Why Women Don't Want Macho Men
New research suggests that women from countries with healthier populations prefer more feminine-looking men. Jena Pincott on the science behind attraction and masculinity, and the future for manly men.
Sometime within the past year, nearly 4,800 women participated in an experiment at Faceresearch.org , the online psychology laboratory of the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. They were young women, mostly in their early- to mid-twenties, and all identified their ethnicity as white. Later, researchers at the lab would confirm from IP address data that the participants came from 30 countries including Argentina, Sweden, Russia, Australia and the United States. The women's country of origin was an important part of the experiment.
After registering on the site, the women clicked through to a listing of psychology experiments, including "face preferences" and "attractiveness at different ages." Upon making their selection, they received instructions, in English or in translation, telling them they would be presented with pairs of men's faces. For each set they would need to select the face they considered more attractive and indicate how much they preferred it to the other one.
The faces, it turned out, looked eerily alike and yet subtly different, like identical twins. They were created by software that masculinizes or feminizes a person's features in a few keystrokes. Only by examining the faces closely could one discern that the man on the left, say, had slightly rounder eyes and a narrower jaw than the one on the right. Some of the faces had slightly thinner lips than their doppelgängers, or wider-set eyes, or thicker archless brows. It took most women fewer than 10 minutes to click through the 20 pairs of male faces and select which ones they found hunkiest.
After crunching the data—including the women's facial preferences, their country of origin and that country's national health index—the Face Lab researchers proved something remarkable. They could predict how masculine a woman likes her men based on her nation's World Health Organization statistics for mortality rates, life expectancy and the impact of communicable disease. In countries where poor health is particularly a threat to survival, women leaned toward "manlier" men. That is, they preferred their males to have shorter, broader faces and stronger eyebrows, cheekbones and jaw lines. The researchers went on to publish the study in this month's issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences.
To a person unfamiliar with the field of evolutionary psychology, this may sound a little far-fetched. How is it even possible to link a woman's masculinity preferences to the health of her nation? The answer begins with the theory of sexual selection. It goes that women are the choosier sex because they take on most of the risk and burden of reproduction and child rearing. While a man can sleep around with 100 women in a year's time and have 100 kids, a woman who sleeps with 100 men in a year will only have one baby (barring multiples). She has more at stake in each pregnancy. Therefore, it is in her best interest to at least choose a high-quality mate. And one of the hallmarks of a quality male is good health.
But what does health have to do with masculinity? The link is testosterone, the hormone behind manly muscles, strong jaws, prominent eyebrow ridges, facial hair and deep voices. Testosterone is immunosuppressive. This means a man must be healthy and in good condition to withstand its effects on his development. Testosterone is also linked to other traits related to strength: fitness, fertility and dominance. From an evolutionary perspective, masculinity is basically man's way of advertising good genes, dominance and likelihood to father healthier kids. When disease is a real threat, as it had been—and arguably still is—heritable health is invaluable.
Masculinity, however, can come at a high price. Women often think of high-testosterone types as uncooperative, unsympathetic, philandering, aggressive and disinterested in parenting. In fact, there is evidence that they really do have more relationship problems than other men. In a small study led by psychologist James Roney at the University of Santa Barbara, 29 women were asked to look at photos of men and rate their masculinity and fondness for infants. (The men had already been tested for child-friendliness and testosterone levels.) The men who were rated as the most masculine generally had higher testosterone levels; the women also were generally accurate in assessing child-friendliness.
In another study of 2,100 Air Force veterans, men with testosterone levels one standard deviation above the mean were 43% more likely to get divorced than men with normal levels, 31% more likely to leave home because of marital problems, 38% more likely to cheat on their wives, and 13% more likely to admit that they hit or hurled things at them.
In this light, manifest masculinity doesn't sound like such a good deal. At least not in a significant relationship. A woman might be attracted subconsciously to a high-testosterone man because he'll give her kids an edge health-wise. But if health comes at the expense of fidelity and good parenting, how much does masculinity really matter?
The apparent answer is not so much—if you're a woman living in a country with a decent health-care system and few harmful pathogens. While a masculine father's "good genes" may confer health advantages to children, so do good medical attention and a clean environment. In the Face Lab study, women with the weakest masculinity preferences tended to live in some of the healthiest countries: Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Austria. Other countries in the study with low masculinity preferences are Romania, Greece and New Zealand. Women with the weakest masculinity preferences of all lived in Belgium, a country considered to have one of the best publicly funded health-care systems in Europe (alongside Denmark and the Netherlands in the health-care index).
Meanwhile, women with the strongest masculinity preferences tended to hail from the countries with higher disease and mortality rates and some of the poorest scores on the health-care index: Mexico, Brazil, Bulgaria and Argentina. (The researcher included only white subjects to control the experiment, and Asian and African nations were not included in the study.)
And where does the U.S. stand in the masculinity ranking? The answer is fifth out of the 30 countries in the study, one of the highest. This is, after all, the home of James Dean and Clint Eastwood. And where does America stand in the health index ranking? Twentieth of 30 countries, one of the least healthy.
This is not to say that cultural factors other than health care don't play a role in women's mate preferences. The Face Lab researchers acknowledge that there are variables they did not take into consideration. For instance, women's equality and control of resources would likely influence preference for masculinity. The same goes for violent crime. In cultures where physical strength and dominance are a primary means of security and social mobility, a masculine mate seems like a valuable asset. Yet, generally speaking, the researchers found that a nation's health index explained more of the variation in women's masculinity preferences than did many culture-specific female norms identified in previous studies.
The big question that comes of the study is this: Is it possible that modern medicine—and by extension modern life—inadvertently devalues masculinity? Possibly. Is the Marlboro Man, that smoking-hot icon of American manhood, under threat of being extinguished? Given American women's apparently strong masculinity preferences, the answer is no. We are not ready to get rid of our macho men. (Then again, we also have yet to improve our health index ratings.) Yet there are some smoke signals that suggest change is just over the horizon.
As the social environment shifts, so may women's mate preferences. While Stone Age forces once wired women to associate strong cues of masculinity with their children's chance of survival, times are changing. The promise of improved health care in America could be one example of a shift.
1970, women represented only 43.3% of women of the labor force, compared to 55.8% today. Moreover, the recession in America has been a tremendous blow to men in traditionally masculine jobs such as construction and manufacturing; 82% of job losses affect men. Right now in the U.S. many families find themselves economically dependent on one working parent: Mom. Over 70% of mothers have jobs outside the home. No longer as reliant on men's genes or jobs to ensure the health and wealth of their children, women may come to value other qualities in a mate. It may become evolutionarily adaptive to prefer men who are cooperative, communicative, caring and better parents over traditional "manly men."
Then again, women have always asked, why must we choose either/or in a mate, and not all-in-one? In a study of 107 American married couples, evolutionary psychologists David Buss and Todd Shackelford found that beautiful women (as determined by averaged ratings of eight teams of male and female interviewers) want it all in a partner: masculine, physically fit, loving, educated, desirous of home and children, a few years older than themselves and with a high income potential.
While exceptionally attractive (or wealthy) women may indeed capture this ideal male, most are forced by circumstance to settle for the best combination of traits. Some husband-seekers trade off masculinity for companionship and good parenting. Others forfeit compassion in exchange for wealth. ("I want a man who's kind and understanding," Zsa Zsa Gabor once griped. "Is that too much to ask of a millionaire?") To secretly have it all, some women adopt a "dual mating" strategy—marrying a solid, faithful guy and enjoying trysts with hunks. As a result, up to 10% of babies born in some populations have fathers who are presumed to be their biological dads but aren't.
Will any of this change as American women become increasingly secure economically, socially and medically? A study led by psychologist Fhionna Moore at the University of Andrews finds that as women's level of "resource control" increases—that is, they become more financially independent—their preference for good-looking men increases. So will it be considered progress if women start pursuing "metrosexuals"—impeccable guys who exfoliate, order salads for dinner and carry man purses? This remains an open question, and it's fun to speculate. Perhaps the vision of artist Corita Kent will come to pass: "Women's liberation is the liberation of the feminine in the man and the masculine in the woman."
—Jena Pincott is the author of "Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?"