Looking for love? It’s all over your face, and in more detail than you might think.
New research on the psychology of attraction suggests we can tell whether potential mates are open to a short-term fling or a long-term relationship – just by looking at their faces.
Researchers in Britain asked 700 young, heterosexual men and women to examine photographs of their peers and rate them on their openness to short-term sexual relationships.
Some observers looked at photographs of real faces and others examined composites created by researchers from other photographs of real people.
The perceptions of the observers were then compared with the actual attitudes of the people in the photos and the composites, which had been determined through a detailed questionnaire.
Without knowing anything about the subjects, observers were able to pick out which faces belonged to more casual lovers and which belonged to fans of monogamy.
The results of the joint effort by Durham, St. Andrews and Aberdeen universities build on previous research connecting facial structure and cues to such personality traits as introspection and propensity to cheat.
“We’ve clearly got some kind of ability to pick up on correlations between facial structure – or something – and behaviour,” says psychologist Lynda Boothroyd, the study’s lead author.
“And now it looks like it is also true in sexual proclivity.”
But men and women use this innate mating skill differently, Dr. Boothroyd found. Men tend to prefer women who telegraph an interest in short-term relationships.
“Women, on the other hand, were more attracted to men who reported fewer sexual partners, fewer one-night-stands and more requirement for emotional commitment to have sex.”
And in a wrinkle at the heart of many a modern dating woe, these impulses appear regardless of the kind of relationship men and women are seeking.
In other words, a woman seeking a short-term fling will still tend to choose a mate who seems worthy of a long-term relationship.
The findings, published in the current journal of Evolution and Human Behavior, back up familiar evolutionary theory.
Over millennia, if men were just slightly biased toward women who might be more likely to sleep with them on a casual basis, “those men are going to rack up more conceptions that other men,” says Dr. Boothroyd.
And women are drawn to better long-term partners who are less likely to abandon them.
To hunt for a possible explanation, the researchers also asked the observers to rank the photos and composites on the basis of attractiveness and masculinity or femininity.
In previous studies, a man’s perceived masculinity seemed to relate to his attractiveness. Here, it related to his interest in casual sex.
“People perceived the faces of the men with more partners to be more masculine, with flatter eyebrows, smaller eyes, bigger jaw.”
But when it came to the women, the physical attributes favoured by men were harder to pinpoint. Dr. Boothroyd says she expected attractiveness to play a role, but it didn’t.
“It appears to be something else. And we don’t know what it is yet.”
What’s more, it may be a moving target, since an individual may telegraph different sexual interests during different periods.
A sexually casual 20-year-old may indeed be looking to settle down at 35. And, presumably, her potential mates will be able to detect those changes and lust after her accordingly.
“No one’s saying you were born with this template in your head,” Dr. Boothroyd says.
“We don’t yet know how people are doing it.”