Category Archives: Mating

The Evolution Of “Creepiness”

Evolutionary social psychologist Francis T. McAndrew has a new paper out in on “creepiness.” The abstract:

Surprisingly, until now there has never been an empirical study of “creepiness.” An international sample of 1341 individuals responded to an online survey. Males were perceived as being more likely to be creepy than females, and females were more likely to associate sexual threat with creepiness. Unusual nonverbal behavior and characteristics associated with unpredictability were also predictors of creepi- ness, as were some occupations and hobbies. The results are consistent with the hypothesis that being “creeped out” is an evolved adaptive emotional response to ambiguity about the presence of threat that enables us to maintain vigilance during times of uncertainty.

Smithsonian.com’s Linda Rodriguez McRobbie quotes McAndrew:

“[Creepy is] about the uncertainty of threat. You’re feeling uneasy because you think there might be something to worry about here, but the signals are not clear enough to warrant your doing some sort of desperate, life-saving kind of thing,” explains McAndrew.

 

Being creeped out is different from fear or revulsion, he says; in both of those emotional states, the person experiencing them usually feels no confusion about how to respond. But when you’re creeped out, your brain and your body are telling you that something is not quite right and you’d better pay attention because it might hurt you.

 

This is sometimes manifest in a physical sensation: In 2012, researchers from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that when subjects felt creeped out, they felt colder and believed that the temperature in the room had actually dropped. (Dickens might not have used the word in quite the way it soon came to mean, but he did get the chills part right.)

 

That physical response further heightens your senses, and, continues McAndrew: “You don’t know how to act but you’re really concerned about getting more information … It kind of takes your attention and focuses it like a laser on this particular stimulus, whatever it is.”

 

Whatever it is can be things, situations, places and, of course, people. Most creepy research has looked at what makes people seem creepy. For example, the 2012 study successfully creeped people out by exposing them to others who didn’t practice normal non-verbal behavior.

 

…Perhaps the biggest predictor of whether someone was considered creepy was unpredictability. “So much of [what is creepy] is about wanting to be able to predict what’s going to happen, and that’s why creepy people creep us out – because they’re unpredictable,” explains McAndrews, noting that the 2012 study also seemed to underscore that point. “We find it hard to know what they’re going to do next.”

 

Creepiness in people is also related to individuals breaking certain tacit social rules and conventions, even if sometimes that rule breaking is necessary. This becomes more evident when we look at the kinds of jobs a majority of respondents found creepy. However unfairly, taxidermists and funeral directors  were among the creepiest professions listed in McAndrew and Koehnke’s survey, likely because these people routinely interact with macabre things that most other people would avoid.

 

“If you’re dealing with somebody who’s really interested in dead things, that sets off alarm bells. Because if they’re different in that way, what other unpleasant ways they might be different?” says McAndrew.

The Mating Crisis Among Educated Women

David Buss at Edge:

Every year, more women than men become college-educated. The disparity is already prevalent across North America and Europe, and the trend is beginning to spread across the world more widely. At the University of Texas at Austin where I teach, the sex ratio is 54 percent women to 46 percent men. This imbalance may not seem large at first blush. But when you do the math it translates into a hefty 17 percent more women than men in the local mating pool. Speculations about reasons range widely. They include the gradual removal of gender discrimination barriers and women’s higher levels of conscientiousness (relative to men’s) that translate into better grades and superior college app qualifications. Whatever the causes turn out to be, the disparity is creating a dramatic and unintended mating crisis among educated women.

 

…Most women are unwilling to settle for men who are less educated, less intelligent, and less professionally successful than they are. The flip side is that men are less exacting on precisely these dimensions, choosing to prioritize, for better or worse, other evolved criteria such as youth and appearance. So the initial sex ratio imbalance among educated groups gets worse for high achieving women. They end up being forced to compete for the limited pool of educated men not just with their more numerous educated rivals, but also with less educated women whom men find desirable on other dimensions.

 

…What are the potential solutions to the mating pool shortage for educated women? Adjust their mate preferences? Expand the range of men they are willing to consider as mates? Mating psychology may not be that malleable. The same mating desires responsible for the skewed gender imbalance to begin with continue to create unfortunate obstacles to human happiness. As successful women overcome barriers in the workplace, they encounter new dilemmas in the mating market.

The Science of Sexy Backs: Women’s Evolved Lumbar Curvature Signals Ability to Handle Shift of Mass During Pregnancy

Evolutionary psychologists tell us there is an unmistakably Darwinian logic to the things we find sexually attractive. As we know, everyone alive today is the product of an unbroken line of ancestors who all succeeded in the game of survival and reproduction.

The first task a person must solve to have offspring is to find a fertile mate. Evolutionary psychology research suggests that modern humans have inherited a preference for looks that signal fertility: a low “waist-to-hip ratio,” for example — that hourglass shape that women aspire to have and men adore. Well, it turns out that a low waist-to-hip-ratio correlates with fewer complications in childbirth. And then there’s how men, more than women, are attracted by cues of youthfulness? In all likelihood, this is because fertility is sharply age-graded in women, more so than in men.

The latest kid on the block of Darwinian approaches to beauty is the unsexy term lumbature curvature. In a new paper published in Evolution and Human Behavior by David Lewis, Eric Russell, Laith Al-Shawaf and David Buss, the authors investigated which kinds of curvature of a woman’s lower back that men find most attractive. The reason? One adaptive problem uniquely faced in our bipedal species is a forward-shifted center of mass during pregnancy.

During pregnancy, if the center of mass could not somehow be moved back over the hips, our ancestral mothers would have suffered a nearly 800% increase in hip torque. One solution that women’s spines — though not men’s — evolved in order to deal with this challenge is a “wedging” in the third-to-last vertebra. That is, women’s third-to-last vertebra is shaped a bit like a wedge, with one thick end and tapering to the other, thinner end.  This makes it easier for pregnant mothers to bring the trunk’s center of mass back on top of their hips by extending their back. However, there is a delicate balance to strike — between enabling a move of center of mass during pregnancy and still retaining ordinary skeletal reinforcement.

To make a long story short, the researchers predicted that men will have evolved a preference for female backs that signal the optimal angle of lumbar curvature, which according to the orthopedic medical literature is around 45.5°. They conducted two experiments to test their hypothesis. First, they showed men images of women in profile, in which they manipulated the curvature of the lower back. (Technically, they varied the external angle formed between the buttock and thoracic spine.) The images that the men rated most attractive were those with a lower back that fit the magical 45.5 optimal degree of vertebrate wedging.

The curvature of the back, however, is not just influenced by vertebral wedging, but also by buttock mass. And in the researchers’ first study, the images varied in “buttock protrusion.” So the researchers conducted a second study in which men viewed images identical in buttock protrusion, but in only one condition was the buttock protrusion a cue to vertebral wedging. They found that men preferred women where buttock protrusion signaled optimal vertebral wedging. Men’s preference for a curved back, then, seems not to be just a by-product of a preference for buttock mass (Sir Mix-A-Lot notwithstanding), but a preference for backs that signal a specific degree of vertebrate wedging.

Here’s to the sexy backs.

Stop Counting, Start Collecting: Hormone Measurements in Evolutionary Psychology Research

In recent years, evolutionary psychologists have conducted lab-based and naturalistic studies suggesting that naturally cycling women (i.e. women who are not on hormonal contraceptives, such as the pill) experience a suite of behavioral and cognitive changes depending whether they are in the follicular, ovulatory, or luteal phase of their menstrual cycles. During ovulation, when a woman’s chance of conception is highest, she is likely to report higher levels of sexual desire, have a strong preference for masculine-looking men, and wear certain types of clothing—specifically, red clothing.

In 2013, a study conducted by psychologists Alec Beall and Jessica Tracy found that women at high conception risk (women who self-reported being on days 6-14 of the cycle) were over 3 times as likely as women at low conception risk (women who self-reported being on days 0-5 and 15-28 of the cycle) to wear red or pink shirts. Day of the cycle was determined by counting the number of days since women’s last self-reported menses.

There was just one problem—that “day of the cycle was determined by counting the number of days since women’s last self-reported menses.” This counting method is frequently employed in studies relating cycle phase to behavior because of its ease relative to collecting and assaying saliva samples for hormone concentrations. However, prior to when this study was conducted, there were several reasons to doubt its accuracy in classifying high versus low fertility days, which may make results from studies using this method suspect.

Acknowledging this flaw, evolutionary psychologists Adar Eisenbruch, Zachary Simmons, and James Roney conducted similar analyses to Beall and Tracy, but instead of using the counting method, they collected saliva samples (that were then assayed for hormone concentrations) each time women came into the lab. They then also used the counting method, and examined the concordance between the counting and hormonal methods of conception risk classification.

Using the counting method, there was no difference in the percentage of low and high conception risk women who wore red. When using the hormonal method, however, a significantly higher percent of high conception risk women wore red than did low conception risk women. So, while the use Beall and Tracy’s methods resulted in an inability to replicate their own original findings, the use hormonal methods for conception risk classification resulted in support for high conception risk women being more likely to wear red.

Perhaps more interesting, and certainly more worrisome than this central finding, was the lack of concordance between the counting and hormonal methods of classification—the two agreed in a mere 64% of cases. In other words, for more than 1/3 of the time, these two methods classified women as being in opposite conception risk categories. Further, almost half of the days identified as high conception risk by hormonal methods were classified as low conception risk by the counting method.

That the counting method can differ substantially from hormonal methods of conception risk classification challenges the reliability of some prior findings of cycle phase effects. While it is certain that using the counting method is easier, quicker, and less expensive than collecting and assaying saliva samples, it is unclear whether these advantages outweigh the findings of Eisenbruch et al.  suggesting that the counting method may be incorrect more than third of the time.

It may be that as evidence of the flaws of the counting method continues to accumulate, its use in evolutionary psychology will become increasingly harder to justify, thus opening the door for broader use of more methodologically-sound research practices.

Men’s Mate Preferences: What OkCupid Can Tell Us About Evolutionary Psychology

In 2014, approximately 10 million people used the online dating website OkCupid. While for users this means that billions of messages were exchanged and (probably) thousands of bad dates were had, for OkCupid CEO Christian Rudder, this means there’s an endless pool of data on interpersonal interactions begging to be analyzed.

In his 2014 book Dataclysm, Rudder analyzes data from OkCupid along with other social media sites (e.g. Twitter) to teach us about how we see ourselves, and how we interact with others. While many of his findings are noteworthy, he describes a phenomenon particularly relevant to the potential evolutionary mechanisms that influence mate choice.

Rudder asked men from ages 20 to 50 to rate the attractiveness of women of all ages. He then figured out the age of the women who looked best (i.e. got the highest ratings) to men who were 20, to men who were 21, and so on.

Men who were 20 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Men who were 21 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive. Jumping forward a bit, men who were 30 rated women who were 20 as the most attractive, as did men who were 31, as did men who were 46, as did men who were 47…

As you can see, the men in Rudder’s sample prefer more or less the same thing across all ages: women who are 20. From an evolutionary standpoint, this kind of innate preference for women of this age makes some sense: a woman’s chance of conception is highest in her early 20s, and decreases continually thereafter.

So, if we believe that some behaviors and preferences in men are driven by evolutionary mechanisms to facilitate the creation of offspring, men with preferences for women at peak fertility could potentially be more reproductively successful than men with preferences for women who are older and thus less fertile.>

Interestingly, this preference of men for women in their early 20s did not translate to actual behavior on the site. When indicating their preferences, most men said they were looking for someone around their age, and sent the most messages to women within 10 years of their own age.

This disconnect between what men say they want and who they rate as most attractive may be in part due to what women on the site want. While men rate women who are 20 as most attractive regardless of their own age, women rate men who are in their own age range as the most attractive, and indicate that they are looking for someone in that same range.

What does this mean practically? While a 40 year old man messaging many 20-year-old women on the site may get some positive responses, he is much more likely to get them from women in their 30s and 40s, and should take this into account to maximize his changes of finding love (or whatever else he may be looking for on OkCupid).

For more findings about how Twitter has influenced the way we write, which phrases are most common in White OkCupid users and least common in Asian users, and why the variability in your attractiveness rating is more important than your average rating, check out Rudder’s book, Dataclysm: Love, Sex, Race, and Identity–What Our Online Lives Tell Us about Our Offline Selves.

Are You Rolling On Dubs? The Evolutionary Psychology Of Vehicle Mods

Post by Jessica S. Kruger, a University of Toledo Health Education doctoral student with a cognate in Psychology, who did the research with her husband, evolutionary social psychologist Dr. Daniel J. Kruger, a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan.

 

“ARE YOU ROLLING on dubs?” Not long ago, I only knew this as a tag line in a rap song.

Rims1 

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Two years ago, we moved to a historic neighborhood in an urban area. As evolutionary researchers, we were fascinated by what we saw there. One thing we noticed was the high proportion of vehicles with large and shiny rims (wheels). There is even a store just a few blocks from where we live that sells these rims. After driving by so many times, I decided to stop in and investigate. I was stunned to learn how expensive they could be, and intrigued that we would often see very fancy vehicles parked in front of houses that were in various states of decay.

We understand these patterns through the framework of Life History Theory:

Life history theory … is a branch of evolutionary theory which predicts behavior based upon people’s [potential lifespans, vis a vis how stable or risky their environment is]. It suggests that as people believe they are likely to live longer, decisions related to certain milestones such as marriage, having babies, and divorce may be delayed in favor of other activities such as education. … Life history theory can help us understand how we make important decisions that affect our lives.

Some researchers describe life history as a continuum from slow to fast. This is because relatively “faster” species and individuals tend to reproduce earlier and more prolifically, but also tend to die earlier. In evolutionary terms, neither fast nor slow life histories are inherently good or bad. An individual’s life history is shaped in part by the environment in which it grows up. When conditions are unpredictable and the chance of early death is high, individuals seize opportunities when they can, before it is too late. If conditions are predictable and the chance of early death is low, individuals take a less risky, long-term approach.

Each individual has a limited amount of time and energy, so one has to make “trade-offs” in how much effort to invest in each aspect of life. One of these trade-offs is between mating effort (getting new sexual partners) and parenting effort (investing in offspring). For example, a male peacock has a big and beautiful tail. Charles Darwin was puzzled by peacock tails and wondered how they could have evolved, as they are cumbersome and could attract predators. He later realized that peacock tails did not evolve because they helped peacocks survive, but rather that this costly trait served as a signal of the male’s quality. The more brilliant the plumage, the more attractive it is to potential mates.

We concluded that the extravagant wheels we saw were a function of mating effort, a costly signal analogue to the peacock’s tail, used to gain status and attract partners. We decided to conduct a study to confirm this idea. We searched the Internet for before and after pictures of cars that had rim upgrades. We found suitable pictures of a Jeep Rubicon and a Chrysler 300. We predicted that people would rate a male owner of a car with upgraded rims as higher in mating effort, lower in parental effort, more interested in brief sexual affairs, and less interested in long-term committed relationships than men with stock vehicles.
RubiconPre

RubiconPost

The results from ratings of 339 college students generally confirmed our predictions. The patterns were stronger for male participants, and both cars seemed to be associated with a high mating effort (and lower parental effort, etc.) life history regardless of the wheels they had.

I am on the board of a grassroots non-profit inner-city gym for local youth. I was talking with people there about the project, and they were incredulous that we needed to do a study to figure this out; to them it was so obvious.

Rims can be thought of jewelry for your car and, in evolutionary terms, a display of resources to attract potential mates.

We are glad to shed more light on conspicuous consumption and explain an apparent paradox (why people in resource-scarce environment would spend so much on these products) with the strongest theoretical framework in the human sciences.

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I like to get into my research.

 

This research was presented by Jessica Sloan Kruger at NEEPS 2015, the NorthEastern Evolutionary Psychology conference. Dates and info on NEEPS 2016 and other the 2016 ev psych (and related) conferences here.

Boy Next Door or Abs Galore: The Discrepancy Between What Men Think Is Hot and Reality

Keeping in line with my short-running streak of posting about getting in with the opposite sex, guys, do I have more good news for you!

A study commissioned by the U.K. underwear company, Jacamo, finds that women aren’t really that into the super cut men you see in men’s underwear ads, but rather the ones you see mowing the lawn shirtless on weekends.

“72 percent of women in the UK actually prefer men with the “boy next door” look as opposed luscious hulks.”

The study also shines light on the very interesting discrepancy between what men think women think and what women actually think:

“While men state that a woman’s ideal man would be made up of Justin Bieber’s hair, Gerard Butler’s [chiseled] face, Hugh Jackman’s moviestar arms, David Gandy’s tight abs and Cristiano Ronaldo’s smooth legs, the response from women showed a contrasting view, set to be welcomed by men across the country.

“… In reality, women in the UK lust over Prince Harry’s smile and comedian James Corden’s hair, research says.

“Men with well-toned bodies are, initially, regarded as attractive, but it is the man with the little bit of excess flab around the waist who often wins the day,” states Jacamo’s press release.”

This is interesting from a mating perspective, since what men are pursuing as a desired standard isn’t actually what their target audience is after at all (I have my own concerns over the ladies’ love of Prince “Hairy” here). Even further, the social stress to obtain and the desirability mismatch of this “ideal” body type may be having a negative impact on men’s self esteem.

Dove has famously campaigned for acceptance of all female body types; however, men are a little short on body-type support groups. The article ends concludes with the notion that men and women aren’t so far apart in fretting about body image:

“… as many as 62 percent of men in the UK are still persuaded that ladies would rather go for a man with “the gladiator look,” and that many men suffer “pangs of anxiety when they fail to match up this image.

“Who says body confidence is only women’s issue?”

Mystery Solved: The Way To A Woman’s Heart Is Through Her Stomach

In new research by clinical psychologist Alice Ely, there’s some light shed on the conundrum that has plagued men for centuries: “How do I get this lady to like me?”

In a new study published online in the journal Appetite, researchers found that women’s brains respond more to romantic cues on a full stomach than an empty one. The study explored brain circuitry in hungry versus satiated states among women who were past-dieters and those who had never dieted…

“We found that young women both with and without a history of dieting had greater brain activation in response to romantic pictures in reward-related neural regions after having eaten than when hungry,” said Ely.

So far, studies have found support for stronger reward responses while hungry, but Ely’s research provides a view of the other side of the coin: When you’re hungry, you’re preoccupied with finding food, but once you’ve chowed down, you can focus on other priorities.

“In this case, they were more responsive when fed,” she said. “This data suggests that eating may prime or sensitize young women to rewards beyond food. It also supports a shared neurocircuitry for food and sex…

“The pattern of response was similar to historical dieter’s activation when viewing highly palatable food cues, and is consistent with research showing overlapping brain-based responses to sex, drugs and food,” said Ely.

Maybe those dinner dates aren’t so overrated after all!

Sometimes We Have Sex Because We Don’t Want To Do The Dishes

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Evolutionary social psychologist Carin Perilloux was one of the co-authors on a new study“Sex and Mating Strategy Impact the 13 Basic Reasons for Having Sex.” (It’s the Kennair et al paper referenced below.)

And most helpfully — this being the Applied Evolutionary Psychology Society blog — Perilloux put the findings in context for us in this piece below.

Have you ever wondered why people have sex?

If you’re like most people, the answer might have seemed so obvious to you that you never stopped to wonder about it. Just a decade ago, psychologists probably would have had the same reaction, citing a few reasons such as reproduction and physical pleasure.

But a recent study led by Leif Kennair has confirmed that humans have sex for a large suite of reasons. Replicating the original findings of Cindy Meston and David Buss (2007), Kennair and colleagues show that the reasons men and women give for having sex fall into 13 categories:

•Stress reduction – “I thought it would relax me” “I’m a sex addict”

•Pleasure – “I was horny” “It feels good”

•Physical desirability – “S/he was naked and I couldn’t resist” “His/her appearance turned me on”

•Experience seeking – “I was curious” “I wanted to see what s/he was like in bed”

•Resources – “I wanted a child” “I wanted to make money”

•Social status – “I wanted to be popular” “I wanted to brag to my friends about it”

•Revenge – “I wanted to make someone jealous” “I wanted to get back at my cheating ex”

•Utilitarian – “I wanted to keep warm” “I wanted to get out of doing something else”

•Love and commitment – “I wanted to show my feelings for him/her” “I wanted to take the next step in our relationship”

•Expression/consolidation – “I wanted to celebrate his/her birthday” “I wanted to say I was sorry”

•Self-esteem – “I wanted attention” “I wanted to boost my self-esteem”

•Duty/pressure – “I wanted to stop my partner from nagging about it” “I felt it was my duty”

•Mate guarding – “I wanted to prevent a breakup” “I wanted to decrease my partner’s desire to cheat”

Now that you’ve read the list, your perspective might have shifted since the beginning of the post: perhaps now it seems obvious to you that people have loads and loads of different reasons for having sex! And these reasons are not simply idiosyncratic: there’s a pattern to them.

First, the reasons replicate cross-culturally: Meston and Buss (2007) originally documented these 13 categories in a US sample while Kennair (2015) found the same 13 categories in a Norwegian sample.

Second, Kennair and colleagues (2015) showed that gender and mating strategy are good predictors of who endorses which reasons for having sex. For example, men are more likely to cite Stress Reduction reasons for sex than women. And men and women who are more interested in short-term mating (e.g., hooking up, one night stands) are more likely to cite reasons for sex in the Pleasure, Experience-Seeking, and Revenge categories.

Learning that people have sex for a multitude of reasons can help us understand ourselves better – and our sex partners. It can perhaps give us pause in our assumptions about why someone might want to have sex with us – and addressing our own assumptions is generally a good exercise.

These findings also help many of us to feel more normal about why we have sex. Sure, a lot of times we have sex for the big reasons – it feels good, we want to have kids – but sometimes we have sex because it will make our ex jealous, or we don’t want to do the dishes, or it’s simply a little more interesting than the novel on the nightstand.

Our reasons for having sex might not always be grand or fun or even healthy, but they are part of the suite of motivations for sex that makes us human. Researching these underlying motivations is a step toward understanding our mating psychology even better. And as mating researchers (and all of you who have ever engaged in mating) know: it’s complicated!

See more about Perilloux’s research here.

Read Meston and Buss’s (popular science) book on this subject, Why Women Have Sex: Women Reveal the Truth About Their Sex Lives, from Adventure to Revenge

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