Friday, September 24, 2010

Cockiness has its appeal

Late the other night, I was flicking through my social psychology textbook hoping to find within its worn, yellowing pages some mind-stirring fact that I could translate into popular knowledge. My eyes eagerly scattered over the black ink, ready to pounce on any words that suggested my prey of information had meekly come forth. I did come across various interesting little anecdotes but I discovered somewhat a tad disconcertedly that this was a book about intimate relationships (as the name suggests, and how I had failed to grasp that after a semester of staring at it is beyond me). Now, there is nothing wrong with intimate relationships or any other relationship for that matter especially when the analysis surrounding these forms of human interaction tap into primitive, visceral human longings and follies. However... however, nothing in my welcome message suggests that this blog will be purely about relationships and sexual attraction and fearing that I have falsely advertised I do in advance apologise if I bombard this humble blog with many heart-warming illustrations of human mating behaviour. Believe me, these studies are truly the most fascinating jewels of psychological literature although I will by no means restrict myself to them. Anything my mind and heart has feasted on will be generously delivered to your plate, minus all the drab scientific dribble! Ok, now that the path has been cleared I think we can immerse ourselves in the assignment of the week; An intimate glance into attraction, flirtation and arrogant, cocky men.

I’m sure ‘cocky’ and ‘arrogant’ are two words that do not often appear on those hopeless, extensive lists some females torture themselves by writing in the hope that those flowery adjectives will leap out of the page and attach themselves to a potential mate. The pensive female spends precious hours scrutinising the list, nurturing its growing length with maternal affection, gloating over the genius of her vocabulary until finally, wistfully she sighs over the whole foolish endeavour realising that such desires cannot possibly be encapsulated by a lone homo sapien male; one that has quite frankly originated from a brute known for beating his chest with vehement dedication. Most charming male readers, do not take offense; this is only my humble, shy attempt at humour and though it lends some ancestral flavouring to this piece I of course have a slightly higher opinion of the male sex.

To revert back to the heart of the matter, the point (and there is a point to all this rambling) is that females should very seriously consider the inclusion of such vulgar qualities like cockiness and arrogance when sketching the ideal man with the passionate scribbles of their pen. I know, your eyebrow is rising cynically, a quite hiss is inching its way from the back of your throat and your upper lip is curled in a distinct imitation of distaste. However, gentle readers I would like to remind you that my blasphemous suggestion has the backing of the scientific community and that I, like you, who was not in a position to examine the delicate changes of our bodily whims was at first glance shocked. Now let me ease you into a less heretic argument.

It is not the case that women like those cocky, arrogant creatures per se; it is more that for a few days each month females are more attracted to ‘assertive’ males. For those who are less inclined to pick up hints, this means that for the few days of the month that a female is fertile she is more attracted to arrogant, bolder men with deeper voices and masculine faces (Gangestad and colleagues, 2007). Those of you with boyish looks and softer vocal chords do not despair, the rest of the 27 days women prefer warmer, kinder and less pushy men. So then, it would appear that something in the cocky male suggests reproductive success. Perhaps their arrogance is mistaken for a sign of virility? Whatever the case, it is an issue best left for the nosy scientist to investigate.

What has been unveiled (note the clever keeping with the title of the blog) can be used for personal benefit. However, to fully utilise these scientific findings so charitably bestowed upon you curious folks, one needs to cultivate the art of observant attention. This is especially sound advice for men. According to Schwarz and Hassebrauck (2008) women strip away tedious layers of clothing, dressing more provocatively and revealing more flesh for those few, enchanted days of fertility. This can be understood as a presumably unconscious, hormonal-driven attempt at seduction. Now, if keeping attentive to the manipulation of cloth and skin proves to be too laborious a task, then pray, if suddenly you find yourself the centre of your darling’s flirtatious attacks, rise to the hint and adopt, by whatever means a more masculine tone, a slightly more arrogant attitude. For, according to Haselton and Gangestad (2006) a more flirtatious demeanour also accompanies the state of fertility. If you need any more convincing, Miller and his colleagues (2007), who I’m sure are all sensible, scholarly prudes discovered that strippers earn considerably more money when they’re fertile than at other times of the month!

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Scent of Attraction

O kiss
of the lips
on the fruit,
and lips
a fragrant amber,
the liquid
light of the plum!

-Pablo Neruda, “Ode to the Plum”

Pablo Neruda was not merely weaving poetic eloquence when he likened the kiss of the lips to that of a fresh, sweet plum. Surely, such specific knowledge linking the fragrance of the plum to that of a moist kiss required some scientific observation. Either that or he had not abandoned the age old sense of smell and knew of the consequences that a potent odour can have on the soul. I’m inclined to opt for the latter, picturing him writing these verses under the quiet shade of a plum tree, guided by the wise hand of intuition and the experienced flare of the nostrils.

I don’t think it is a sweeping argument to say that most of the human race is at least at a subconscious level aware of the importance of smell in sexual attraction. However, a few with a keener nose understand that even a hint of a scent from a potential lover can conjure hallucinations of lusty proportions. I believe those insightful individuals are behind some of the most stirring aromas floating in glossy perfume bottles that so teasingly invite us to take a whiff. So, what can psychologists or more broadly scientists tell us that we don’t already know? Well, I guess it’s always nice to add some credibility to that whimsical temper of instincts and it can be amusing to see the extent that these serious folks would go to in order to prove something that we already knew! But, let us refrain from irony- some of their tedious methodologies can be quite creative.

My personal favourite is a 2003 study by Thornhill and colleagues in which they managed to persuade a bunch of relatively hygienic people to resist the temptation of showering for a whole week. This would have been a laughably easy task in the Middle Ages as showering was not considered a particularly healthy habit to cultivate! So, after these poor souls were freed to return to their hygienic pursuits, their shirts, dripping in the aroma of a week’s sweat were jealously confiscated by the prudent scientists. They were then systematically distributed to a group of other unsuspecting individuals who were given the enticing task of sniffing them. Clearly, the development of modern science is awe-inspiring. Nonetheless, the results are titillating.

When asked whose sweaty stench the individuals enjoyed the most, the overwhelming response was that men prefer the natural (to put it in softer terms) smell of pretty women than those that are less easy on the eye. The results are identical for women, who appear to like the scent of handsome men over their less jaw-dropping mates. In the caveman ages a more pleasing natural scent would have made a potential sexual partner more appealing thus making it more likely that they will engage in the blessed act of copulation (with an equally pleasant smelling partner I’m sure). Thankfully, these days we have fragrances in bottles that will mask any shortcomings our natural pheromones may exude, fooling our prey at least until the sweet liquid runs out.

However, perfumes cannot mask or accentuate the more subtle effects of smell that nonetheless have a profound influence on behaviour. For instance, Gildersleeve and Setterlund (2007) found that heterosexual men prefer the smell of women when they are just about to ovulate than at other times of the month. If you’re a woman searching the streets for your potential mate, I suggest you take note of this information and organise your outings according to your ovulation cycles. You will save a lot of unnecessary energy that could be spent doing something a lot more constructive. On the other hand, if you’re a gay man, be wary of the effects that your aroma produces on the heterosexual male. According to Martins and colleagues (2005) heterosexual men are not very fond of the homosexual man’s aroma, which smells much more delicious to other gay man.

Yet again, we must offer thanks to those sensible scientists and their thirst for clarity for they have equipped us with a full-proof recipe in the art of smells. But all your knowledge is not going to help unless you are willing to be unflinchingly honest with yourself. The next time you gaze into the mirror and see that familiar face gazing back at you, ask yourself does it lack symmetry? If so, you do not need to advertise. Simply, discreetly, reach for your most alluring fragrance and let its odorous powers unravel their magic. If, after scrupulous analysis you are assured of your symmetry in all its glory, feel free not to shower for a few days with the smug knowledge that your sweat has the power to lure potential lovers in.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Mirror mirror on the wall...who is the most fertile of them all?

Most of us have at one point or another been sternly warned about the dangers of forming relationships based solely on looks. However, even as the knowing eyebrow lifts and profound sentences such as “it’s not all about looks” or “it’s the inner beauty that counts” spill readily from the advisor’s lips, one cannot help but detect the hint of mock that flashes fleetingly across the eyes. This seemingly subliminal (although at times quite deliberate) reaction may echo wise and ingrained ancestral truths that have led to the successful reproduction of our endearing species.

For instance, Soler and colleagues (2003) have established an intriguing fact and one that women’s intuition may have already whispered at; namely that men with symmetrical faces (‘handsome’ in lay terms) enjoy the benefits of more mobile and healthy sperm than their homelier counterparts. Ladies, please, do try to stifle that self-satisfied smirk as you picture yourself swiftly judging the virility of a man just by a quick glance at the telling lines of his face. We, alas, are not excluded from this humbling biological marker that signals to our potential lovers our supposed adequacies and yes, unfortunately inadequacies. Our more attractive sisters according to Jasienka and colleagues (2006 ) are said to possess the essential ingredient of estradiol in larger quantities than our plain Janes and this, it is believed makes our lovelies more fertile.

Ok, so you might think that all this must have held immense importance for our ancestors but where does it fit in with modern humanity? So what if attractive people have more reproductive success? The modern world encompasses a variety of domains to showcase our abilities that have nothing to do with how successful we are at making a small, screaming baby. Almost with sadistic glee, psychologists Luxen and Buunk (2006) inform us that attractive persons are smarter too, and not only that, but according to Thornhill and Gangestad (2006) they get sick less often as well!

It seems then, that we should breathe a self-defeated sigh for all our homely friends (of course it must not be hinted that we ourselves may fall into that category). The unfortunate individuals are not only hindered in terms of reproductive success, but the virtue of intelligence is snatched away from their grip too. Ugliness and intelligence, apparently cannot dance the same dance. Oscar Wilde begged to differ and perhaps his quote “The moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid” rings more true in our modern civilisation. We certainly pounce on the stereotype of beautiful but dumb models or the ugly but genius scientist. Perhaps this is a reflection of the modern era’s noble quest for equality that would have us surrender the Dorian Grays to the catwalk and leave the Oscar Wildes to the pursuit of intelligence. Hopefully, our minds have expanded enough from the ancestral ages to appreciate that every human possesses both elements to varying degrees. Beauty may draw potential lovers to one another, but inner beauty is the essential ingredient that keeps them together.

Published in Trespass Magazine, 1 August, 2010.