You are alive today because your parents had sex and gave birth to you. In turn, your parents owe their existence to your grandparents. This cycle of reproduction extends in an unbroken line all the way back to the very first life on Earth. After countless generations of successful procreation, it’s no wonder that the urge to have sex is so strong.
Lust, Attraction, Attachment
Since the brain’s systems of lust, attraction, and attachment are distinct, it’s possible to experience all three feelings at the same time for different partners. For example, you might feel safe and comfortable with your husband or wife, but also be attracted to a colleague at work. At the same time, you might lust after someone who just passed by on the street. It’s possible to have sex with someone you don’t love, love someone without having sex, and feel deeply attached to someone without sex or passion. No wonder love is complicated. In the rest of this article, we’ll discover what attracts people to each other, and how you can make yourself more attractive.
The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) conducted an Internet survey of over 200,000 men and women to discover what makes people attractive3. Respondents were asked to rank the most important traits in a romantic partner. The top 10 are shown in the table below. Men valued good looks and facial attractiveness more than women, whereas women ranked humor, honesty, kindness, and dependability higher than men. Why do men and women find different traits attractive? To answer this question, let’s consult the theories of Charles Darwin.
Natural and Sexual Selection
In addition to natural selection, Darwin proposed the theory of sexual selection. It states that males and females compete for mates, and some individuals are more successful than others because of different traits. Traits for mating success have a higher chance of being passed on to future generations. Suppose there was a gene that made men irresistible to women. Men with this gene would have more sex and sire more children. The gene would be passed on to their sons, and the cycle would repeat itself with every generation.
The forces of natural selection and sexual selection are constantly testing us and our genes. Natural selection influences life and death, and sexual selection influences sex and mating. Sometimes these two forces work together, and sometimes they work apart. For example, the male peacock has a brightly-colored tail. This is bad for natural selection because it attracts predators. But it’s good for sexual selection because it attracts females to breed and have baby peacocks. Overall, genes for a brightly-colored tail will become more common if the advantages for sexual selection outweigh the disadvantages for natural selection.
In the BBC survey, men and women ranked “intelligence” as one of the most attractive traits in a romantic partner. From the perspective of natural selection, intelligent partners are attractive because they help us survive better. A smart partner can make tools and find food. But why do men rank “good looks” and “attractive face” higher than women? The answer is sexual selection, and the social pressures that evolved over millions of years in our Paleolithic past.
Evolutionary psychology is the study of how human behavior has been shaped by the forces of natural selection and sexual selection. The vast majority of this evolution occurred during the Paleolithic period. It began about 2 million years ago with the invention of stone tools by early humans, and ended with the introduction of farming and agriculture about 11,000 years ago. For most of the Paleolithic, our ancestors roamed the grasslands of Africa in small groups with several family members and close relatives. Over a lifetime, they interacted with hundreds or thousands of members of the same local population. Sexual partners were chosen from this larger tribal group4.
Most women had less than eight children. In contrast, highly attractive men could have sired several dozen children with many different women. On average, it took 3 months of regular sex before conception, so most children were born to couples who stayed together for 2–3 years. The standard pattern of male-female relationships was probably “serial monogamy.” Men and women formed close sexual partnerships that were jealously guarded. Most relationships lasted less than 5 years, and lifelong partnerships were almost nonexistent. Sexual harassment may have been common, but women could retaliate by getting help from female friends, male partners, and relatives in the tribal group. This gave women a lot of power in choosing their mates.
Stages of Mating
There were four main stages in the Paleolithic mating ritual:
For our ancestors, sperm was cheap and eggs were expensive. To produce a baby, the minimum male investment was a few minutes of sex and a teaspoonful of semen. In contrast, the minimum female investment was 9 months of pregnancy, and 2–3 years of breastfeeding. Men could sire a new child every night, whereas women could only produce a child every few years.
If they could get away with it, men were motivated to have sex as often as possible, with as many partners as possible. On the other hand, women were much more discriminating because of the risk that a one-night stand could lead to 9 months of pregnancy. For long-term relationships, men were just as choosy as women because they had to sacrifice short-term mating opportunities, or risk losing their long-term partner.
Modern men and women find different traits attractive because millions of years of evolutionary psychology have influenced our attitudes towards love and sex. Now that we understand the general principles behind mating behavior, let’s find out what makes someone beautiful.
Beauty, Brains, Personality, Power
Scientists believe that attractiveness is comprised of four major traits5:
Women are able to start having children in adolescence, but peak fertility occurs in the 20s and early 30s4. Fertility declines during the 30s, and drops off steeply in the 40s. It’s very difficult for a 50-year-old to get pregnant. Paleolithic men who successfully identified and mated with young fertile women had a much better chance of having kids and passing on their genes.
How can you tell if a woman is in her 20s? You probably won’t get a straight answer if you ask directly, so the best alternative is to look at her physical appearance. It’s no coincidence that the physical attributes we consider beautiful are the same ones that indicate a woman’s youth, health, and fertility.
The curviness of a woman’s body is measured by her waist-to-hip ratio (WHR). This is calculated by dividing waist circumference by hip circumference. Before puberty, boys and girls both have a WHR of about 1.0. At puberty, a woman’s hips grow larger and her WHR drops to about 0.7. It stays there throughout her child-bearing years. As a woman approaches menopause, WHR typically returns to 1.0 or higher. Curvy hips are a good indicator that a woman is fertile, and experiments across different cultures have shown that a WHR of 0.7 is universally rated as the most attractive.
In addition to BMI and WHR, breast size and shape are indicators of health and youthfulness. Young women have perky breasts, while postmenopausal women have saggy breasts. When people are asked to rate pictures of women’s chests, the most attractive bust size is medium, followed by large, and then small.
Which body measurement is the most important? It turns out that BMI accounts for 66–73 percent of total attractiveness, WHR accounts for less than 2 percent, and chest size makes an insignificant contribution7. Researchers from the University of Vienna analyzed the measurements of adult movie actresses8. They found that actresses with low BMIs starred in more movies, but WHR and bust size were not related to frequency of movie roles. For attractiveness, dieting and exercise are better investments than breast implants.
Helen of Troy had a “face that launched a thousand ships.” But what makes one woman’s face more beautiful than another? Researchers from the University of St. Andrews digitally manipulated photographs of female faces, and investigated the effect on attractiveness ratings9. The first finding was that facial “averageness” contributed the most to facial attractiveness. For example, if you photographed 100 women and measured their noses, the size and shape of the “average” nose would be in between the largest noses and the smallest noses. Symmetry is another measure of averageness—symmetric faces are more attractive than asymmetric ones10. For example, a crooked nose is asymmetric, and therefore less attractive.
The second finding was that the most beautiful faces often have a few features that are not average. For example, Cindy Crawford is a supermodel who ranked #5 on Playboy’s list of the “100 Sexiest Women” of the 20th century11. Fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld says, “She is a classical beauty and the all-American dream girl.” Cindy’s trademark is a large asymmetric mole above her left lip. It’s beautiful because it distinguishes her face from other supermodels.
Other non-average beautiful features include high cheekbones, thin eyebrows, small noses, small chins, big eyes, and big lips. Picture Audrey Hepburn’s big eyes or Angelina Jolie’s full lips. The evolutionary reason why these non-average features are attractive is because they are indicators of youth and fertility. Women with big eyes, small noses, and small chins appear younger and more vulnerable. They make men feel protective and masculine. During puberty, high estrogen levels trigger the deposit of extra fat in the lips and upper cheeks. The result is high cheekbones and full lips that signal that a woman has reached child-bearing age.
There are also some facial features that are attractive, but do not fall into the categories of averageness or non-averageness. For example, smooth clear skin indicates freedom from disease, and the absence of wrinkles indicates youthfulness. In a study on facial shape, Internet user Pierre Tourigny created a set of composite female photos, and uploaded them to the website Hot Or Not (www.hotornot.com). Hot or Not’s users rated the attractiveness of the photos on a scale from 1–10. Larger faces scored 4 or lower, whereas slimmer faces scored 7 and above12.
Body vs. Face
The most beautiful women have gorgeous faces and slim, curvy bodies. But which is more important? At the University of Mannheim, German researchers developed a computer program that allowed people to uncover different parts of a blacked-out photograph, and rate the subject’s attractiveness13. The program also recorded viewing sequence and viewing time. For example, you might choose to uncover the face first, followed by hips, and then legs. For men rating photos of women, they almost always looked at the eyes first, followed closely by the mouth. The next most frequently-viewed body parts were chest, nose, hair, and cheeks. The study concluded that a woman’s face is more important than her body in determining attractiveness.
Now that we understand what makes women beautiful, let’s turn our attention to men. In a study from the University of Cambridge, British researchers found that women are most attracted to men with medium-built bodies, followed by slim, and then heavily-built figures14. But unlike women, the shape of a man’s body is more important than weight. Women prefer male torsos that have an “inverted triangle” shape, with broad chest and shoulders, and a narrow waist. Male body shape accounts for 56 percent of body attractiveness, compared to 13 percent for Body Mass Index (BMI)15. Researchers from the University of Louisville found that the ideal male face combines babyish and mature features16. Attractive babyish features include larger eyes and smaller noses. Attractive mature features include prominent cheekbones and larger chin.
To determine whether a guy’s face is more important than his body, researchers from the University of Western Australia asked female volunteers to rate the attractiveness of male photos17. Some participants were shown the whole body, while others saw just the face, or just the body. Results showed that face alone accounted for 52 percent of attractiveness, compared to 24 percent for the body. As part of the study, researchers asked men to rate photos of women. Similar to men, a woman’s face accounted for 47 percent of her attractiveness, compared to 32 percent for her body.
The next time you watch Cinderella, Snow White, and other Disney cartoons, take a close look at the body types and facial features of the main characters. Prince Charming is drawn with a lean muscular body. His face has big eyes, large chin, and high cheekbones. Cinderella has a slim body with medium chest size. Her face is thin with big eyes and a small nose. She also has high cheekbones, full lips, and clear skin. They may not have studied evolutionary psychology, but Disney’s animators intuitively know how to draw beauty.
In a review of 12 studies on penis size, researchers from St. James’s Hospital in Leeds found that the average erect penis is 5.5–6.2 inches long, and 4.7–5.1 inches in circumference18. Contrary to popular opinion, size is roughly the same between ethnic groups, and a man’s penis does not usually shrink with age. Researchers also found that 55 percent of men are dissatisfied with the size of their package. Some Sadhu holy men in India lengthen their penises by stretching them with weights. Even more extreme, Topinama tribesmen in Brazil puff up their penises by getting poisonous snakes to bite them. What do women want? It turns out that 85 percent are satisfied with their partner’s penis size, and 90 percent prefer a wide penis to a long one.
Physical vs. Non-physical
At the beginning of the chapter, we learned that men value good looks and facial attractiveness more than women. How much more? To determine the relative contributions of physical and non-physical factors, researchers from the State University of New York (SUNY) followed students on a 6-week archeology course19. On the first day of class, researchers asked students to rate each other for intelligence, work ethic, liking, and physical attractiveness. Students completed the same questionnaire 6 weeks later at the end of the course. For males rating females, the initial rating of physical attractiveness accounted for 62 percent of the final rating. In contrast, the initial rating only accounted for 19 percent of the final rating for females rating males. Men tend to follow their first impressions, whereas women can become more attracted to men over time.
Although men care more about physical beauty, it is possible for women to increase their attractiveness by being smart, hardworking, and personable. For example, one of the women in the SUNY study received an average attractiveness score of 3 out of 9 at the beginning of the study. Over 6 weeks, her hard work and warm personality made her a popular member of the group. By the end of the study, her physical attractiveness score had increased to 7 out of 9.
A man knows within 100 milliseconds if he is attracted to a woman13. In contrast, it takes much longer for a woman to evaluate a man’s personality, status, and other attributes, and then decide if she’s attracted to him. Misunderstandings can happen if a woman assumes that a man can become more attracted to her over time. She chases after a man, with the false hope that things will change if the man gets to know her better. If a man is attracted to a woman, he will approach her right away, or demonstrate immediate interest if she approaches him. Otherwise, he’s just not that into you, and it’s time to move on.
One football player said he took off his helmet as often as possible during games so that women would recognize him off the field, and be more likely to give him sexual favors. In fraternities, upperclassmen said their seniority made it much easier to hook up with female freshmen and sophomores. Overall, about a third of these high-status men had cheated on their girlfriends. Their loyalty was overwhelmed by easy access to casual sex.
To attract women, a man’s status is much more important than his looks. The key is getting to the top of a hierarchy, even if it’s in a niche field like chess or rock climbing. In The Sopranos, mobster Tony Soprano is fat, balding, and uneducated. But a lot of attractive women sleep with him because he’s the head of the DiMeo Crime Family.
High status works for men but not women. In a study on speed dating, Stanford researchers found that most men did not value a woman’s intelligence or ambition when it exceeded their own21. Also, men were less likely to select a woman for dates if they perceived that she was more ambitious than them.
Geneticists estimate that about half of our genes play some role in brain development4. About a third are expressed only in the brain. If you carry a harmful genetic mutation, there is a reasonable chance that it will affect your mental performance. On top of this, your brain is very costly to maintain. It comprises about 2 percent of your body weight, but consumes 15 percent of your oxygen intake, 25 percent of your metabolic energy, and 40 percent of your blood glucose. Mental performance is arguably the best indicator of your overall health.
Geoffrey Miller is an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico. He believes our ancestors chose their sexual partners for their mental abilities. Only the healthiest humans could have spared the mental energy to develop skills such as humor, music, painting, poetry, singing, story-telling, creativity, and verbal socializing. Generations of sexual selection increased the attractiveness of these non-physical skills. This explains why modern men and women place such a high value on wit, humor, and communication skills. Some gender differences do exist. For example, women prefer men who make them laugh, whereas men prefer women who laugh at their jokes22. But overall, smart is beautiful.
Have you ever met someone who is drop-dead gorgeous but is boring or annoying? America’s Most Smartest Model is a reality TV show that features a bunch of “himbos” and “bimbos” competing to see who is the least mentally challenged. It shows that you need a good personality in addition to good looks to be truly attractive. In a study from the University of Texas, long-term couples were asked to rate the personality traits in an ideal partner23. The top 10 traits are shown in the table below. Both sexes preferred mates who were warm, reliable, and fair. Women valued emotional stability more than men.
Like Attracts like
In 1994, 26-year-old Playboy playmate and former exotic dancer Anna Nicole Smith married 89-year-old billionaire J. Howard Marshall24. The marriage ended 13 months later when Marshall passed away. Despite accusations of being a gold-digger, Anna maintained that she loved her husband, and age didn’t matter (although she reportedly never lived with him). Is this normal? Do rich old guys usually end up with young trophy wives?
The evidence says no—most people prefer partners who are similar to themselves for wealth, status, family commitment, physical appearance, and sexual fidelity. Researchers from Cornell University asked participants to rate attributes in a long-term partner, and then rate themselves on the same attributes25. Women who rated themselves as gorgeous were only 5 percent more likely to prefer rich, high-status men. Similarly, rich men were only 4 percent more likely to prefer gorgeous women. Instead, rich men liked rich women, older men liked older women, and attractive women liked attractive men.
Stories of billionaires marrying strippers are sensational because they’re so rare. Rich people’s sex lives are actually rather average. Statistics show that people with higher incomes have the same number of partners, and the same amount of sex, as lower-income people26.
Indicators of Interest
To improve attractiveness, the evidence suggests that men should practice being funny, and find ways to increase their status, whereas women should lose weight, and practice being warm and friendly. But after you’ve improved yourself, how can you tell if someone is attracted to you? It’s obvious if you get romantic love letters, or if the object of your affection blushes and stammers when you walk by. But indicators of interest are usually more subtle than this. Researchers have found that men often misinterpret female friendliness, and over-rate female sexual interest. So how can you tell if a woman is truly into you?
In a German study, researchers videotaped conversations between 45 pairs of strangers27. Afterwards, participants were interviewed and asked to rate their level of attraction and sexual interest. Results showed that only four signals were reliable indicators of female interest: “primp,” “coy smile,” “look through,” and “short glance.” Primping is adjusting your hair and clothes when there’s no real need. A coy smile is a regular smile, followed immediately by turning away and lowering your head. Look through is looking at another person, and then immediately looking away, whereas a short glance is directed at someone for less than 3 seconds before turning away.
Indicators of negative interest included “head toss” and “head akimbo.” In head toss, the head moves down, followed by a fast circular move upward, before returning slowly back to its original position. It’s the way women toss their hair in shampoo commercials. In head akimbo, the hands rest behind the head, and the shoulders are drawn back.
Now that we know how women signal interest, how can men increase their chances of being noticed? In a study from the University of Vienna, researchers used their video cameras to record mating behavior in singles bars28. Men who talked with the most women consistently used the same techniques. They glanced around and made eye contact; used expressive hand gestures; adopted open body postures such as not crossing their arms; and frequently touched other men to show dominance. In conversation, women responded better to men who made eye contact; gave them flirtatious glances; smiled and laughed; and showed interest by nodding their heads and leaning forward29,30.
Men vs. Women
John Marshall Townsend is an anthropologist at Syracuse University. He believes that men and women evaluate potential mates using a “trade-off threshold” model31. For men, women have to meet a certain baseline level of physical attractiveness to be considered for longer-term and higher-investment relationships. For women, non-physical characteristics such as ambition, dominance, education, earning power, and status are more important than physical attributes when qualifying men as potential partners. A positive initial assessment opens the door to a first date. Further dates give women the opportunity to dig deeper into the man’s personality, values, family background, and other desirable qualities for a long-term relationship. This is why it’s difficult for men to get sex on the first date—most women want more time to separate the players from the providers.
It’s difficult for men to attract women if they are poor, uneducated, and low-status—even if they have the physique of a Greek god. In contrast, beautiful women attract men regardless of occupation, income, or education. As long as they don’t appear to be low-class, beautiful women can attract high-status males for dating, relationships, and marriage. Consider the example of Alice Kim, a waitress at a Los Angeles sushi restaurant32. One night, she caught the eye of actor Nicolas Cage. Six months later, they were happily married.
Bruce Ellis studies sexual behavior at the University of Arizona. In a game with 30 of his students, he gave each one a numbered card to stick on their foreheads33. Students could see other students’ numbers, but not their own. Ellis challenged the students to pair up with the highest number possible. Immediately, the person with number 30 on her forehead was overwhelmed with proposals. In contrast, the person with number 1 was repeatedly rejected. He kept lowering his expectations until he matched up with the second-lowest person. Intuitively, we all know our worth in the Great Mating Game.
Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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