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Examining the rules of attraction

By Zosia Bielski , National Post

Nature Or Nurture?; Evolutionary psychologists taking the lead

The secret of sexual attraction has long mystified those held in its throes, but it perplexes scientists and academics too, who have been squabbling about the inner workings of our sexual proclivities for eons.

Freudians point the finger at potty training, evolutionary psychologists fixate on hip-to-waist ratios, while neuroscientists attribute all to hormonal cocktails. Even the best researchers seem stumped by what laymen lovers call chemistry: the attachment we view as a profoundly unique experience with our mate of choice.

In their recently released book, The Psychology of Physical Attraction, British psychologists Adrian Furnham and Viren Swami attempt to debunk what they call "overstatements" of evolutionary psychology, which suggests one of the primary drivers for being sexually attracted to certain people is because they possess physical characteristics that indicate health. This thesis underscores one of evolutionary psychology's zanier theories, which is low waist-hip ratio, or the voluptuousness historically associated with health and fertility.

Using three-dimensional images of women, Mr. Swami, who lectures in psychology at the University of Westminster, has tested more than 2,000 men worldwide since 2005. His study found that, despite the claims of the evolutionary psychology set, men hardly ever pay attention to waist-hip ratio.

In an interview, Mr. Swami said it is too simplistic to ascribe all aspects of attraction to evolutionary gains or losses: "In real life, attraction's much more complicated. You have to take into account the individuals in that attraction process, their relationship history, their relationship status, what they're looking for in a partner, their self-esteem, their shyness."

Mr. Swami says the evolutionary camp also grossly overlooks cultural context, and cites body size as one example of where their research falls flat. He argues ideal body size is mostly a social construct and notes one extreme in South Africa, where a considerable proportion of the country's deaths are AIDS related: There, the ideal woman is obese.

"From an evolutionary psychology point of view, that doesn't make sense," Mr. Swami says. But, he says, South African men are choosing obese women because thinness is now associated with the virus.

In recent years, evolutionary psychologists appear to have trumped social cultural theorists, who believe it is context that shapes attraction.

"Without too much debate or even awareness, there has been a gigantic shift in how people think human behaviour is formed," David Brooks wrote on the subject in The New York Times. "Consciousness has come to be seen as this relatively weak driver, riding atop an organ, the brain, it scarcely understands."

This notion features heavily in recent research into oxytocin, the hormone responsible for mother-infant bonds, which scientists now suggest governs what type of men women will gravitate toward throughout their lives.

Physically, oxytocin emits from the hypothalmus and acts as a neurotransmitter, helping trigger vaginal contractions during both childbirth and orgasm. Psychologically, it is crucial for processing social information, for instance when a person reads emotions on another human face or seeks to give other people a sense that they belong

Using three-dimensional images of women, Mr. Swami, who lectures in psychology at the University of Westminster, has tested more than 2,000 men worldwide since 2005. His study found that, despite the claims of the evolutionary psychology set, men hardly ever pay attention to waist-hip ratio.

In an interview, Mr. Swami said it is too simplistic to ascribe all aspects of attraction to evolutionary gains or losses: "In real life, attraction's much more complicated. You have to take into account the individuals in that attraction process, their relationship history, their relationship status, what they're looking for in a partner, their self-esteem, their shyness."

Mr. Swami says the evolutionary camp also grossly overlooks cultural context, and cites body size as one example of where their research falls flat. He argues ideal body size is mostly a social construct and notes one extreme in South Africa, where a considerable proportion of the country's deaths are AIDS related: There, the ideal woman is obese.

"From an evolutionary psychology point of view, that doesn't make sense," Mr. Swami says. But, he says, South African men are choosing obese women because thinness is now associated with the virus.

In recent years, evolutionary psychologists appear to have trumped social cultural theorists, who believe it is context that shapes attraction.

"Without too much debate or even awareness, there has been a gigantic shift in how people think human behaviour is formed," David Brooks wrote on the subject in The New York Times. "Consciousness has come to be seen as this relatively weak driver, riding atop an organ, the brain, it scarcely understands."

This notion features heavily in recent research into oxytocin, the hormone responsible for mother-infant bonds, which scientists now suggest governs what type of men women will gravitate toward throughout their lives.

Physically, oxytocin emits from the hypothalmus and acts as a neurotransmitter, helping trigger vaginal contractions during both childbirth and orgasm. Psychologically, it is crucial for processing social information, for instance when a person reads emotions on another human face or seeks to give other people a sense that they belong

It is an experiment that has already proven positive in voles, which bond after the female's brain is infused with oxytocin. As well, when researchers blocked the female vole's oxytocin, "she can mate all night long for days and she will not bond with that male," said Larry Young, professor at the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience and the psychiatry department at Emory University in Atlanta.

It is the kind of study that would make most social cultural theorists -- those who prefer to see sexual attraction as a series of culturally moulded decisions --cringe.

What has surprised Mr. Swami most in his studies is the tremendous variability in what people find sexually attractive in others. He points to recent studies that showed hungry men preferring plumper women, but also to his own current work, which examines how personality factors in when people are rating physical attraction.

"When you have that kind of information, it changes the way you perceive other people in terms of their physical cues. Just having information about whether a person is a good person or a bad person changes how you perceive them physically."

It is what contented, less-than-ideal physical specimens have been saying for years.

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