Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Happy Guys Finish Last

James Dean
Finally, science has figured out the romantic pull of characters such as Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre), and even Edward Cullen (Twilight) and James Dean, among others. It's all in those brooding expressions.

A new study in the journal Emotion examines the relative attractiveness of various facial expressions. In general, showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly interactions (including sexual attraction) but few studies have actually looked at whether or not a happy expression is, in fact, attractive. Think about it. What kind of facial expression is attractive in the opposite sex? A smile, confidence, pride, appeasement, neutral? After all, you can tell a lot by a person's expressions; they are indicators of a person's dispositional qualities. Previous studies have shown that pride signals express a high social status and that shame, an appeasement display, signals low social status. Studies have also shown that happiness communicates friendliness, approachability, and some measure of trust. That makes sense, but is the attractive expression the same in men and women? Up till now the research suggests that women tend to seek partners who are reliable providers and that men seek partners that are young, healthy, and receptive. In terms of facial expression that would translate to women seeking pride and men seeking happiness. This paper discusses two studies used to test this.

Study 1: This first study tested the prediction that the effect of emotion expression on attractiveness would vary by gender. A total of 184 Canadian undergraduates were approached by an examiner (of the same gender) holding a photograph of an opposite sex target posing with an expression of happiness, pride, shame, or neutral. Using a 9-point scale, the participants were asked to view and judge the image based on how sexually attractive they found the person in the photo. Controlling for absolute gender differences (standardizing ratings within gender to equate male and female means), happiness was found to be more attractive in women than men, pride was more attractive in men than women, and of the lesser attractive expressions shame was found to be more attractive in men than in women.

Study 2: The first study used only one male and one female in their photos and so the participants could have been responding to the unique features of those individuals. This second study addresses that by including multiple people across photos, portraying each expression, that had been gathered from the Internet. This study was further broken down into groups of people: Sample A and Sample B and Sample C. Sample A were undergraduates who viewed and rated 80 photographs (20 of each expression: happiness, pride, shame, neutral). Then they completed a Socio-Sexual Orientation Scale that measured the individual differences in mating strategies. Basically, it tested whether the effect of an expression on how you viewed a target's attractiveness varied if you view the target as a potential short-term or long-term partner. Sample B consisted of adults recruited through social networking websites who were asked to view and rate the attractiveness of photos. This time, though, it was of 40 photos, 10 of each gender showing each expression. Sample C were undergraduates who viewed and rated the same set of photos viewed by Sample B. The results showed that male pride was the most attractive male expression and female happiness was more attractive than pride. Surprisingly, male happiness was rated as one of the least attractive expressions by most participants.

Overall, this research shows that men are made most attractive by displaying pride and least attractive by displaying happiness whereas women are most attractive displaying happiness and least attractive by displaying pride. The shame expression was found to actually increase the attractiveness of both men and women, at least compared to a neutral expression. So, well, why? Here's what the authors suggest --

Pride: In males, "the pride expression may convey heightened masculinity...and may signal a man's competence and ability to provide for a partner and offspring" while in females "the mate value of a high-status women is more ambiguous" as males "seek female partners who [are] best equipped to bear children, but not necessarily to support them." This is evolutionarily speaking, of course, as contemporary men did not rate pride expressions as unattractive, just less attractive than happiness.

Shame: In females this expression fell between happiness and pride. The assumption with a shame expression is that the individual is of low-status and "submission connotations increase its apparent femininity, and thus the attractiveness of shame-displaying women." That women who express shame are "signalling the respect for social norms and the awareness that she has violated them" (what I would probably call the I've Been a Bad Bad Girl Hypothesis), and what the authors say may indicate trustworthiness. In men the shame display was more attractive than happiness. That one is difficult to explain. The authors postulate that "shame's communication of trustworthiness and group commitment" is the reason behind it's attractiveness rating. Ya know, maybe it is that coy, slightly suggestive look that gets peoples' boosters going.

Happiness: This expression usually consisted of a nice big smile :-) In men, happiness was rated very low, perhaps because a happy expression gave the "appearance of femininity and low dominance" In women the expression is a "friendliness signal...taken to indicate sexual receptivity, [increasing a] woman's mate value." It is one of friendliness, trustworthiness, and approachability. All things that men like when on the prowl for the ladies. After all, a male signalling that he is sexually receptive...uh, duh.

So guys, adopt that brooding, prideful, no-smile policy when lookin' for your next girl. Of course, some romantic wind-swept moors would be to your advantage. Just...leave the vampire body glitter at home.

Here's the paper:
Jessica L. Tracy and Alec T. Beall (2011) Happy guys finish last: The impact of emotion expressions on sexual attraction. Emotion: published online 23 May. (DOI: 10.1037/a0022902)

I was first turned on (no pun intended) to this by an article I read online. Here are a few links to sites that have covered this paper:
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