Category: Sex

Where do women look when sizing each other up?

Friends enjoying a party in nightclubBy Christian Jarrett

Studies show that when heterosexual women look at other women’s bodies, they, just like men, tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time looking at their waists, hips and breasts, as if estimating how much they will appeal to men. This is consistent with “mate selection theory” which argues, among other things, that women have evolved strategies to monitor potential love rivals. However, psychologists are interested in this topic, not only from an evolutionary perspective, but also because women who feel dissatisfied with their bodies, and who are vulnerable to developing eating disorders, may be especially pre-occupied with comparing their body against others, potentially exacerbating their anxieties.

Past research is mixed: some studies suggest women with body dissatisfaction and/or eating disorders pay disproportionate attention to the bodies of thin women, other studies suggest the opposite. A new exploratory paper in Psychological Research says hang on a minute, we don’t actually know much about how healthy, confident women behave when they look at other women, nor whether their attention is influenced by their feelings about their own bodies.

Continue reading “Where do women look when sizing each other up?”

Men think women will be impressed by a tattoo, but they’re not – Polish study

Shirtless man in tattoo looking over shoulderBy Alex Fradera

Men with tattoos are likely to provide serious competition for a woman’s attention, at least in the eyes of other guys, but women themselves actually aren’t that impressed. That’s according to research published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, where 2584 heterosexual men and women from Poland viewed photos of shirtless men, sometimes digitally modified so that their arm was emblazoned with a smallish black tattoo depicting a generic symbol. The 215 men among the participants rated the inked bods as more attractive than tattoo-free comparison models, which presumably reflects in part what they think women are looking for in an ideal male partner. But the female participants didn’t rate the tattooed gentlemen as more attractive; moreover, they considered them worse prospects as partners and parents.

Women did rate tattooed men as healthier, which researchers Andrzej Galbarczyk and Anna Ziomkiewicz think might be because tattooing is a costly signal of strong health, involving as it does a painful experience and risk of infection. Normally, perceived health correlates with perceived attractiveness, but this positive connotation of the tattoos might have been counteracted by the fact the women also associated the tats with masculinity and aggression: not such a positive thing if you consider that another marker of masculinity, high testosterone, is known to be associated with affairs and higher risk of assault on a partner. All in all, the women’s judgments were swayed by the (admittedly small) tattoos far less than were the male participants’ judgments. Heterosexual men who are planning a trip to their local tattoo parlour might be surprised to learn from this research that their new ink is likely to cause a bigger stir among the gentlemen than the ladies.

Tattooed men: Healthy bad boys and good-looking competitors

Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) is Contributing Writer at BPS Research Digest

This one specific brain area was smaller in participants who were in love

A happy couple runs through waves on sunlit beachBy Christian Jarrett

Poets have long described the mind-altering effects of a passionate relationship – “my love’s a noble madness” wrote John Dryden. “Of all the emotions,” said Cicero, “there is none more violent than love. Love is a madness.” Psychology research is beginning to back this up. A recent study found that students in the early days of a passionate relationship exhibited reduced cognitive control in basic psychological tests. Now brain researchers in Japan have started to look for the neural correlates of these effects. Writing in Frontiers in Psychology, Hiroaki Kawamichi and his colleagues report the results of their brain imaging experiment showing that participants in the relatively early stages of a romantic relationship had reduced grey matter in a region of the brain involved in processing reward, which might suggest their brains had adjusted to the intensity of their love affair.

Continue reading “This one specific brain area was smaller in participants who were in love”

Wardrobe malfunction – three failed attempts to replicate the finding that red increases attractiveness

By Christian Jarrett 

It’s one of the simplest, most evidence-backed pieces of advice you can give to someone who’s looking to attract a partner – wear red. Many studies, most of them involving men rating women’s appearance, have shown that wearing red clothing increases attractiveness and sex appeal. The reasons are thought to be traceable to our evolutionary past – red displays in the animal kingdom also often indicate sexual interest and availability – complemented by the cultural connotations of red with passion and sex.

But nothing, it seems, is straightforward in psychology any more. A team of Dutch and British researchers has just published three attempts to replicate the red effect in the open-access journal Evolutionary Psychology, including testing whether the effect is more pronounced in a short-term mating context, which would be consistent with the idea that red signals sexual availability. However, not only did the research not uncover an effect of mating context, all three experiments also failed to demonstrate any effect of red on attractiveness whatsoever.  Continue reading “Wardrobe malfunction – three failed attempts to replicate the finding that red increases attractiveness”

Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism

Two woman holding their hands in summer sunny dayBy Christian Jarrett

Psychologists have become very interested in the causes and consequences of our beliefs about free will.  For instance, many consider that progress in neuroscience is likely to undermine our belief in free will (though this has been challenged). And in terms of consequences, less belief in free will has been shown to affect our own behaviour and judgments, for example increasing our tendency to cheat, and making us more lenient towards other people’s criminal culpability.

One unexplored issue is how experiencing deep, romantic love is likely to affect our belief in free will – or indeed vice versa. A new series of online studies in Consciousness and Cognition has made a start, looking at whether thinking about a more passionate versus less passionate relationship is linked with a greater or lesser belief in free will and, separately, stronger or lesser belief in determinism (the idea that the future is pre-determined and beyond our control). The answer, it turns out, is both. Thinking about a more intense passionate love affairs tends to go hand in hand with stronger beliefs in free will and stronger beliefs in determinism.  Continue reading “Experiencing passionate love linked with more belief in free will AND determinism”

Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately

Businessman Flirting Businesswoman
Researchers may have found a new way to combat sexual aggression

By Christian Jarrett

“You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.”  Donald Trump, 2016 Republican Party nominee for US president, speaking in 2005 (full transcript).

The causes of sexual aggression are many, but anecdotal evidence (for example, as implied in the above quote), and research-based evidence, suggests that at least part of it has to do with when men overestimate women’s levels of sexual interest. A new study in the Psychology of Violence finds that men with a history of sexual aggression are especially likely to make this kind of misjudgment, in part because they focus on inappropriate cues, such as a woman’s attractiveness, rather than on her actual emotions. But promisingly, the research also suggests that it’s possible, through practice, to reduce this bias. This is an important finding considering previous research has shown that information-based educational programmes designed to reduce sexual aggression (through challenging rape myths, for example) are relatively ineffective. Continue reading “Training men to judge women’s sexual interest more accurately”

Altruistic people have more sex

Viewed through the lens of evolutionary psychology, altruism takes some explaining. In a dog eat dog world, it seems like a risky, indulgent habit. Yet we are only alive today because our distant ancestors were successful at reproducing – and the fact many of us have inherited their altruistic tendencies suggests that being altruistic gave them some kind of survival or reproductive advantage.

One idea is that altruism is advantageous because it is often reciprocated. Another is that altruism is a “costly signal” that tells potential sexual partners you would make a good mate – if you’ve the freedom to be charitable, this suggests you must be capable and resourceful. Supporting this “costly signal” account, plentiful past research has shown that signs of altruism increase both men’s and women’s attractiveness to the opposite sex.

Now an article in the British Journal of Psychology has followed through on this logic to find out whether more altruistic people aren’t just more attractive, but actually have more sex. Continue reading “Altruistic people have more sex”

Do some homophobic men harbour a latent attraction to other men?

An example of imagery used in the study by Coeval et al

The idea that homophobia in men is a counter-reaction to their own unwanted attraction to other men has its roots in psychoanalysis – where’s it’s considered a psychodynamic defence – and is possibly supported by anecdotal evidence, most recently in reports that the perpetrator of the horrific homophobic massacre at an Orlando gay club was himself gay. But it’s worth heeding the cautions on Science of Us yesterday where journalist Cari Romm noted that “internalized homophobia almost never manifests itself as violence” in her article headed The Myth of the Violent, Self-Hating Gay Homophobe.

However, if repressed gay impulses are a common motivator for homophobic attitudes, this would be useful to know from the perspective of combating homophobia, and for helping such people come to terms with their own sexuality. In fact the evidence is mixed. For instance, supporting the theory, a study from 1996 involving dozens of men who self-identified as heterosexual found that some of those with homophobic attitudes got an erection in response to gay porn, but the men who weren’t homophobic did not. On the other hand, a later study that measured time spent looking at images of men kissing found no evidence that some homophobic men are gay at a subconscious level – in fact, some of the homophobic men seemed to have an implicit aversion to such images.

Now a new, small study in The Journal of Sexual Medicine has combined a range of techniques, including eye tracking, to show that a subset of homophobic men who self-identify as heterosexual do seem to have an impulsive, automatic attraction to other men.

The researchers assessed the homophobia of 38 heterosexual young men – high scorers agreed strongly with statements like “Gay men should stop shoving their lifestyle down other people’s throats”. Then they tested their “impulsive approach tendencies” toward men (that is, their latent attraction to them) in a task that involved tapping keyboard keys rapidly, to move an on-screen manikin – a basic drawing of a human figure – as quickly as possible in a specified direction. On half the trials, an image of a gay male couple subsequently appeared on the side of the screen toward which the participants were moving the manikin; on the other trials, a heterosexual couple appeared in this position. Relatively faster performance when the task involved moving the manikin toward the gay male couple was taken as a sign of implicit attraction, rather than aversion, toward homosexual men.

After that, the researchers tracked the eye movements of the participants as they looked at and rated the pleasantness of images of gay male and heterosexual couples. The men were told to look at the images for as long as necessary to make their judgments, and longer time spent looking specifically at the faces and bodies of the gay male couples was taken by the researchers as another sign of attraction to men.

The non-homophobic participants spent more time looking at the heterosexual couples than the gay male couples, as you’d expect. In contrast, the homophobic men spent just as much time looking at both types of image. Also, whereas there was no link between the amount of impulsive attraction the non-homophic men showed toward men (on the manikin task) and the time they spent looking at the images of male gay couples, there was a link among the highly homophobic participants – those who showed a greater impulsive attraction to men also tended to look longer at the images of gay couples than heterosexual couples.

This suggests the homophobic men’s alleged impulsive attraction to men was also affecting their looking behaviour, although whether it’s fair to interpret this increased looking at gay men as attraction, rather than, say, curiosity, is debatable. However, there was also evidence that it was filtering through to a lesser extent to their explicit ratings of the images. That is, among the highly homophobic men, those who showed signs of implicit attraction to men in the manikin task also tended to give higher pleasantness ratings to the images of gay male couples, but not to the images of heterosexual couples.

The researchers acknowledged their findings are limited by their small sample size, and that it would have been useful to measure stress and anxiety to see how this was affecting the results. For instance, it’s possible that for homophobic men the stress of looking at gay imagery has the ironic effect of increasing the influence of their implicit attraction to men on their behaviour – a stress effect that would be absent in non-homophobic men, hence their implicit attraction not being relevant to their looking behaviour.

These limitations and complexities aside, the researchers concluded that their findings provide more evidence consistent with the idea that “some men high in homophobia indeed have a sexual interest toward homosexual stimuli, whereas others do not” and that they “provide a better understanding of the psychological processes involved in the processing of erotic gay material among men high in homophobia…”.


Cheval, B., Radel, R., Grob, E., Ghisletta, P., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., & Chanal, J. (2016). Homophobia: An Impulsive Attraction to the Same Sex? Evidence From Eye-Tracking Data in a Picture-Viewing Task The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 13 (5), 825-834 DOI: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2016.02.165

further reading
Is sexism the reason why so many heterosexual men are prejudiced towards gay men?
People’s “coming out” experiences are related to their psychological wellbeing years later
Intervention helps reduce homophobia

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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The Psychology of Beards, Digested

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ll have noticed that beards have come sprouting back into fashion, at least in the UK and US. To psychologists, this phenomenon raises several inter-related questions, such as – are these men just copying each other; what does a beard do to a man’s attractiveness; does it make him look more macho; and given the answers to the previous, should I grow one too? Well, that last question might apply only to male psychologists. Anyhow, here to help you untangle these issues, we present the latest in our world-famous series of special features: the psychology of beards, digested.

Beards make men look more attractive (except when they don’t)
One influential theory is that men’s beards are an adornment, like a peacock’s tail, which make them more attractive, especially to the opposite sex. Yet the research on whether men with beards are more attractive is contradictory.

This paper from 1973 that involved undergrads rating men’s faces found that bearded men were considered better-looking (not to mention more masculine, mature, dominant, self-confident, courageous, liberal, nonconforming, industrious, and older). That was the hairy 70s you say, but this study published this very month in Archives of Sexual Behaviour also found that hundreds of women recruited online consistently rated bearded men, regardless of amount of beard growth, as more sexually attractive than their clean-shaven counterparts.

But male readers, before you bin your razor, consider that another study from 1991, involving undergrads doing the rating, found that clean-shaven men were seen as “younger, more attractive, and more sociable” than the beardies, while another paper out this year found that “there was no main effect of facial hair growth on ratings of attractiveness”.

We may have hit peak beard
Part of the reason for these mixed findings is likely that when beards are in vogue, as they are today, a man with a beard no longer stands out from the crowd. Researchers tested this idea a couple of years ago by presenting participants with either lots of pictures of bearded men, or lots of pictures of clean-shaven men, or a mix, before then having them rate the attractiveness of a bunch more men, bearded and non-bearded.

The revealing finding was that bearded men were seen as relatively more attractive after the researchers had created a clean-shaven background context. This supports the idea that beards boost attractiveness when they help make a man distinctive from his peers. The result also complements historical research showing that hair length, side-burns, and beards tend to follow the same cyclical pattern, increasing in popularity and length until they reach a peak and then subsiding again. All of which prompted the researchers to suggest that in current times we may well be close to reaching “peak beard“.

Bearded men look more macho
A rival evolutionary theory for men’s beards suggests that they aren’t so much about attracting women, but more about frightening other men by helping their owners to look aggressive and dominant. The findings here are more consistent. For example, this cross-cultural study from 2012 found that European women from New Zealand and Polynesian women from Samoa rated bearded men’s faces as older and higher social status (but not more attractive) and they perceived bearded men pulling an aggressive face as more aggressive than clean-shaven men doing the same.

Similarly, this recent study found that men with beards were perceived as more dominant. And another paper that’s consistent with the idea of men using their beards to compete found that moustaches have historically been more common in eras when there are lots of eligible men competing for partners.

There’s also some controversial research that’s found men in the USA and India with more sexist attitudes are more likely to have beards, which could fit with the idea that they’ve grown their beards to bolster what they see as their dominance. However, others have criticised this interpretation and the result failed to replicate with a Swedish sample.

On a similar note, feminists are less likely to vote for men with beards, probably because they see them as overly masculine and more likely to support violence against women.

What else does a beard do to a man’s image?  
Like a middle-aged goatee peppered with grey, the findings here are patchy once more. Bearded hipsters will be pleased to know that this paper from 2014 (ratings by university students again!) found that bearded men were considered more trustworthy. Similarly, another study, from 1990, involved participants looking at ink sketches of job applicants – those with beards were seen as more competent (as well as more attractive). And this study of LinkedIn profile pictures found that bearded men were considered to have more expertise (by the way, the same researchers found that spectacles had the same image-enhancing benefit for women).

Also good news for the bewhiskered, this time away from the context of work, a study from 2013 found that men and women perceived full-bearded men as likely to be better fathers than their clean-shaven and less-bearded counterparts. This could tie-in with our earlier dominant/macho theme – perhaps people assume bearded men will be better fathers because they think they are more masculine and have more status and so will be better protectors and providers.

And yet, just when you thought it was safe to let your facial hair down, this study from New Jersey lands a blow for the razor-loving corner and will surely make beard owners bristle: researchers asked participants to pretend they were jurors on a trial then showed them pictures of two men, one shaven, one bearded. They were asked to say which man they thought was on trial for rape and which was a plaintiff in a head-injury case. Seventy-eight per cent of them chose the bearded guy as the rapist! What’s more, in a follow-up, the researchers asked hundreds more participants to sketch the face of a criminal offender – 82 per cent of their drawings featured a man with a beard.

These criminal-related findings might seem strange at first, especially given the positive connotations of having a beard, such as seeming more competent in a job application. But perhaps it all comes down to the fact that beards make men appear more masculine and dominant and those attributes have different connotations in different contexts. Seeing that your male doctor is bearded might make him seem more experienced and expert, for instance, but seeing that a criminal suspect is bearded might make him seem more aggressive and threatening.

Incidentally, research that’s involved asking children to “draw a scientist” found – even prior to the foundation of the The Luxuriant Facial Hair Club for Scientists – that they frequently drew a man with a beard.

For one more context where beards seem to provoke negative assumptions, consider this study from 2013, which involved participants looking at photos of men who supposedly worked on the front desk at a hotel, and judging how assuring and competent they would likely find him to be in this role. Bearded Caucasian men received poorer ratings than their smooth-chinned counterparts (the same finding did not apply to African-American men), leading the researchers to recommend “Except under special circumstances, hotel firms should not permit their employees to wear beards.”

And finally, if this research roundup is tempting you to grow a beard, perhaps as a way to feel more manly, you might first consider wearing a fake one, to test out how you like it. A study from 1986 found that male undergrads felt more masculine simply through wearing an appropriately coloured theatrical beard, and more so than they did after wearing a bandana in the style of an outlaw. “… a person tends to form highly detailed and stereotypic impressions of another person on the basis of just a few physical features, with beards being a very strong stimulus characteristic,” the researchers said. “The present study shows that the wearers of those beards follow this societal tendency and stereotype themselves in the same way.”


further reading
The Psychology of First Impressions, Digested

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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Men who can tell a good story are seen as more attractive and higher status

The results fit with evolutionary theory

Stories can change how we think about the world, about the people they describe, and even ourselves. According to new research, they also influence our attitude to the storyteller. An article published in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that people portrayed as stronger storytellers are considered as higher status than those that aren’t – and this status can make them more romantically attractive, at least in the eyes of women. Cue editing of Tinder bios across the globe.

John Donahue and Melanie Green ran experiments with US undergraduate samples (388 in total, 55 per cent women, two-thirds Caucasian, average age 20) who were asked to rate the attractiveness of a potential partner of the opposite sex based upon basic printed information. In the first experiment, participants received a photo and a short biography of a would-be partner which included information on their storytelling abilities. Participants in the strong storytelling condition, for example, heard that the person “often tells really good stories…he makes the characters and settings come alive.” Other conditions emphasised the mediocrity of the person’s storytelling or did not mention it at all. Stronger female storytellers did not tempt male participants, nor did male raconteurs foster extra female interest in short-term dating. But women were more interested in talented male story-tellers as long-term partners.

A further experiment held the design but added another category of attraction – “Do you think this person would make a good spouse?” – and a measure of the person’s perceived status. Both male and female participants considered storytellers to have higher status than non-storytellers. But for men, that didn’t translate into finding women more attractive, whereas for female raters, there was a clear route from men’s storytelling ability to status to desirability as a long-term partner or spouse.

To examine other explanations for the lure of the story-teller beyond the effect of status, the researchers ran another experiment where participants actually read a story, supposedly recounted by the potential partner. Some stories were fluid with lively vocabulary, and, as hoped, participants rated them as better and more involving than others that told the same facts in a hesitating and digressive manner.

But surprisingly, attraction didn’t depend on being swept up in the story – that is, would-be partners who’d produced a more engrossing story were not rated as more attractive than the bores. I should note, however, that a short oral anecdote transcribed onto paper is not the strongest way to entangle someone in the magic of story, and the researchers acknowledged that other unmeasured qualities of the story, such as personal identification, or sheer enjoyment, may well affect attraction.

Donahue and Green advance an evolutionary theory for their findings: females, with a biologically high investment into producing young, have evolved to seek mates with resources, and storytelling aptitude reflects advantages that prehistorically meant the difference between life and death. But there are other explanatory lenses: for example, that men are socialised to be suspicious of women who take space and focus, considering that active status a threat that masks any liking they might have for storytelling traits, whereas women are socialised to appreciate first impressions of male competence. I suspect there is a rich, specific picture of when and why storytellers appeal, a picture that will depend on looking across cultures and at the specific effects their stories arouse in us. For now, this evidence suggests that young western males who can spin a good yarn are seen, on first blush, as a better catch.


DONAHUE, J., & GREEN, M. (2016). A good story: Men’s storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/pere.12120

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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