Oct 11, 2008

Lifestyle - Love Lab

Susanna Schrobsdorff
Apparently there are fleets of researchers out there investigating things we didn't even know we wanted to know about mating and dating. Like whether men are aroused by the smell of pumpkin pie and lavender. (Yes.) Or whether good dancers are better in bed. (Yes.) The public appetite for even the smallest tidbit about the biology of attraction is insatiable. Jena Pincott, a young, single writer in New York, was no exception. She began doing research to answers questions about her own love life, and wound up writing a compact and witty compendium of all the latest science: "Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?" (Delacourte, 2008). And yes, she does answer the title question: Blondes are more rare in most cultures, and do get more sexual attention, partially because they stand out. Light hair can also be a sign of youth—women's hair tends to get darker as they get older. But that's just one very small part of the complex biology of human sexuality. NEWSWEEK's Susanna Schrobsdorff talked to the now newly-wed Pincott about the mysterious factors that make for great chemistry, and whether her new-found knowledge was a factor in her choice of husband. Excerpts:
What surprised you most about our dating and mating habits?
I was really surprised by the importance of smell. It's almost taboo to talk about smell, yet it's so critical. Actually, smell was my inspiration for writing the book. I was single and I was dating this great guy. Everything was great about him. He had a good career and a sense of humor. But I hated the way he smelled. I'm a self-described science geek, so I decided to research why this guy's smell was so unappealing to me-even right out of the shower. No one else thought it was unappealing. Then I started to ask other questions about the science of attraction, and thought: this would make a fascinating topic for a book.
So what was the reason that he didn't smell right to you?
It probably had to do with pheromones, which are chemical signals that can influence how others react to you. They're found in sweat saliva and bodily fluids. It's possible that my date and I had very similar immune system genes, which are linked to pheromones found in his sweat, and we were possibly a genetic mismatch because our immune systems were too much alike.
Did that relationship end?
Yes. And a few months later I met a guy whose smell I really liked and eight months later we got married. [laughs]
Was your husband's smell a factor?
I tell people this isn't really a tips book, but I guess you could use this information as a first filter when you're dating. You should trust your genes, your hormones and your instincts, to an extent. It's a first filter; I'm not saying it's everything.
So this book isn't a dating guide.
For short-term relationships, biology is important, but for long-term relationships there are a lot of other factors. For long-term relationships, women make completely different decisions. After writing this book I see men in three different categories. There's the short-term fling type, the Marlboro man type, the socially aggressive guy. Then there's the long-term relationship guy, who has a softer face or the daddy face. I was fascinated by that study that showed that women are uncannily accurate when looking at men's faces—they can tell if men like infants, if they're a daddy type. Interestingly, the daddy face wasn't just the softer face more nurturing face; they found that some high testosterone guys also liked kids. That's why I have a third category too; the best of both breeds guy who has some manly dominant qualities, but is also nurturing and emotionally supportive. Of course, those guys are hard to come by.
You devote a section to hair. Why is that so important?
Darwin was really into this question too. Hair is a track record of your health. It's a record of the medicines you've taken, the diet you've had, the care you've given it. It takes years of good health to grow long, thick hair. So if you don't know anything about that person, you would learn a lot just by looking at that person's hair.
In almost every era hair is talked about as one of a woman's best assets.
Darwin thought that [attracting a mate] was the reason we evolved to grow long hair on our heads. Long hair on the head hasn't been around forever; they think it's only been around for about 15,000 years.
But what about men, it's not the custom now for men to have long hair, but you'd think it'd be the same kind of health indicator for men.
Well, women do find men with hair much more attractive than bald guys, probably for similar reasons—it's an indicator of age and fertility.
You have a really interesting section on the famous female waist-to-hip ratio. Marilyn Monroe and Kate Moss had similar a similar waist-to-hip ratio though they obviously are of very different body types. Why is that ratio attractive to men?
They found that women men look at figures of women, they pick women whose waist is 7/10ths the size of the hip-which is much more of an hourglass than what you'd see on a runway. That's the ideal ratio for Western men. Men from poor rural backgrounds in other parts of the world prefer women whose ratio is 8/10th, so a little thicker waist, but still an hourglass which is a sign of fertility and youth.
One study in the book showed a connection between being liked and respected and being considered attractive, so it's not all superficial biology.
That was really fascinating. They asked a group of people to judge each other's attractiveness the day they met, then again after they'd worked together on an archeological dig for a summer. And the people who were most liked and respected were given higher ratings than they originally got and the people who weren't liked actually got lower ratings than they originally got. They did other studies that showed the same result. They took yearbook photos and showed that people who knew that person from school and liked them gave the person higher attractiveness ratings than strangers would looking at the same picture.
Are there issues you still want to explore?
The vasopressin gene study hit my desk not long ago-too late for the book. Everyone's calling it the cheating gene. It regulates vasopressin, a hormone that has been associated with bonding. They discovered it in some classic prairie vole [a rodent] studies. Prairie voles are monogamous because of the way this gene is expressed and how they react to vasopressin. Their cousin the montane vole do not have this gene and they're playboys. Recently they found evidence that human men also have variability in their vassopressin gene which means some are more inclined to monogamy than others. [Men with the "cheater" variant were less likely to be married and, if married, were were more likely to report marital problems. Approximately 40 percent of all men have the less monogamous variant, according to a recent report by Swedish researchers.]
So does that mean we'll some day have a test to see which man is predisposed to cheating?
Actually, I have an informal poll on my blog for women only, that asks would you want him tested? And about two thirds said yes, they'd test them.
Then maybe cheaters would have a hard time getting girlfriends.
[laughs] It could change our whole society. Women would only breed with the monogamous guys.
So how do you feel about romance now that you know all this?
Well, I'm still in the honeymoon phase, I've been married about a year, and I actually say my husband is the best of both breeds.

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