If you are anything like me, you’re looking at this headline and saying something like, “Are you kidding me?!” But this is what the latest science suggests.
First, this study was done online at FaceResearch.org, the online psychology laboratory of the Face Research Laboratory at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Women from around the world–almost 5,000 of them–were asked to rate the attractiveness of 20 sets of faces of men.
Each pair of faces looked almost like twins. They were altered digitally to make some slightly more masculine or feminine. That is, one of the two would have slightly rounder eyes and a narrower jaw. Shorter, broader faces, thicker eyebrows and stronger jaw lines were among the more “masculine” facial traits.
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.
The conclusion the researchers have drawn from the data is based on a theory of sexual selection, based in evolutionary thought. Women have to be more selective about their choice of man because they are limited in their ability to reproduce, they argue. So, they say, women have to select more “high quality” mates than men do.
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.
So, where do health and masculinity meet? How do they connect the dots with women selecting “feminine” features in men? Testosterone is the answer. It is the hormone that gives men those “masculine” features.
And, researchers on this study will tell you that more testosterone does not make for a better man. Yes, that is what they say:
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.
Now, I know that they are in the business of making generalizations. That’s all they really can do. They are looking for trends and trying to understand the number. But I refuse to believe that more masculine men will inevitably end as miserable partners. I know too many who are wonderful husbands and fathers! However, the study researchers use the information available from previous studies to say this:
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?
So, according to the study, women who lived in “healthier” countries, with good medical care and a clean environment, preferred the less masculine pictures of men. Some of the nations in this category are Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Romania, and Greece.
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.)
American women generally preferred the more masculine men. But, according to the study, that fits the model, as they rank the United States as number 20 on a list of 30 nations in the area of health care. What are the criteria? The US is in the lower third of the nations on the list.
The study acknowledges that there are cultural factors that play into whether women prefer a more “manly” or masculine man. However, those factors are quickly discounted. As a matter of fact, the researchers cite women’s financial freedom as a cultural force that has contributed to the shunning of the masculine man, as it is the more traditionally masculine jobs that have taken a significant hit during this recession.
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.”
I used to think we are slightly more complex than that, but there you have it.