Skin deep

Study finds women more likely to remember a man’s physical features when looking for a hook-up

Researcher uses an evolutionary framework to explain

(Garry Knight)

The co-founders of Tinder are known for insisting that theirs is not a hookup app. But when Tinder launched three years ago, it differentiated itself from more traditional dating sites by emphasizing pictures over text, forgoing the questionnaires and personality profiles required on marriage-minded services like Match and eHarmony. And, whatever Tinder’s creators claim, science says that looks are more important when we’re assessing fling material than when we’re looking for long-term partners—for women as well as men.

New research suggests that women are actually better able to recall a man’s physical features if they’re evaluating him as a hook-up than if they’ve been primed to think about him as a potential boyfriend or husband. For an experiment published in the latest issue of the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, a team of psychologists led by Terrence Horgan recruited 113 heterosexual undergraduate women and had them watch a short video of a man introducing himself. Before viewing the film, the women were told to consider the man as a prospect for either a one-night stand or a long-term relationship.

Over the course of three minutes, the man spoke about his interests, personality and career ambitions and gave a brief biography about his family, health and education, while the camera zoomed in on different parts of his face and body. (For the video, Horgan and his colleagues sought out a man of “average” attractiveness; they ended up with a 28-year-old guy with light brown hair and a medium build. He was dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt, and sat in a plain office; neither his clothes nor the setting betrayed any markers of wealth or level of status.

After watching the video, the women were surprised with a memory test: a 43-item questionnaire including questions about the man’s physical appearance—basics about his eye color and build, and details about the hairiness of his forearms and the size of his Adam’s apple—as well as about the information he’d conveyed verbally. Compared to the women who’d been primed to think about the man as a long-term prospect, the ones who’d been encouraged to think about the man as a fling did better on the portion of the test relating to his physical features and worse on the part about his biography.

Horgan, who is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan-Flint, uses an evolutionary framework to understand these results. He argues that if a casual relationship were to lead to pregnancy, the woman and her offspring would benefit more from the father’s genes than from his resources; women don’t expect much parental investment from short-term partners. In a long-term relationship or marriage, on the other hand, a woman would expect that she and her children would benefit from the father’s resources—wealth, status, connections. His physical attractiveness and health, in that case, matter relatively less.

“This trade-off in preferences (favoring attractiveness) may have adaptive value in that healthier children are more likely to survive,” the authors write—especially, Horgan explained over the phone, “if a man’s physical features are the best indication of his physical well-being.”

“Women, like men, can adopt a short or long term mating strategy,” Horgan said. In one experiment in 2002, psychologists gave women a hypothetical “mating budget” to spend on different traits in a long-term partner: they chose status and resources at the expense of physical attractiveness. (Men presented with the same dilemma prioritized appearance.)

The newer study builds on research showing that women give greater weight to men’s physical features and masculinity when seeking a short-term partner. But this is the first time researchers have shown that women actually form different memories depending on their amorous intentions.

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