Women's Attraction to Masculine Men Remains an Open Question
Why are there cultural differences in women’s attraction to masculine men?
Posted May 14, 2019 | Reviewed by Matt Huston
Some researchers have suggested that masculine characteristics in men’s faces, such as a strong jaw or a heavy brow, are associated with good physical health and strength, while feminine characteristics, such as a small jaw or large eyes, are associated with emotional warmth and trustworthiness.
Whether these hypothesized associations between facial masculinity-femininity and both men’s physical characteristics and personality traits are robust is hotly debated. Nonetheless, masculinized versions of male face images (versions in which male sex-typical traits are exaggerated) are at least reliably perceived to look physically stronger and fitter than feminized versions. Similarly, feminized versions of male face images (versions in which male sex-typical traits are reduced) are reliably perceived to look more trustworthy and cooperative than masculinized versions.
Thus, when straight women assess men’s suitability as partners, they are faced with a potentially intriguing tradeoff. On one hand, they could choose a masculine-faced, strong, and healthy partner. On the other hand, they could choose a feminine-faced, caring, sharing (i.e., prosocial) partner. Over the last decade or so, many studies have investigated how environmental factors might influence how women resolve this tradeoff, potentially giving rise to cultural differences in women’s preferences for masculine men.
Ian Penton-Voak and colleagues (2004) conducted one of the first studies to look at this issue, comparing the facial masculinity preferences of women living in the UK with those of women living in rural Jamaica. They found that Jamaican women showed stronger preferences for masculine men than did UK women. To explain this cultural difference in masculinity preferences, they noted that the risk of contracting a serious illness was greater in rural Jamaica than in the UK, and that long-term pair bonds between men and women were less common in rural Jamaica than in the UK. They speculated that these two factors could cause Jamaican women to place greater importance on the strength and health of masculine men and less importance on the prosociality of feminine men than do UK women.
Following in this vein of research, Lisa DeBruine and colleagues (2010) tested whether women living in countries where people are more likely to die because of infectious illnesses showed stronger preferences for masculine-faced men. They found some evidence to support this hypothesis from an online study of more than 4,500 women in 30 countries. However, an alternative analysis of their publicly accessible data by Rob Brooks and colleagues (2010) suggested that threat of violence (as indicated by homicide and violent crime rates or by income inequality) was a better predictor of women’s preferences for masculine men. They suggested women in countries with a higher threat of violence may show stronger preferences for masculine men because masculine men afford their partner greater physical protection and are better able to aggressively compete for resources.
So far, so muddled ... and from here, the plot only thickens. Subsequent work by Isabel Scott and colleagues (2014) found little evidence that the threat of violence or risk of disease was related to women’s masculinity preferences. Instead, they found that women in more modern, industrialized countries showed stronger preferences for masculine-faced men. They suggested that this pattern of results indicated that masculinity preferences were evolutionary novel and simply a consequence of women in more industrialized countries encountering many more faces in their daily lives than do women in less industrialized societies.
The most recent study, by Ula Marcinkowska and colleagues (2019), found that women in countries with higher offspring survival rates and better economic conditions preferred more masculine-faced men. By contrast, they found no evidence that the threat of violence predicted women’s masculinity preferences.
So, what on earth is going on with these results? Some results suggest that women’s masculinity preferences are stronger in countries where sickness is more common, others where sickness is less common, some where violence is more common, and others where economic conditions are more favorable. It’s possible that women in wealthier, more industrialized countries are less interested in a caring, sharing partner. Indeed, Marcinkowska and colleagues found that masculinity preferences were stronger in countries where women were more open to short-term relationships—an argument similar to the one Penton-Voak and colleagues made 15 years previously!
The disparate, often confusing results of these studies highlight the pitfalls inherent in using correlational designs to explore the highly intercorrelated factors that might underpin cultural differences in mate preferences. Experimental methods in which cues to environmental factors such as violence and disease can be systematically varied are clearly the solution to this problem, right? Although you might think so, two experiments that attempted to do precisely that also produced contrasting results. One experiment found that viewing images of sources of infectious disease increased masculinity preferences, but another experiment did not replicate this effect.
The cause of cultural differences in women’s masculinity preferences remains mysterious.
Thanks to Lisa DeBruine, Ula Marcinkowska, and Iris Holzleitner for feedback on an earlier version of this piece.
Brooks, R., Scott, I. M., Maklakov, A. A., Kasumovic, M. M., Clark, A. P., & Penton-Voak, I. S. (2010). National income inequality predicts women's preferences for masculinized faces better than health does. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1707), 810-812. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2010.0964
DeBruine, L. M., Jones, B. C., Crawford, J. R., Welling, L. L., & Little, A. C. (2010). The health of a nation predicts their mate preferences: cross-cultural variation in women's preferences for masculinized male faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1692), 2405-2410. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2009.2184
Jones, B. C., Hahn, A. C., & DeBruine, L. M. (2019). Ovulation, sex hormones, and women’s mating psychology.Trends in Cognitive Sciences. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1364661318302560
Little, A. C., DeBruine, L. M., & Jones, B. C. (2010). Exposure to visual cues of pathogen contagion changes preferences for masculinity and symmetry in opposite-sex faces. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 278(1714), 2032-2039. https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/full/10.1098/rspb.2010.1925
Li, Y., Bailey, D. H., Winegard, B., Puts, D. A., Welling, L. L., & Geary, D. C. (2014). Women’s preference for masculine traits is disrupted by images of male-on-female aggression. PloS one, 9(10), e110497. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.01104…
Scott, I. M., Clark, A. P., Boothroyd, L. G., & Penton-Voak, I. S. (2012). Do men’s faces really signal heritable immunocompetence?. Behavioral Ecology, 24(3), 579-589. https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/24/3/579/192103
Scott, I. M., Clark, A. P., Josephson, S. C., Boyette, A. H., Cuthill, I. C., Fried, R. L., ... & Honey, P. L. (2014). Human preferences for sexually dimorphic faces may be evolutionarily novel. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,111(40), 14388-14393. https://www.pnas.org/content/111/40/14388.short
Marcinkowska, U. M., Rantala, M. J., Lee, A. J., Kozlov, M. V., Aavik, T., Cai, H., ... & Onyishi, I. E. (2019). Women’s preferences for men’s facial masculinity are strongest under favorable ecological conditions. Scientific reports, 9(1), 3387. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-019-39350-8
Penton-Voak, I. S., Jacobson, A., & Trivers, R. (2004). Populational differences in attractiveness judgements of male and female faces: Comparing British and Jamaican samples.Evolution and Human Behavior, 25(6), 355-370.