Go figure. While a smile seems to be a ticket to a friendly social interaction, it may not be the preferred facial expression for attracting the opposite sex. Jessica Tracy, a sociologist at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia, teamed up psychology graduate student Alex Beall to study the question of why “Happy Guys Finish Last” and published their results online in the latest edition of the journal Emotion.
They discovered that women find pride more attractive than a smile with men while men find a smile more attractive than pride with women. The third emotion, shame, seemed to illicit about the same reaction in both sexes, being relatively attractive. So, for women, men should be proud and confident or moody and ashamed while for men, women should be smiling and happy but not proud and confident.
“While showing a happy face is considered essential to friendly social interactions, including those involving sexual attraction – few studies have actually examined whether a smile is, in fact, attractive,” says Prof. Jessica Tracy of UBC’s Dept. of Psychology. “This study finds that men and women respond very differently to displays of emotion, including smiles.”
The study involved more than 1,000 adult participants who viewed and rated hundreds of images and rated the sexual attractiveness of the person in the photo. These images showed universal displays of happiness (broad smiles), pride (raised heads, puffed-up chests) and shame (lowered heads, averted eyes).
“It is important to remember that this study explored first-impressions of sexual attraction to images of the opposite sex,” says Alec Beall, a UBC psychology graduate student and study co-author. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife – we wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” He says previous studies have found positive emotional traits and a nice personality to be highly desirable in a relationship partners.
The reasons explaining these results have been suggested by other studies as centuries of evolutionary and cultural forces. Females are attracted to male displays of pride because they imply status, competence and an ability to provide for a partner and offspring.
According to Beall, the pride expression accentuates typically masculine physical features, such as upper body size and muscularity. “Previous research has shown that these features are among the most attractive male physical characteristics, as judged by women,” he says.
Past research has associated smiling with a lack of dominance, which is consistent with traditional gender norms of the “submissive and vulnerable” woman, but inconsistent with “strong, silent” man, the researchers say. “Previous research has also suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression,” Beall adds.
Displays of shame, Tracy says, have been associated with an awareness of social norms and appeasement behaviours, which elicits trust in others. This may explain shame’s surprising attractiveness to both genders, she says, given that both men and women prefer a partner they can trust.
As the press release stated, maybe the study is going to cause guys to smile less on dates and update any of their profile photos with something less smiling and more proud and confident. Gee, is this why the chicks go for those brooding bad boy types? Maybe I’m going to buy myself a leather jacket and start scowling. Or I could walk about being ashamed of myself; that might be easier. But no smiling!
Of course, let’s not forget that the researcher said the study was merely looking at first impressions. If we all went with our very first impression, I imagine there would be a lot fewer second dates. But, let me add a personal story as I’m sure you’re going to like this little bit of romance. A guy I know who has been married for over 30 years, told me he met his wife at a party and after one hour, told a buddy he was going to marry that woman. Hmm, did she smile?
University of British Columbia – May 24/2011
Media Release: Happy guys finish last, says new study on sexual attractiveness
UBC Emotion & Self Lab – Jan 24/2011
Happy Guys Finish Last: The Impact of Emotion Expressions on Sexual Attraction
by Jessica L. Tracy and Alec Beall, University of British Columbia
This research examined the relative sexual attractiveness of individuals showing emotion expressions of happiness, pride, and shame, compared with a neutral control. Across two studies using different images and samples ranging broadly in age (total N = 1041), a large gender difference emerged in the sexual attractiveness of happy displays: happiness was the most attractive female emotion expression, and one of the least attractive in males. In contrast, pride showed the reverse pattern; it was the most attractive male expression, and one of the least attractive in women. Shame displays were relatively attractive in both genders, and, among younger adults, male shame was more attractive than male happiness, and not substantially less than male pride. Effects were largely consistent with evolutionary and socio-cultural-norm accounts. Overall, this research provides the first evidence that distinct emotion expressions have divergent effects on sexual attractiveness, which vary by gender but largely hold across age.
University of British Columbia: Dr. Jessica L. Tracy
Jess Tracy is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in the Social-Personality area at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, B.C., and a Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Scholar. She received her Ph.D. in social-personality psychology from the University of California, Davis, and her B.A. from Amherst College, in Massachusetts. She grew up in Washington DC.
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