Sunday, 21 August 2005

The Laws of Attraction






The second part of the BBC's "Secret of the Sexes" documentary series on TV in July looked at what makes people attracted to each other.

In that part, scientists tried to match people based on facial shape and compatibility questionnaires, etc - but one theory about people going for others with similar faces wasn't however borne out in that documentary (and oh, the faces of those poor disappointed scientists! However this research was really, as far as I can see, only for the purposes of this documentary, and it didn't seem as rigorous or serious as one might hope (though some research for documentaries I've seen before has been very thorough and well conducted) - see below on other research).

What women and men go for

It was interesting to see that:
- first impressions based purely on looks seem not to change very much - so looks DO count (as we all know, but think it un-PC to say)
- for women, the one biggie (excuse the pun!) was, surprisingly (or not), quite simple. No, it's not what you're thinking you naughty reader, it was height. The taller the man, the better, it seems
- for men the most important single common factor, by a long way, was the woman's waist to hip ratio (the smaller the better- and interestingly, apparently a smaller ratio indicates greater fertility). When combined with men's penchant for large breasts, all this just seems to signify:
  • Me man. Want fertile woman, many kids, breastfeed them well. Ugh.
  • Me woman. Want big strong man, hunt for food, keep safe from predators. Ugh.
Now we know what men really want, and what women really want. My, how society has moved on...

So, for women, it seems it's go for those sit ups (though seriously, an "apple" shape is meant to be less healthy and waist reduction is good for you anyway). While, for men - ummm, get some elevator shoes?? (And why hasn't there been any research into why many people prefer men's bums to be small, and what that's supposed to mean in men?)

Smell the attraction...

Another tidbit from that programme was that apparently the smell which turns women on most is liquorice plus chocolate (though it didn't work for the poor guy they provided this "cologne" to). That sounds pretty offputting to me (I am that rare creature, a woman who doesn't love chocolate).

What makes more sense to me, though the programme didn't mention it at all, is that (as research has shown) people tend to go for others whose immune systems are different to their own - and you can apparently tell that just by smell. You've probably heard of those experiments where people sniffed T shirts worn for days by others and the rated them for atttractiveness... I know, the sniffers must have been given some incentive to take part! Well I can see the biological logic, if you combine different immune systems in your kids they have a better chance of stronger resistance.

Interestingly, recently New Scientist in an article on 23 July 2005 reported not only "studies in which people have been asked to sniff sweaty T-shirts generally suggest we also find the smell of those with dissimilar MHC genes more attractive" (MHC genes are immune system genes) - but also research by Craig Roberts at the University of Liverpool that, contrariwise, women prefer the faces of men with similar MHC (which ties in with some psychological studies showing we are attracted to people with faces like our own). The article said "Roberts thinks the explanation may be that the best partners have MHC genes that are somewhat dissimilar to our own but not totally dissimilar. So "filtering" for potential mates could use two different mechanisms: the first, based on facial likeness, selects someone not too distantly related, and the second, based on smell, avoids inbreeding."

And indeed, some even more recent research seems to suggest we are genetically inclined to prefer as friends and partners people who are similar to us, even though that choice may be unconscious for the most part: "People prefer their own kind — extraverts favor extraverts; traditionalists, traditionalists… If you like, become friends with, come to the aid of, and mate with those people who are genetically most similar to yourself, you are simply trying to ensure that your own segment of the gene pool will be safely maintained and eventually transmitted to future generations…". However, "We found that more than half of the variance in this study was due to unique environmental effects such as being in the right place at the right time.. Similarity is only one of many factors in choosing a partner."

The "beauty mask" and phi

Another interesting area touched on in the programme, though only briefly, was the "beauty mask" - a stylised representation of the ideal face. In the documentary the mask was superimposed onto a photo of one woman's face, and she was shown how to apply makeup in such a way as to make her face more closely resemble the "beauty mask", and thereby make her more attractive. I have to say, I think it worked, personally..

The programme didn't go into details about the beauty mask (or phi mask), but I've heard about it before. It's based on the "golden ratio" defined by the number phi, which is found a lot in nature (for a site dedicated to Phi see Goldennumber.net). The mask is also known as the Marquadt mask after the man who produced and patented it (in America, where else).

Now I don't know how much truth there is in the attractiveness of the golden ratio, but it's very interesting to see on Marquadt's site how close the match is when the mask is applied to famous beauties over the ages, of all ethnicities. Also I had to agree that the examples shown of faces which matched the mask to varying degrees were compelling - the less good the match, the less attractive the face seemed to be, to me (check out "The Evidence" link on that site and also the faces shown on the Goldennumber site; I also found an interesting article by Rebecca Donatelli on the beauty of the human face, including the beauty mask).

I have to say I don't agree with cosmetic surgery for the sake of it (though when I get older maybe I'll start wondering - unless I can look as good as Lauren Bacall in her old age, that is..), so going under the knife just to make your face match the mask better doesn't seem too sensible to me. Applying cosmetics to achieve that effect as closely as possible, however, is a great idea, and the site has pages (look under "Applications", "You and the Mask") showing how you can take a photo of your own face (full on and profile both) and then try the mask against it. Unfortunately it doesn't say how you can use cosmetics to create the illusion of the mask, but I'm sure good makeup artists would, given the mask, be able to do it (and I'm sure many women would be willing to pay a reasonable fee to have their pics taken, get the mask superimposed on their pics, then get made up to resemble the mask more closely - and be taught how to apply that makeup). There may be a bit of a gap in the market there...


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