If the courts wanted to know if a suspected sex offender was attracted to children, they could ask him or her, or they could ask experts to measure signs of the suspect’s sexual arousal while he or she looked at different images. But a devious suspect would surely lie about their interests, and they could distract themselves to cheat the physical test.
Brain scans offer an alternative strategy: research shows that when we look at images that we find sexually attractive, our brains show distinct patterns of activation. But of course, the same issues of cheating and deliberate distraction could apply.
Unless, that is, you could somehow prevent the suspect from knowing what images they were looking at, by using subliminal stimuli that can’t be seen at a conscious level. Then you could see how their brain responds to different types of image without the suspect even knowing what they were looking at.
This is the essence of a strategy tested in a new paper in Consciousness and Cognition. Martina Wernicke at Asklepios Forensic Psychiatric Hospital of Gottingen and her colleagues have provided a partial proof of principle that it might one day be possible to use subliminally presented images in a brain scanner to provide a fraud-proof test of a person’s sexual interests. It’s a potentially important break-through for crime prevention – given that deviant sexual interest is one of the strongest predictors of future offences – but it also raises important ethical questions.
You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.
The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.
An impressive amount of research has linked frequency of sex with greater happiness. One study even put a monetary estimate on it. They said that the happiness spurt from having sex once a week compared with monthly is similar to the boost you’d get from earning an extra $50,000 a year (though for anything more frequent than weekly sex, the benefits seemed to tail off).
Asking if and why more sex makes us happier may sound like asking the blindingly obvious, but of course a lot of pleasurable activities don’t have long-term emotional benefits; it’s also tricky to rule out the simple alternative possibility that we’re more likely to have sex if we’re happy.
In a series of studies in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists in Switzerland and Canada have looked beyond the immediate bliss that sex can bring, and they say that the main reason that more sex seems to contribute to greater long-term happiness is because of all the cuddling (and other expressions of affection) that’s involved, both at the time, and for hours afterwards.
In Talking It Over, Julian Barnes writes that “Love is just a system for getting someone to call you darling after sex”; this new research suggests that sex is a system for getting someone you love to call you darling, and to give you a big cuddle.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”→
“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”→
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.