Unconscious Cues That Define Sexual Attractiveness
The French say “je ne sais quoi” (literally, “I don’t know what”) when describing a certain mysterious something that makes a particular person sexually attractive.
You’d think that with something as vital to the survival of the species as sexual selection, we’d all be very conscious of the cues we (and prospective sex partners) use for mate selection.
But as the French saying suggests, we are often not consciously aware of these cues. Numerous laboratory studies (where young adults rate the attractiveness of photos of members of the opposite sex, or smell clothes worn by test subjects of the opposite sex) have proven that although we know whom we prefer as prospective mates, we don’t always know the exact reasons why we prefer them.
After reviewing a list of subliminal “come hither” stimuli that might shed some light on the mystery of physical attraction, I’ll explain how–if you’re so inclined– you can take advantage of the new information.
Unconscious sexual cues
Based on recent research, here is a list of unconscious attractors, indicating which attributes unconsciously arouse our interest, along with which sensory modalities are thought to be responsible for communicating signals of sexual attractiveness.
- Body and face symmetry (from smell alone) We can consciously sense when someone’s face is symmetrical. Women also unconsciously prefer scents (on t-shirts) of men who have symmetrical body and facial features (signs of health and genetic fitness). Exactly what the chemical signals of symmetry are is unclear.
- Personality (from smell and visual cues) T-shirt sniff tests also indicate that we have a limited ability to determine which of the “Big 5” personality (e.g. Extraversion and Neuroticism) traits are dominant in another person from unconscious olfactory cues (again, scientists don’t yet know which chemicals are responsible). Apparently, we can also glean similar information unconsciously just by watching video clips of people’s behavior.
- Illness (from smell) Putting aside obvious cues, such as the odor of infected wounds, new evidence suggests we can unconsciously detect olfactory cues associated with bacterial infection in another person. Both humans and animals tend to avoid mates that are ill.
- Genetic diversity (from smell and taste) There is evidence that humans can sense, from both sweat and saliva, how close a match another person’s DNA is to their own by detecting major histocompatibility complexes (MHCs). In order to avoid mutations in offspring and stillbirths, mating with someone whose DNA (as evidenced by MHC’s) is very different from one’s own is a good idea. Also, combining your genes with someone with very different immune characteristics increases the odds your children will have robust immune systems. In my last blog, I speculated that people kiss on the lips because disproportionately large swaths of sensory and motor brain tissue respond to lip, tongue, and mouth stimulation. But some biologists now believe that we kiss on the mouth in order to “taste” the saliva of prospective partners for compatible MHC’s.
- Non-familiarity (from both smell and visual cues) Research from kibbutz communities in Israel and colonies in Taiwan, where non-relatives are raised in close proximity, shows that humans prefer to mate with those who were not raised with them (mating rates among non-relatives who grew up together is very low). Again, low rates of mate-pairing among adults who grew up together may foster healthy genetic diversity. At least from the point of view of mate selection, familiarity really does breed contempt!
- Similar personality (from smell) In a research article, “Birds of a feather do flock together,” Wu YouYou and colleagues at Cambridge found that we are drawn to people—both as mates and as friends—who share our personality traits. Whether or not we are conscious of being attracted to people because they have similar personalities is unclear, especially in light the research just cited on “sniffing out” the Big 5 personality traits.
How to benefit from unconscious attractors
Okay, so we judge sexual attractiveness partly based upon cues we aren’t conscious of. How can knowing this improve your life?
If you’re in the business of creating or using scents (for perfumes, deodorants, food additives or soaps) to make people and products more appealing, this new research offers fresh ways to stimulate people’s unconscious desires: Perhaps soap that emits “symmetry” and “extraversion” will sell better.
Even if you’re not in the scent business, there might be ways to take advantage of these new findings on unconscious sexual attractors.
Say, for instance, that you find yourself repeatedly dating (even marrying) “the wrong kind of person.” You don’t consciously seek out these types of individuals, but somehow, you end up with them.
Is it possible that a primitive, unconscious part of your brain is drawn to the scent (or another attribute) of “the wrong kind of person?”
If so, it wouldn’t be the only case of vestigial attitudes and behaviours that we inherited from our distant ancestors that no longer make nearly as much sense as they once did.
Most people’s innate preference for foods high in sugar and fat, for example, was highly adaptive when starvation was a constant threat. But today, with abundant food in most societies and skyrocketing obesity, attraction to food that is high in fat and sugar is the nutritional equivalent of being “attracted to the wrong type of person.”
Similarly, our “temporal myopia” (the cognitive bias of valuing “now” much more than “later”), which can lead to impulsive, self-destructive behaviors (overeating, overspending, gambling, and drugs abuse) was logical 300,000 years ago when the average life expectancy was only 20 years, but today, with lifespans approaching 80, the “grab it now before it slips away” approach to life often creates more problems than it solves.