30 May 2007

Sexual chemistry 101

By
Cosmos magazine
Looking for love? Use the power of science to give you the edge in the dating game, with the top 10 lab-tested tips for finding the perfect mate.
Sexual chemistry 101

Use the powers of science to help you find true love. Credit: photolibrary; istockphoto

Boy meets girl and the chemistry is explosive. Their eyes lock, their heartbeats race, everyone else in the room just melts away. But far from being some weird, mystical force, sexual attraction is actually quite prosaic.

It’s the product of millions of years of evolution all focussed on one idea: successfully passing your genes on to the next generation. And the whole dating scene is really just people assessing the reproductive potential of prospective mates.

Humans have evolved a plethora of ways to advertise their reproductive value – from chiselled jaws and permanently enlarged mammary glands to complex odours and a raucous sense of humour. The right combination of these features in the right person add together to give you that funny feeling in your stomach we hear so much about.

So why not take advantage of science to get ahead? In purely biological terms, men are looking for reproductively fit women to produce healthy offspring carrying their genes. Women want men with good genes to pass on to their babies and a caring mate who will protect and feed the family. Keen-eyed researchers are breaking down the science of the myriad cues humans rely on to assess these qualities. Use what they’ve learned to give yourself a leg-up next time you’re at the bar being scoped out for ‘optimal mating qualities’.

1) Flaunt your fragrance (responsibly)
Our noses are subtly attuned to the smells of potential mates, and our natural body odours carry powerful messages of attraction. So don’t be afraid of your own fragrance. All the same, don’t throw out the deodorant and run off to the gym to intensify your natural funk, either: weak odours are more attractive than strong ones, and many odour molecules only have a very brief lifespan before they oxidise and become decidedly unattractive.

Although women are many times more sensitive, both sexes are attuned to the aromas of love. Recent research also remarkably indicates men and women confronted by well-formed, symmetrical people will react more favourably to their scent, as long as it’s not particularly whiffy.

However, we can also learn a lot about a potential partner’s immune system from their odour. Our smell can subconsciously tell us a lot about an important immune system control area on our genome called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC).

Opposites attract in this case; studies show people prefer the smell of a potential mate whose MHC is different from their own. This makes good evolutionary sense says Bill von Hippel, an evolutionary psychologist at Queensland University. This is because children born to couples who have dissimilar immune systems have genetically diverse MHC regions, and are therefore more resistant to a greater number of diseases.

This also means that there is no single ‘irresistible’ male scent, because a major part of what a woman finds attractive in a man’s body odour depends on what kind of genes she herself has.

2) Maximise your fitness
Both women and men are genetically hardwired to look for physically attractive partners. Why? Physical cues are an instant and relatively accurate method of assessing the quality of a potential partner’s genes, health and reproductive status. Some aspects of attraction are universal, so if you’ve got the goods, flaunt them, and if you don’t, work on disguising the fact.

It’s a well-known phenomenon that, for humans, symmetry equals beauty, especially when it comes to faces. So gents, keep those sideburns trimmed with a setsquare and spirit level if necessary.

Women also prefer men with broad shoulders tapering to slim hips, says
David Buss, evolutionary psychologist and author of The Evolution of Desire. Evidently the triangular physique is a strong indicator of strength and athleticism – key attributes for feeding and protecting a family in the hunter-gatherer societies in which we evolved.

Men are on the prowl for good reproductive potential. This means that for the ladies, the appearance of youth and a clear complexion are good indicators of fertility, and so are healthy curves. A modest waist-to-hip ratio – specifically, a waist about 70 per cent the width of a woman’s hips – is a predictor of youth and good health, says Buss.

3) Tune in to natural rhythms
In agreement with conventional wisdom, researchers have found that men are pretty much attracted to the same things all the time. However, the lads need to understand that what turns a woman on can vary significantly, depending at what stage she is in her menstrual cycle.

When viewed through the lens of evolution, this makes perfect sense, says Rob Brooks, an expert in the evolution of sexual reproduction from the University of New South Wales. Women ovulate only once a month, so their bodies are tuned to be most receptive to the signs of potential mates – sexy faces, shapely bodies and alluring odours – at the time when they’re most likely to fall pregnant.

At this time, women tend to take more care with their appearance, become more attracted to stereotypically masculine features (large features, square jaws etc) and prefer dissimilar male MHC scents.

Fellas, it’s worth noting that a woman’s desire to cheat on her partner can also increase while she’s ovulating. In the evolutionary sense, a woman wants to find the best possible genes for her offspring, says Brooks. However, when there’s no chance of conception, a woman has nothing
to gain by ‘shopping for good genes’, especially if in doing so she risks the loss of a caring – if not so sexy – partner.

This only applies to women who aren’t currently on the contraceptive pill, which disrupts these natural cycles. Also, a tip for women: be careful, as the pill reverses your preference for MHC odours, making you attracted to immune systems similar to yours.

4) Socially lubricate
Science backs up the common perception that alcohol does tend to make things happen that otherwise might not. And this applies for both sexes. ‘Alcohol disrupts frontal lobe functioning, which is the seat of inhibitions. So we don’t have anything putting the brakes on our limbic system, which is the older brain wired for fun and mayhem,’ says von Hippel.

But be wary of flirting when drunk, as your judgement could be slightly off kilter. ‘You wouldn’t necessarily choose to do the same things when firing on all cylinders,’ cautions von Hippel.

Brooks agrees: ‘The ‘beer goggles’ effect, in which people in a pub or bar seem to get more attractive as time wears on, is well documented.’

Due to their close proximity to data-hungry professors, university students are possibly the most intensely studied humans in terms of mating habits. Studies on this particular group have found definitively that alcohol increases the chances of engaging in casual sex, and of having sex outside a long-term relationship. So although becoming inebriated is a scientifically proven method of improving your chances of coupling, it comes with its own considerable pitfalls.

5) Bring on the laughs
Cracking a carefully timed and well-mannered joke is a great way to show off your intelligence and social skills. Both sexes are attracted to humour in potential partners, but in opposite ways. Research shows that women tend to appreciate men with a high-quality sense of humour, while men are more concerned with finding a partner who laughs at their jokes.

One theory advances the idea that humour gives clues to the quality of an individual’s genes by hinting at the number of genetic mutations a person is carrying. The theory proposes that people with fewer mutations have better genes and produce higher-quality humour.

Rob Brooks has a different perspective, especially in regard to long-term relationships. ‘Sex and mating can be a dangerous game. If you make the wrong choice you could wake up with a terrible bore at best or a psychopath at worst. Humour is a gentle form of reassurance, especially when it is not cruel or unkind.’

And according to Buss’s findings, ‘Humour provides a wealth of information about a man – it signals that he is intelligent, good at perspective-taking, and has the social skills and verve to pull it off’.

Whatever the reason, studies clearly show that women prefer a humorous potential mate when faced with two men of equal physical attractiveness.

6) Get some escorts
Are you a guy with some good female friends? Bring them along when you’re trying to woo a girl. Research indicates women tend to be attracted to men who other women find attractive. It’s the same principle at work that sees men ignored by females when they’re single, but swamped with attention from the opposite sex as soon as they have a girlfriend. ‘Basically, it signals that a man has been ‘pre-screened’ by…other women,’ explains Buss.

Again, there are sound evolutionary reasons for this copycat behaviour. Men might just be hardwired for signs of fertility, says von Hippel, but because women are looking not only for a guy with good genes, but also one who can provide for a family, ‘women have to be attracted to internal qualities when choosing a long-term mate.’

Finding out about a guy’s inner qualities, though, can take a great deal of time and effort. Taking her cues from what other women find attractive can ease her task considerably.

Take note – the copycat gene is especially effective when the ‘pre-screeners’ are attractive themselves; it says, ‘Well, she’s hot, and she’s with him, so he must have something going for him.’

7) Pack that bling
Science makes the case that, as suggested by popular music videos, driving a flash car or having a big house really can pull in the chicks, thanks to eons of natural selection.

In our distant Stone Age past, experts believe children were more likely to survive with a father around – especially one who could defend their family from attack and bring home plenty of meat to fatten his brood. A physically fit, socially dominant man was often more successful at this – and so women who partnered with these individuals succeeded in having more offspring than those women who chose lower-status mates. Those babies then inherited their mother’s preferences, and ingrained ideas of what makes the perfect man have survived through to today.

The difference is that now, being a good provider doesn’t mean turning up to a date with a freshly killed deer slung over your shoulder. It means having status, and the money and symbols that accompany it. This is also one reason why women sometimes prefer older men: they often have higher status.

So how should you take advantage of this quirk of evolution? If you have money – or are just a born ‘alpha’ – strut your stuff. And if not? Well, there’s no harm in bringing along a couple of mates to build you up and laugh at your jokes when you’re picking up.

8) Pen the perfect personal
All of our tips so far are well and good if you can confront your potential mate in the flesh. But how do you stand out if all you have to work with is 30 words or less, and they’re buried in hundreds of other lonely heart adverts? Well, a staggering amount of scientific analysis has been carried out on what works for personal ads, and the findings can give you an idea of what to show off and what to gloss right over.

Advertising for a short fling won’t necessarily get results, as the research indicates personal ads have a higher than average percentage of people seeking long-term relationships. Age is also a factor in the number of responses that personals elicit: young women receive more interest than older women, but older men do better than young bucks.

Resources and beauty come into the equation, with men typically seeking physically attractive women – often desiring a photo to back up a written description – and women generally seeking older men and financial security. Additionally, women are more likely to advertise for a friendship – sometimes with more to follow if things click – so guys who profess to be fine with staying ‘just friends’ are likely to get more responses.

Male advertisers tend to receive more responses when they describe personality traits, but this is not the case when it comes to women. The same holds true for descriptions of educational level and income.

9) Talk with your body
Guys, you can say a lot to a girl from across the room without even talking to – or looking at – her. Research indicates women look for traits in men that indicate that they can provide well for them. This includes high social status, intelligence and conspicuous wealth. And there are a number of ways of demonstrating these attributes without saying a word.

For example, dominant men do more touching than submissive ones. This doesn’t mean they necessarily dole out warm embraces to their mates, but it is manifested in lots of playful punches or shoves. So head to the pub with friends you can sock – especially if you can convince them not to slug you back.

Physical presence is also significant. Dominant men tend to take up more space than others. To communicate your status, try putting your feet up on a chair, stretching out your arms, or confering with your buds to give you a bit of room.

Finally, be open and welcoming. Closed body positions, such as crossing your arms or legs, are an indicator of low social status.

10) Get dolled up
It might seem superficial, but it’s effective. Being well groomed and looking presentable can radically alter how people respond to you, especially if you’re a woman.

Studies that examine the effects of cosmetics use on social perceptions of women routinely find that observers of both sexes find the same woman looks healthier and more confident when seen wearing make-up than without. Eye make-up and foundation seem to be the most effective in improving observers’ attractiveness ratings. The scientific reasons for the effectiveness of cosmetics are unconfirmed, but the likelihood is that they allow women to even out skin tone, cover up blemishes and sculpt more symmetrical faces.

Another possibility – though untested – is that cosmetics serve as ‘signal amplifiers’, says Brooks. That means the cosmetics mimic the physiological changes, such as blushing and widened pupils, that occur when a woman sees an attractive man. In making the guy feel attractive, a woman also increases her own attractiveness in his perception.

As far as general appearance, dressing to seduce is easy, but ‘men are also attracted to women as long-term partners if they appear chaste,’ says von Hippel. This is because chaste women are less likely to go ‘sneaking off with other men, and thereby cuckolding the father.’

Benjamin Lester is a U.S. science journalist on the loose in Pasadena, California.
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