you like beards? I like beards. But I know plenty of women who don't.
Most adult men I know don't have beards. Which is weird, when you think
about it. Because beards are a biological signal. A signal that says, "I
am a sexually mature male, ready for mating. I have excellent genes and
will impregnate you with fine children. Mate with me ladies." They are
the human equivalent of peacocks' tails.
an evolutionary standpoint, shaving off beards makes no sense, so why
do many men do it? I'll tell you why. It's because human beings are
highly complex social animals embedded in highly complex social systems.
Culture, fashion and what-other-people-do have an enormous influence on
us. So much so they can completely confound our biological programming.
So when evolutionary psychology looks at mate choice in humans, it
needs to bear in mind this inconvenient fact. Which means I take this
recent Telegraph headline,"Stressed men prefer larger women", with something of a pinch of salt.
This reports on astudy in PloS ONEin
which they gave some white, male, Westminster undergraduates a mock job
interview, then showed them pictures of women of a range of body types,
and asked them which they found attractive. They found that the
"stressed" students picked slightly larger women than the control group.
And concluded that when we experience acute stress (indicating,
perhaps, a threatening environment), we become more attracted to bodies
that suggest maturity as it makes us feel safer.
know we shouldn't get exercised about subheadings, which are generally
not written by the author (and certainly not by the scientists). But, I
give you: "Tightening one's belt in a recession is usually considered
prudent, but women may be advised to do the opposite after a study found
that in tough times stressed men turn to larger ladies for comfort." Oh
no, we thought we were supposed to be thin, but now we might have made
ourselves too thin for boys to like us! Let us cry hopelessly into our
is, there's a massive difference between the adrenaline and cortisol
burst from a 10-minute mock job interview, and the complex physiological
effects of long-term stress such as unemployment, poverty or economic
uncertainty. A recession, for those at the sharp end, is really nothing
like a few minutes of embarrassment.
be fair, neither the scientists nor the bulk of the article make the
recession comparison, they simply talk about stress. But there are other
problems. White university undergraduates in London are not
representative or typical of all human beings. Not only are they young,
educated, well-fed, but they are embedded within one particular complex
social system. Jane Austen's heroines develop accomplishments such as
embroidery and piano playing to impress potential husbands. I think my
boyfriend is a lot more impressed by me always carrying a penknife than
my grade one piano certificate. The sensible strategies for life in one
complex social system are not necessarily the sensible strategies for life inanothercomplex
social system. We can't draw conclusions about all humanity, or about
our evolutionary programming, from the behaviour of 80 London
are also other possible explanations for these results. We live in a
culture that sends us messages about what we are supposed to look like,
and what we are supposed to find attractive. You see thousands of images
of young, scantily clad women with unnatural body shapes every day. Of
course this influences what people actually do and think. But even more,
it influences what theythinkthey think. And what theysaythey
think. It may be that many men naturally prefer slightly larger women
than we're presented with as the cultural ideal, and this is overlaid by
an idea of what we are "supposed" to like. Perhaps stress makes this
natural preference leak out more. Part of their brain is too busy
worrying to remember what they are supposed to like. This isn't a
possibility the scientists seem to have considered. Innate preferences
is all, let's ignore the effects of cultural programming.
are thousands of psychology papers published every day. Why is it that a
small and limited study, finding a very small effect, gets covered in
the science media when so much else doesn't? Is this article,
ironically, just another example of the cultural obsession with women's
weight, which pop evolutionary psychology so studiously ignores?