu outbreak inspire us to pursue pigs?

Do pretty waitresses really get higher tips?

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 19, 2009

Do pretty waitresses get higher tips? Researchers at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration want to know. Why? Because it may affect hiring decisions. The researchers claim in their recent study that evolutionary theory suggests that attractive women should receive higher tips than less attractive women.

To test this theory, the researcher recruited more than 400 restaurant waitresses to complete an online survey, asking them to rate their physical attractiveness, sexiness, age, bra size, hair color, waist size, weight, and average tip percentage.

The findings (or how to increase your tips if you’re a waitress):

1.) Blondes reported receiving larger percentage tips than did waitresses with other hair colors, as expected.
However, the blond waitresses in this study did not perceive themselves to be more attractive than the waitresses with other hair colors.

2.) Women with large breasts and/or slender bodies received larger average tips than their counterparts without these characteristics.

More surprisingly:

3.) Tips increased with age with the largest tips going to women in their thirties.

The author’s analysis:

Perhaps the male restaurant customers were most attracted to the waitresses in their late teens and early twenties as expected, but tipped the waitresses who were in their thirties more than those who were younger because they thought they had a better chance of picking-up the older waitresses. Alternatively, the majority of the male customers in this study, whose average age was probably greater than 35 years old, may have been most attracted to waitresses in their men age, they prefer women increasing younger than themselves, but nonetheless prefer increasingly older women in an absolute sense….. Given that the median age in the U.S. is 35 years old and that median age of paying restaurant customers is almost certainly even older,….most of the men is this study may have preferred women in their thirties, which is the age group among waitresses that received the largest tips.

4.) WHR (waist-to-hip ratio) was unrelated to tips in this study. Thick-waisted women were just as likely to get big tips.

The analysis:

Perhaps the effects of WHR on perceptions of physical attractiveness are too small to affect more overt behaviors… Alternatively, the failure to find a WHR effect on tipping may be due to the possibility that the waitresses’ clothing obscured their WHRs to their tipping customers.

The study has several weaknesses. First, it relies on women’s self-reports of their attractiveness, which is always tricky. More importantly, the study didn’t attempt to assess is a waitress’s effectiveness at doing her job. One would think competence and friendliness would would be stronger factors. (Which is most important — competence, friendliness, or looks? Fodder for another study?) Nor did it take into account other variables: venue, uniforms, and customer base. Did the study consider the fact that many customers may be (straight) women?

I, for one, don’t care if my waitress has big breasts or blond hair. I just want my food.

Damsel in distress? Go blond.

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 12, 2009

Do blondes get picked up more than brunettes? The question can be taken literally, as evidenced in psychologist Nicolas Gueguen’s latest study* on female hitchhikers. A specialist in the nuances of courtship and attraction, Gueguen wanted to know if a woman is more likely to be offered a ride or other assistance if she goes blond. All else being equal, do light-haired hitchhikers get more lifts?

Gurguen recruited five women in their early twenties (all natural brunettes) to stand, one at a time, by the side of a road popular with hitchhikers in France. Their job was to try to get motorists to pull over. Each woman was equipped with three wigs, blond, brunette, and black, which she was instructed to rotate every time forty cars had passed. When a car stopped, she (and two independent observers) kept a record of what color wig she was wearing and whether the driver was male or female.

Drivers prefer blondes, it turns out. Blond hair, compared with brown or black hair, inspired a statistically larger proportion of drivers to stop and offer assistance (18% for blondes vs 14% and 13% for brunettes and women with black hair respectively). Interestingly, this was true only of male drivers. Female drivers, who stopped less frequently for hitchhikers, showed no hair color bias.

Gueguen attributes a greater attractiveness of blond hair color to men’s willingness to help blondes. As described in BLONDES, blond hair may be associated with female youth, health, and fertility. Because fair-haired hitchhikers may appear younger, they may come across as more vulnerable or less of a threat.

Blond hair is also more eye-catching than other shades, so drivers may be more likely to notice blond hitchhikers. But why would more male than female drivers offer rides to blondes if sexual attraction didn’t have something to do with it?

For various reasons, slightly more drivers appear to prefer blondes. But are they gentlemen? That remains in question.

Nicolas Gueguen’s studies are good fun. In BLONDES I reported on his fascinating research on the power of touch in a courtship context. I’ve also blogged about Gurguen’s studies on whether makeup is more likely to attract men; whether dog owners attract more dates (and whether breed makes a difference); how priming men to think about love changes their behavior; whether asking a woman a small favor makes her more likely to give him her number later; and whether cup size helps a female hitchhikers get picked up.

* to be published in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 2009, 109, 3, 1-8.

Did Tiger win by cheating? Hint: testosterone

Posted in news by jenapincott on December 3, 2009

Earlier this year, I wrote about Tiger Woods after he lost the World Gold Championship. My theory — perhaps a stretch — was that Tiger’s testosterone was down. He said he had been spending a lot of time with his pregnant wife Elin and their two-year-old daughter. In February Elin gave birth to a son.

All this downtime on the homefront suggests, at least to this observer, that Tiger was hormonally challenged. In the months preceding and following a baby’s birth, fathers’ testosterone levels are lower. Lower testosterone levels make a man less aggressive, less focused, less competitive — and more agreeable and responsive. High testosterone levels have the opposite effect.

Later this year Tiger rebounded to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, the Memorial Tournament, the WGB-Bridgestone Invitational, the BMW Championship, and the 2009 Presidents Cup this. And now it emerges that during all this winning he had been cheating — on his wife.

Is there a connection here? Again, it may be a stretch, but did Tiger’s philandering contribute to a testosterone surge that helped his game? Lots of illicit sex, after all, could be linked to high testosterone levels. So did cheating help him win? Or did his success and the resulting testosterone-high spur him to cheat?

Or was it a vicious cycle: cheating leading to winning leading to cheating, and so on?

Why women eat salads on dates

Posted in news by jenapincott on November 8, 2009


Is she resentful?

I have a friend who only orders salads when she goes out on a date. Me, I’d order the pasta and make sure to leave room for dessert. Turns out I’m unusual that way.

According to the latest study at McMaster University, women consume far fewer calories in the presence of a man (or men) than when eating alone or with another woman. Of over 450 people observed in a cafeteria setting, only the women revealed different consumption habits around the opposite sex.

What I was oblivious to when dating is the fact that what you eat, and how much, can affect impressions of your habits, world-views, social appeal, and attractiveness. According to the authors, psychologists Meredith Young and her colleagues:

1. In [groups of two], women selected foods with lower caloric value if their companion was male than if with another woman, whereas men’s choices were not affected by partner’s sex.

2. In our study, women’s total calories were not just reduced in the presence of a male, but also decreased further as a function of the number of male companions (and tended to show a reverse effect of female companions).

3. Women, in particular, adjust their eating to accord with consumption stereotypes, specifically that smaller eaters are viewed more favorably. The women we observed adjusted food selection not so as to match men, but perhaps in accordance with beliefs about what men find attractive.

Is a lusty appetite really less attractive?

How it’s possible to be too nice

Posted in news by jenapincott on October 24, 2009

A few weeks ago, my friend G. went out on a date with a man she met online. She had liked the guys’s profile: mid-thirties, lawyer, yogi, middle child (like herself), vegetarian. He was cute, too, with green eyes and a boyish grin. In his profile photo he included a shot of himself hugging his niece. And when G. met him, he hugged her, too — a great bear hug. He held the door open for her when they went to the restaurant and picked up the check at the end of the meal. All this she liked, but she said certain things about him annoyed her. When pressed, she said sheepishly: “I know this sounds weird, but he was just too nice.”

G.’s date not only opened doors for her, but also for the women behind her. He struck up conversation with the people at the next table and helped them get the waitress’s attention. Strolling together in the park after dinner, she caught him smiling at people who passed.

That’s odd, I thought. Studies show that kindness is one of the top qualities that men and women seek in a partner. But then I found a new study by University of Santa Barbara evolutionary psychologists Aaron Lukaszewskia and James Roney that offers a little more nuance.

Yes, the psychologists found: people prefer partners who are kind, altruistic, and trustworthy. In fact, people desire as kind a mate as possible. But what most studies fail to take into account is to whom the kindness is directed. Most people agree that prospective partners must be kind and generous with their companions, friends, and family. But what about people in the larger social context?

Lukaszewskia and Roney embarked on their investigation by asking nearly 60 women and more than 70 men to rate various personality traits in their ideal partner: kindness, trustworthiness, and dominance. Do you want your ideal partner to be less, equal, or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average man/woman? Do you want you partner to be less, equal or more (kind, trustworthy, dominant) than the average with other men or other women?

Here are the results:

Both sexes preferred very high levels of kindness and trustworthiness only when considering behaviors directed toward self or close friends and family, and much lower levels of these traits when considering behaviors directed toward other classes of individuals. In fact, people may actively prefer that their partners not be too kind or too trustworthy toward people who are not companions, friends, or family.

My friend G. hated it when her date expressed as much kindness with strangers as with her. A turn-off, she said. Men apparently don’t like it either. Nice guys and gals appear to finish last when they’re too nice to everyone.

Women preferred higher levels of dominance when considering behaviors directed toward other men than when considering behaviors directed toward self. Although not predicted in advance, men’s dominance preferences showed the same pattern as women’s preferences, with higher levels of dominance preferred when considering behaviors directed toward other women than when considering behaviors directed toward self.

Curiously, many studies suggest that women value kindness over dominance in long-term relationships, but this only applies to their partner’s dominance in a broader social context. Men also prefer women who are dominant among other women (but not dominant in the context of the relationship). As an interesting side note, the evolutionary psychologists suggest that men in ancestral environments may have benefited from having partners who were dominant within female status hierarchies (offspring more likely to survive).

Going on what G. told me about her date, I suspect there’s another explanation for why excessive kindness to others can be a turn-off in a partner. We all want to feel special, sought out. As other studies I’ve described in BLONDES have shown, homing in on one person and making that one person feel unique and exemplary is key. G.’s date may have been an extremely nice guy, but he didn’t make her feel special. Who knows how he’d be as a boyfriend — would his eye wander?

He who loves all may not love one. It’s as George Orwell said: “Love means nothing if it does not mean loving one person more than others.”

What machines teach us about how we flirt

Posted in news by jenapincott on October 11, 2009

p_2504821 I’ve always been a fan of the MIT Media Lab, and in BLONDES I write about Media Lab director Alex Pentland’s development of a machine that tracks “vocal body language” — pitch, speed, the space between words, and so on. Tested in a speed dating study, the machine had an impressive accuracy rate. About 70 percent of the time it could predict whether a man and woman was interested in each other, and whether they’d say yes to a second date.

Now it turns out that researchers at Stanford are following suit, in what may someday be the next big iPhone app.

Computer scientist Rajesh Ranganath and his colleagues developed a “flirtation-detection machine” that — based on prosodic, dialogue, and lexical clues — can detect a speaker’s intent to flirt with up to 71.5 percent accuracy. (In contrast, men were only 56.2 percent accurate when assessing if their date was flirting with them, and women were only 62.2 percent accurate.) Results were derived by testing the machine’s analysis against the self-reported intentions and perceptions of men and women on a speed date.

Without going into the technical details of the study, here are a few of the findings:

1. [When flirting],men ask more questions, and use more “you” and “we.” They laugh more, and use more sexual, anger, and negative emotional words. Prosodically they speak faster, with higher pitch, but quieter [softer voice] (lower intensity min).

2. [When flirting], women use more “I” and less “we”; men use more “we” and “you”. Men labeled as flirting are softer, but women labeled as flirting are not. Women who say they are flirting have a much expanded pitch range (lower pitch min, higher pitch max), laugh more, use more “I” and “well,” use repair questions (Excuse me?) but not other kinds of questions, use more sexual terms, use far less appreciations (Wow, That’s true, Oh, great) and backchannels (Uh-huh., Yeah., Right., Oh, okay.), and use fewer, longer turns, with more words in general [than do men].

3. Both genders convey intended flirtation by laughing more, speaking faster, and using higher pitch. However, we do find gender differences; men ask more questions when they say they are flirting, women ask fewer, although they do use more repair questions, while men do not.

Interestingly, the device was able to predict flirtation in men with greater accuracy than in women (79.5 percent versus 68.0 percent). In BLONDES I write about evolution and men’s overperception bias; essentially, guys are wired to think women are into them when they are not. I wonder if this is also true of the machines men make.


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