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Sex Appeal: The Genders Don't See Eye to Eye
When it comes to choosing a mate, women seem to focus on specific facial features, value their own beauty, and like men who dominate other males but don't try to dominate the household
by Linda Sparrow and Craig Weatherby

The first “eye-gazing parties” were held in New York in 2005.

Eye gazing resembles speed dating, except that instead of chatting briefly with dozens of potential dates, men and women sit across from each other silently, and gaze into each other's eyes for two minutes.

Time will tell if this approach is embraced as a new way to find dating partners. As one party participant told the San Francisco Chronicle, “I just think of it as a really good icebreaker… the real juice of the party is the mingling after all the eye gazing.”

But recent research suggests that when it comes to judging attractiveness, men and women don't really see eye to eye.

Writers, romantics, and researchers have filled libraries with their attempts to explain or define the differences between genders when it comes to choosing a mate.

Researchers continue to study this puzzle, and recent findings may advance our understanding of how women determine facial attractiveness.

Some of these discoveries seem like penetrating glimpses into the obvious... but others provide novel perspectives on male-female dynamics.

Fractured faces yield attractive insights
According to researchers at Penn State, “We have found that women evaluate facial attractiveness on two levels: a sexual level, based on specific facial features like the jawbone, cheekbone and lips; and a nonsexual level, based on overall aesthetics.”

Researchers Robert G. Franklin and Reginald Adams led a team of  psychologists who showed a variety of male and female faces to 50 female, heterosexual college students.

They asked the young women to rate the faces based on two different criteria: 
  1. as potential dates and
  2. as potential lab partners.
The request that they rate the faces as potential dates was designed to invoke a sexual basis of determining attractiveness, while the request that the women rate the faces as potential lab partners was geared to a more purely aesthetic judgement, regardless of sexual attraction.

(Left unexplained was why the researchers asked the heterosexual female participants to rate the photographed women as potential dates.)

Next, the psychologists presented the same set of male and female faces to a another group set of 50 heterosexual female students—but this time, half of the photos given to the study participants had the faces split horizontally—with the upper and lower halves shifted slightly in opposite directions.

By dividing the faces in half, the researchers were intentionally forcing the participants to look at facial features out of their full context.

Splitting the faces in half made the women rely on reactions to features of the male faces when picking potential dates.

In contrast, there was no difference between the whole and split faces when the women ranked other women's faces.

Thus, the study results suggest that women look for specific facial features when assessing a man's sexual attractiveness.

This observation appears to validate the conventional wisdom that women like men with certain features, such as strong jawlines ... call it the Cooper-Clooney (Gary and George) syndrome.

Researchers have long known that women's criteria for judging sexual attractiveness derive from instincts that associate certain features with reproductive advantages, regulated by estrogen and related “reward” hormones.

In contrast, aesthetic judgments based on seeing the entire face are less reward-based, and are mediated by progesterone.

How the body's network of hormones interacts and is channeled through the conscious brain and the human culture that shapes it, remains a mystery.

Attractiveness in mate-choosing: Men and women diverge again
Speed-dating was considered to be a fertile testing ground by researchers of another study wherein participants were asked to rate themselves on a variety of traits, and then rate an “ideal mate” based on the same traits.

These ratings were then compared with the traits of the people they actually chose to make offers to while speed-dating (Todd P et al. 2007).

Although both men and women said that they preferred mates who possessed attributes similar to their own
which would support the notion that likes attracttheir actual choices told a different story.

Men's choices did not reflect their stated preferences or their self-perceptions. Instead, men appeared to base their decisions mostly on the physical attractiveness of the women. They also appeared to be much less choosy, making a greater number of offers compared with the number of offers made by women.

One interpretation of these results is that men “propose” to nearly every woman above some certain attractiveness threshold, which is independent of the traits they desire in a mate.

But women appeared to be aware of their own attractiveness as well as the importance that men place on female attractiveness, causing women to adjust their choices to fit their own self-perception.

The surprising conclusion was that both men's and women's choices are influenced by women's physical attractiveness.

What women prefer: Dominance over men, not over them
Last year a team led by anthropologist Jeffrey Snyder of the University of California, Los Angeles, discovered that women find domineering men attractive in male-to-male athletic competitions.

But women find the same behavior unattractive when men showed domineering behavior in interpersonal situations (Snyder JK et al. 2008).

Further studies by the UCLA researchers confirmed that women “did not prefer targets who used dominance-based strategies to achieve status” in any context “outside of a socially sanctioned athletic contest.”

“Women most likely avoid dominant men as long-term romantic partners because a dominant man may also be domineering in the household,” the authors said (Snyder JK et al. 2008).

In other words, women seem to think that a guy who succeeds due to his smarts and his skills, rather than intimidation, is likely to make the best mate.

  • Franklin RG Jr, Adams RB Jr. A dual-process account of female facial attractiveness preferences: Sexual and nonsexual routes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol 45, Issue 5, Sept09, Pgs 1156-1159. [
  • Freeman JB, Rule NO, Adams RB Jr, Ambady N. The Neural Basis of Categorical Face Perception: Graded Representations of Face Gender in Fusiform and Orbitofrontal Cortices. Cereb Cortex. 2009 Sep 18. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Snyder JK, Kirkpatrick LA, Barrett HC. The dominance dilemma: do women really prefer dominant mates? Personal Relationships, Dec 2008, 15 (4): 425.
  • Todd P, Penke L, Fasolo B, Lenton A. Different cognitive processes underlie human mate choices and mate preferences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Sept 2007, vol. 104 no. 38 15011-15016.