What is it that makes the “perfect” partner? Do opposites attract? Or do we look for someone similar to ourselves?
While falling for someone may sometimes feel like the least logical, most unscientific thing in the world, the reasons we like the traits we do often have some rooting in science. Oh science, I hear you sigh, why do you have to ruin everything? Where’s the magic, the spark, the unexplainable attraction?
It’s still there! But there are a few quirky little traits our biology tends to pick up on, and can cause us to be attracted to another person…. And some of them are weirder than others.
You might have heard that certain “desirable” physical features can indicate that a person possesses good health, fitness and other “good genes” which you, lucky reader, can pass onto your babies if you can successfully woo them into bed. Evolution likes to angle us towards ways of producing numerous, healthy offspring, which are more likely to survive, and similarly, if you’re someone with these “good genes”, your body wants everyone to know about it, so that they come running to your door to try and take you out.
The usual textbook examples of these traits tend to run along the lines of women wanting strong-looking men, who look physically fit, so are both capable of protecting them, and giving them children who will be also be physically fit and likely to survive; men want women who look youthful, suggesting they’re young enough to bear healthy children and survive giving birth. But I think these examples are a little dubious, and more than a little old fashioned.
So what kind of things do we look for in a partner, according to the rules of scientific attraction?
“A Manly Man”
Masculinity and high testosterone levels are traditionally associated with “good genes”, but also infidelity. Interestingly, women are attracted to more masculine men when they are ovulating, the time when they are most likely to become pregnant. So, women want these good masculine genes to be passed on, but what about at others times of the month or at times in life when women are not ovulating, such as before puberty and after menopause? When women are not ovulating (and also in motherhood), women prefer more feminine-looking men, potentially because of their focus on maternal care, being able to look after their children, not passing on genes, and being less masculine can suggest a man is more faithful.
Several studies have shown that we’re more likely to be attracted to people with different immune systems to ourselves. The reason for this seems to be that mating with someone with a different set of “immunity genes” is more likely to produce a child with a varied and more healthy immune system. We seem to be able to tell something about a potential partner’s immune system by their smell – maybe this is why different people find themselves attracted to different perfumes, aftershaves and bodily odours; they’re attracted to those whose immune systems smell different from ours, as a set of genes which has a large impact on our immunity (the MHC) also affect a person’s scent.
Other interesting factors that have been found in some studies to potentially contribute to our attraction to another person include using the way a woman’s voice sounds to find out information about her fertility. An experiment recorded women’s voices at different times of the month and played them to men, then asked the men to rate the attractiveness of their voices. Men rated women’s voices at their least fertile time in they’re menstrual cycle, as the least attractive, suggesting that even our hearing can pick up information linked to fertility.
Old-Fashioned Notions of Promiscuity
For men, there are advantages of promiscuity; sleeping with a greater number of women increases the chance of one of their sexual encounters leading to a child, but for women this benefit doesn’t exist in quite the same way – they can only make so many babies at a time, while a man could father countless babies in one week if he went to enough effort. However, promiscuity among women has increased in recent years, to the point where the average number of sexual partners a woman in the UK has had is 8, suggesting that cultural and societal values can have an impact on how we perceive certain characteristics, and what we consider attractive or beneficial in an evolutionary sense can become less relevant.
Of course, these theories go on the basis of our attraction to another person has the unintended endgame of perfect children. It becomes more difficult to explain attraction between non-heterosexual couples, or couples who don’t want to have children, using these “rules”. In fact, even among the people in the studies performed, the responses still varied. Different people find different qualities attractive. I can’t imagine that having these biologically “good” traits can guarantee reproductive success, or even a first date. At the end of the day, everyone wants someone they like spending time with, and someone who treats them well. Or else you’re not even going to get a look in, no matter how different your immune systems are. Attraction is not an exact science, and with changing societal and cultural views alongside the fact that we no longer need men to be hunters and women to look after the children, these views are getting a little outdated. If we followed the rules of science, we’d have some pretty weird pairings around. Maybe science isn’t made for explaining romance after all.