Friday, February 14, 2014

Sexual preferences at ovulation

UCLA researchers analyzed dozens of published and unpublished studies on how women's preferences for mates change throughout the menstrual cycle. Their findings suggest that ovulating women have evolved to prefer mates who display sexy traits – such as a masculine body type and facial features, dominant behavior and certain scents – but not traits typically desired in long-term mates. So, desires for those masculine characteristics, which are thought to have been markers of high genetic quality in our male ancestors, don't last all month – just the few days in a woman's cycle when she is most likely to pass on genes that, eons ago, might have increased the odds of her offspring surviving and reproducing. "Women sometimes get a bad rap for being fickle, but the changes they experience are not arbitrary," said Martie Haselton, a professor of psychology and communication studies at UCLA and the paper's senior author. "Women experience intricately patterned preference shifts even though they might not serve any function in the present." The findings will appear online this month in Psychological Bulletin, which is published by the American Psychological Association. Whether women's mate preferences shift at high fertility has been a source of debate since the late 1990s, when the first scholarly studies to hint at such a change appeared. Since then, several papers have failed to replicate the early studies' results, casting doubt on the hypothesis. Haselton and Kelly Gildersleeve, a UCLA doctoral candidate in psychology and the study's lead author, spent three years attempting to resolve the controversy. They solicited raw data from dozens of scholars who have conducted research on the topic and then translated the data from 50 studies into the same mathematical format so that the findings could be statistically analyzed together. The strength of women's preference shift proved to be statistically significant, although "small" to "medium" in size, relative to most findings in the field. As a point of comparison, the size of the shift was statistically comparable to the difference researchers have found between men's and women's self-reported number of heterosexual sex partners (with men reporting more sex partners). The findings are less clear, however, about which male characteristics are most alluring to ovulating women. But women's responses to male body scents could be capable of producing the strongest effects, Haselton said. In the few scent studies conducted so far, researchers asked women to smell T-shirts that had been worn by men with varying degrees of body and facial symmetry. (Across a large body of research on many different animals, body and facial symmetry are associated with larger body size, more pronounced sexual "ornaments" such as the attractive plumage on male birds, and better health, suggesting that symmetry could be an indicator of genetic quality.) Women preferred the odors of more symmetrical men when in the fertile portions of their cycles. The UCLA meta-analysis likewise showed a large shift in women's preference for the body odor of symmetrical men, although more studies are needed to determine whether this effect is robust. Haselton, who is based in UCLA's College of Letters and Science, is one of a handful of pioneers in research on behavioral changes at ovulation. One of her studies showed that women who are partnered to men they view as less sexy are more likely to experience attraction to other men at ovulation than women who rate their male partners as very sexy. "The excellent reputation Martie has among researchers in this field and her deep understanding of the intricacies of ovulation research make her an ideal person to spearhead this ambitious meta-analytic study," said Jeffry Simpson, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. "Her extensive knowledge of this area coupled with the fact that she and her collaborators were able to identify the specific features of men that women find most appealing as short-term versus long-term mates at different points of the ovulatory cycle makes this paper a truly important one." The presence of shifts in sexual preferences among women may generate debate, but shifts in sexual preferences and behavior are well documented in mammals as diverse as rats and orangutans. For example, female chimpanzees are known to prefer to have sex with different males within the fertile phrase than they prefer outside of this phase — a strategy thought to improve their offspring's chances of survival. "Until the past decade, we all accepted this notion that human female sexuality was radically different from sexuality in all of these other animal species — that, unlike other species, human female sexuality was somehow walled off from reproductive hormones," Haselton said. "Then a set of studies emerged that challenged conventional wisdom." One hypothesis for why a mate preference shift occurs is that it may be an evolutionary adaptation that served our ancestors' reproductive interests long before modern medicine, nutrition and sanitation dramatically reduced infant and child mortality rates. "Under this hypothesis, women who preferred these characteristics were more likely to pass on beneficial genetic qualities to their children, thereby enhancing their children's chances of survival and reproductive success," Gildersleeve said. In her past work, Haselton also has proposed the hypothesis that being torn between two types of mates may reflect powerful underlying adaptations. According to this "dual mating hypothesis," in certain circumstances, ancestral women would have been driven to pursue kindness, reliability and resources (so-called "good dad" traits), as well as sex appeal and a masculine personality ("sexy cad" traits), even if both sets of qualities didn't come in the same package. "Ancestral women would have benefitted reproductively from selecting partners with characteristics indicating that they'd be good co-parents, such as being kind, as well as characteristics indicating that they possessed high genetic quality such as having masculine faces and bodies," Haselton said. "Women could have had the best of both worlds — securing paternal investment from a long-term mate and high-genetic quality from affair partners — but only if those affairs were timed at a point of high fertility within the cycle, and probably only if their affairs remained undiscovered." A different hypothesis, which Haselton and Gildersleeve also find plausible, proposes that shifts in women's mate preferences across the menstrual cycle were adaptive in a now-extinct species that predated humans and are vestigial in humans — that is, like the coccyx, or tail bone, that remains at the end of the human spine, they persist in modern humans despite serving no apparent function. Either way, Haselton and Gildersleeve firmly believe in the value of shedding light on the preference shift. "If women understand the logic behind these shifts, it might better inform their sexual decision-making so that if they notice suddenly that they're attracted to the guy in the next cubicle at work, it doesn't necessarily mean that they don't have a great long-term partner," Haselton said. "They're just experiencing a fleeting echo from the past."

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Is height important in matters of the heart? New study says yes

Is height important in matters of the heart? According to new research from Rice University and the University of North Texas, the height of a potential partner matters more to women than men, and mostly for femininity and protection. The study, "Does Height Matter? An Examination of Height Preferences in Romantic Coupling," was conducted in two parts. Part one, which used data from the Yahoo! personal dating advertisements of 455 males (average height of 5 feet 8 inches and average age of 36 years) and 470 females (average height of 5 feet 4 inches and average age of 35 years) from throughout the U.S., found that 13.5 percent of the men wanted to date only women shorter than they are. In contrast, nearly half of the women – 48.9 percent – wanted to date only men taller than they are. "Evolutionary psychology theory argues that 'similarity is overwhelmingly the rule in human mating,'" said Michael Emerson, the Allyn and Gladys Cline Professor of Sociology, co-director of Rice's Kinder Institute for Urban Research and the study's co-author. "However, our study suggests that for physical features such as height, similarity is not the dominant rule, especially with females." The second part of the study included 54 male (average height of 5 feet 9 inches) and 131 female volunteers (average height of 5 feet 4 inches) recruited from a U.S. university. The participants answered open-ended questions in an online survey. The findings were similar to the first part of the study: 37 percent of male respondents wanted to date only women shorter than they are, while 55 percent of female respondents wanted to date only men taller than they are. According to the study data, the dominant reasons females cited for preferring a tall partner are matters of protection and femininity. "As the girl, I like to feel delicate and secure at the same time," said a woman in the study who is 5 feet 3 inches tall. "Something just feels weird in thinking about looking 'down' into my man's eyes. There is also something to be said about being able to wear shoes with high heels and still being shorter. I also want to be able to hug him with my arms reaching up and around his neck." Men were much less likely to say that height mattered, and for those that did, they preferred shorter women, but not so short that it would cause problems with physical intimacy. "I like it when the body of your partner fits yours," said another study participant, a male who is 5 feet 11 inches tall. "It also makes it easier to kiss, hold hands and do other activities with your partner." George Yancey, a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas and the study's lead author, believes that the height preferences of men and women can be explained by traditional societal expectations and gender stereotypes. He noted that it is a widespread perception that tall height is a personal asset for men and a personal liability for women. He said that the study's finding that height matters more to women supports the social system of patriarchy, in which males are the primary authority figures. "The masculine ability to offer physical protection is clearly connected to the gender stereotype of men as protectors," he said. "And in a society that encourages men to be dominant and women to be submissive, having the image of tall men hovering over short women reinforces this value."

Keep romance alive with double dates

Going on a double date may be more effective at reigniting passion in your own relationship than the classic candlelit dinner for two. According to new research, striking up a friendship with another couple in which you discuss personal details of your life will bring you closer to your own partner. "Passionate love is one of the first dimensions of love to decrease in couples over time as the newness of a relationship begins to wane," says Keith Welker, a doctoral student at Wayne State University. "Relationships have widely been thought to flourish and develop in a broader network of social relationships, while emerging research has suggested that novel, arousing experiences can increase feelings of passionate love." The new research fuses together the two research areas, showing that novel, high-self-disclosure interactions with other couples can increase feelings of passionate love. Such interactions, the researchers say, may cause us to perceive our partners and the relationship in a new light. Indeed, perception is vital in a relationship, according to a range of new studies to be presented this week at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual conference in Austin. Whether we perceive a long-term commitment as marriage versus merely cohabitating can change how we respond to stress, according to one study, while our perceptions of how much our partner truly wants the best for us predicts psychological health over 10 years in another study. Double dates to reignite passionate love Welker, with his adviser Rich Slatcher, had previously studied how self-disclosure increased closeness within couples. They wanted to extend the research to investigate how self-disclosure between couples affects closeness and feelings of passionate love. "We were expecting that the formation of a friendship between two couples in the lab would increase closeness and relationship satisfaction," Welker says. "However, we found the robustness of the effects on passionate love surprising." In two studies with about 150 couples, the researchers used the "Fast Friends" activity, originally developed by Arthur Aron of Stony Brook University, a co-author on the new study. Over 45 minutes, couples answered basic "get-to-know-you" questions, such as "What is your idea of a perfect day?" or "Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?" The questions progressed to much deeper, personal topics such as "What was the most embarrassing moment in your life?" or asking for advice on personal problems. "This task has been repeatedly shown to make both strangers and friends closer to each other," Welker says. In one of the studies, couples who met each other through the high-disclosure Fast Friends activity reported higher feelings of passionate love than those assigned to a low-disclosure task, which involved non-emotional, small-talk questions. In a second study, the researchers found that how responsive another couple was to personal disclosure predicted the increase in passionate love following the Fast Friends task. "The more that the other couple responds to your self-disclosures in a validating and caring way when on a double date, the more passionate you feel about your own relationship," Welker explains. "Although we still need to investigate why responsiveness from other couples predicts increases in passionate love, one possibility is that having another couple respond positively to yourself and your partner may provide you with a fresh, positive view of your partner and relationship." In the meantime, this Valentine's Day, Welker suggests picking a double-date activity that facilitates personal disclosure. "Any setting where couples can talk, exchange information about each other, and respond to each other in a validating, thoughtful manner could apply," he says. "One very practical application could be going out to dinner with another couple." But he says to opt for dinner at home, as that will engender more disclosure than a date at a public restaurant. Marriage signals in the brain How you view your partner and the commitment level of your relationship significantly affects your health. Researchers have found that being married confers health benefits above mere cohabitation but it may just all be in our heads. It turns out that merely regarding your relationship as a marriage can confer the same benefits, even if you haven't actually tied the knot. Over the past 20 years of studying relationships, including how couples regulate each others' emotions, Jim Coan of the University of Virginia became interested in the "cohabitation effect" – the idea that cohabiting couples, compared to married couples, are less stable, show fewer health-related benefits, and may even be more likely to divorce if they ultimately marry. "I've always felt personally skeptical of these findings, not really for any strong empirical reason, they just felt intuitively wrong to me," he says. So Coan set out to explore the effect by comparing how married couples, cohabiting couples, dating couples, and friends handle stress together. He specifically looked at how holding hands during a potential threat can decrease activity in the hypothalamus – a potential neurophysiological marker for the effect of stress on health. The work builds on past evidence that hand-holding helps people regulate their emotions. "Hand-holding is special," Coan says. "It has special symbolic value over and above, say, holding an elbow or an ankle." Using fMRI, Coan and colleagues collected brain activity from 54 couples — half of whom were married, the other half cohabiting — as they viewed "threat" or "safe" cues in the scanner. Threat cues signaled to subjects that they faced a 20 percent chance of electric shock to their ankle, while the safe cues signaled a 0 percent chance of shock. Some of the time, subjects held the hand of their partner, while other times, they either held the hand of a stranger or faced the cues alone. Married couples, but not cohabitating couples, had reduced hypothalamic activity in response to threat cues while holding hands with their partners. "The most surprising thing about this is that our cohabiting couples are matched for age, relationship duration, and relationship satisfaction," Coan says. "So why should they respond so differently to supportive hand-holding?" The answer, he thinks, lies in data he collected with same-sex couples. Coan conducted a parallel study with 26 same-sex couples, none of whom were legally married but half of whom described their relationship as a marriage. They found the same difference in hypothalamic regulation by hand-holding between self-described married and self-described cohabiting same-sex couples. "So whatever the ultimate explanation, I do not think the phenomenon is real," Coan says. "I think it has to do with the conceptualization of one's relationship." "It may not even be about marriage, per se, but about asserting cohabitation instead," he explains. "Asserting cohabitation is basically asserting that one is not 'locked in' to a commitment." Marriage is a signal, Coan says, that is intended to convey dependability and predictability. "So I think the take-home implication is that our brains are sensitive to signs that the people we depend on in our lives are predictable and reliable," he says. "And our brains will depend upon — will, in effect, outsource to — those we feel are most predictable and reliable for our emotion-regulation needs." Health benefits from perceived support Another big factor in how relationships affect our health is how much we believe our partners care for, understand, and appreciate us. This factor predicts everything from personal growth to emotional stability — above and beyond initial well-being — according to a new longitudinal study. "The effect of relationships on our psychological and physical health is much stronger than any other factor you can think of," says Emre Selcuk of Middle East Technical University in Turkey. "For instance, the effect of the existence and quality of close relationships on mortality is larger than that of cigarette smoking." Selcuk and Anthony Ong have been trying to figure out which unique aspects of relationships contribute to this effect. Specifically, they are interested in "perceived partner responsiveness" – the extent to which you think your partner genuinely wants the best for you. This perceived support is distinct from how much support you actually receive from your partner. Past research has shown the more partner support someone receives, the more at risk that person is for all-cause mortality. However, work by Selcuk and Ong demonstrated that this effect disappeared completely for individuals who perceive their partner as responsive to their needs. Moreover, the new longitudinal study, analyzing a national U.S. sample of more than a 1,000 married or cohabiting people surveyed in 1995/6 and then again in 2005/6, shows that the more perceived support, the better our psychological well-being 10 years later. These findings come down to perception: "The effectiveness of received support depends on the perceptions of the recipient rather than the amount of actual support enacted," Selcuk says. If you do not perceive your partner as responsive to your needs, "even the best-intentioned support behavior may backfire and lead to worse outcomes," he says. "But if you perceive your partner as really caring for, understanding, and appreciating you, then your romantic relationship will make you a happier and healthier person in the long-term." The research follows past work by Selcuk and colleagues showing that just a reminder of a responsive romantic partner – such as viewing a photo of your partner – helps someone cope with emotions induced from recalling an upsetting past event. Those who benefited the most from viewing their partner's photograph experienced fewer psychological and physical health problems in their life even weeks after the experiment. The latest analysis found that people who perceived their partner as responsive experienced higher life satisfaction and purpose in life, and lower depression, among other positive psychological attributes, 10 years later. "Our findings clearly show that having someone in our life whom we perceive as genuinely caring for us, understanding and appreciating our needs, concerns, and goals enhances our ability to recover from negative emotions, improves our psychological well-being, confers protective health benefits, and even affects the very length of our life," Selcuk says. "So anyone who has not chosen their partner yet should do it very wisely because it may very well turn out to be the most important decision they will ever make."

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Love at the Office? When Relationships Go From Platonic to Romantic

There are three key factors that contribute to how coworkers respond to a workplace romance including how they learn about the romance, their personal views of those participating in the romance and the company culture, suggests Sean Horan, assistant professor of relational communication in DePaul University’s College of Communication.

Horan is coauthor of a new study, “Love at the Office? Understanding Workplace Romance Disclosures and Reactions from the Coworker Perspective,” which was published online Feb. 5 in the Western Journal of Communication and will be printed in the March issue. The research explores the effect of workplace romances on coworkers and whether responses are primarily influenced by how the relationship is disclosed to them.

“I was interested in studying workplace romances because they are incredibly common yet, across social science, there is little research in the area,” said Horan.

Horan, along with coauthor Renee Cowan, assistant professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, discovered that if coworkers found out from the couple personally, there tended to be a more positive reaction than if they found out via office gossip or catching them “in the act.”

“Individuals had much different reactions based on how they learned of the romance,” explained Horan. “Being honest and upfront was better received than, let's say, walking in on your coworkers kissing in the parking garage or hearing it via office gossip.”

How people personally perceived individuals in the relationship also plays a key role in their reaction. The titles of those in the workplace romance also affected their reaction, Horan said.

For example, in Horan’s previous research in this area, he found that when a coworker dates a superior, they are likely to be lied to more, trusted less and viewed as less credible. One participant in the current study noted, “I was just taken aback because I knew he was pretty high up with the company and she not so much.”

Additionally, the study found that company culture contributes to how coworkers view workplace romances. The authors propose that, often, more relaxed office environments don’t have official policies on interoffice relationships, making them more acceptable, while more formal offices have strict policies in place, which distinguish them as inappropriate and unprofessional.

“It (the organization environment) kind of seemed like a college so it didn't seem too unprofessional,” said another participant.

This is the fourth study in an ongoing series by Horan on workplace romance.

“I've concluded a couple of my studies the same way by saying ‘date at your own risk,’” he said.

“Employees need to be aware that their peers will communicate with them differently if they have a workplace romance. Importantly, such differences can influence productivity and performance,” Horan explained.

“It's always awkward seeing your ex. Now imagine having to see them all day, every day at work.”

Valentine report: Wider-faced dates more attractive as short-term mates

Women may perceive men with wider faces as more dominant and more attractive for short-term relationships, according to a new study in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. "Our study shows that within three minutes of meeting in real life, women find more dominant, wider-faced men attractive for short-term relationships, and want to go on another date with them," says psychological scientist and lead researcher Katherine Valentine of Singapore Management University. According to Valentine, there's considerable academic debate about whether physical dominance is advantageous in mating – that is, actually attractive to women. At the same time, researchers have been exploring facial width-to-height ratio (fWHR) as a possible physical indicator of male dominance. This new study, she says, addressed both issues: "High male fWHR has previously been associated with surviving in hand-to-hand combat, aggressiveness, self-perceived power, and CEO's financial success," says Valentine. "Our study shows it's also a reasonably good indicator of perceived dominance – not only that, it piques women's interest in a face-to-face speed-dating setting." Valentine and colleagues hypothesized that increased fWHR, due to its link with testosterone, would make men seem more dominant and more desirable as romantic interests in the short-term. But, because facial width is also linked with undesirable traits like aggression, women would not see these men as more desirable for long-term relationships. The researchers studied over 150 men and women, ages 18 to 32, who participated in one of several speed-dating events. The participants were all single and they received no compensation other than the prospect of making a potential romantic match. Each speed-dating interaction lasted 3 minutes. Male speed-daters with higher fWHR, as measured by computer software, were independently rated as more dominant. Women not only expressed more interest in short-term relationships with these men, but were also more likely to choose them for a second date. These associations held even after the researchers accounted for the men's age and independently-rated attractiveness. Further analyses suggest that the link between higher fWHR and greater interest in a short-term relationship could be accounted for, at least in part, by perceived dominance. The fact that fWHR predicted whether women wanted another date with a man came as a surprise: "The fact that women wanted to see these men again suggests that our findings are robust – women aren't just saying they are interested, they're actually willing to be contacted by these men," says Valentine. "Previous studies have found that women prefer more dominant men for short-term relationships, but almost all of these studies were based in the lab and did not involve an interaction that could actually lead to mating and dating." Valentine and colleagues plan on further investigating how these individual differences in men affect their overall attractiveness, and in what contexts.