Despite accepted lore, women's mate preferences don't shift according to fertility, menstrual cycle, new study claims

May 14, 2014 by Suzanne Wu, University of Southern California
Meta-analysis dispenses with genetic determinism in women's mate preferences
Wendy Wood, USC Provost Professor of Psychology and Business, and vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife, has led a study showing that women at their fertility peak do not seek out particularly masculine or genetically fit males.

(Medical Xpress)—Over the past two decades, studies in reproductive biology and psychology have purported to show a correlation between what women want in a male partner and their time of the month—demonstrating that which guy catches a woman's eye changes across the menstrual cycle.

But an independent analysis led by USC researchers of more than 58 experiments shows that this finding does not hold up. Despite prevailing theories of evolutionary biology and wide media coverage, there appear to be few significant shifts in what want in a mate over the course of the menstrual cycle.

Fertile women may desire sex with men who seem particularly masculine or genetically fit—but no more so during peak fertility than in any other period of their cycles, reveals the meta-analysis of research led by Wendy Wood, USC Provost Professor of Psychology and Business, and vice dean for social sciences at USC Dornsife. Similarly, when women are not as fertile—sharing certain hormonal profiles with pregnancy—they are not especially oriented toward kinder, gentler mates who can provide for their young.

The thorough review of research on the drivers of , in the journal Emotion Review, highlights the importance of verification in the scientific method, as well as potential problems in how science is reported in the media. Wood and her team found that the correlations between menstrual cycle and mate preference declined over time. That is, most subsequent attempts to replicate the findings showed less of an effect. They also reveal that papers that did not show a link between menstrual cycle and sexual preference—that only showed no such correlation existed—were much less likely to be accepted for publication in a journal, often despite more precise methodology.

"These effects have become accepted lore," said Wood, who has a joint appointment at USC Marshall School of Business. "Our failure to find consistent effects of women's hormonal cycling on mate preferences does not, of course, rule out such influences. Yet our review suggests these effects are subtle, if at all present.

"By relying on outmoded theories that emphasize biology to the exclusion of culture, evolutionary psychologists may be missing some of the most important, characteristically human processes—our remarkable ability to exert control over our own behavior."

The USC Dornsife team systematically analyzed prior research, which has used a range of factors to indicate male genetic fitness in experiments including: size of jaw, cheekbone and brow ridges; facial hair; lower voice pitch; dominant behavior conveying power and leadership; symmetry; and sweat odor. Other studies examined women's preferences for partners with relationship skills during less fertile periods.

They then looked at how scientists determined fertility, including assessments of reproductive hormone levels and self-reported menstruation cycles, and compared whether fertile (as opposed to non-fertile) women found genetically fit men sexier.

The results of the meta-analysis showed that fertile and non- preferred men with masculine attributes who demonstrated dominant behavior. More importantly, the preference for manly males wasn't any stronger among women who were in the fertile phase of their . And wherever they were on their menstrual cycles, women also preferred kind men, the researchers found, and these preferences held across both long-term and short-term relationships.

"A complete model of human reproduction needs to acknowledge women's impressive capacity to regulate their own behavior and not fall into the trap of biological determinism," said Wood, one of the world's leading experts on self-control and regulation. Wood's past research has played a key role in expanding our understanding of habits, as well as gender differences in social behavior.

"Regardless of what might have been normative in ancestral history, with the advent of cultural roles and complex group living, women showed the capacity to tailor their reproductive activities to a variety of social roles," Wood says.

Laura Kressel, Priyanka D. Joshi and Brian Louie of USC were co-authors of the study. Wendy Wood was supported by a fellowship from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study during initial stages of this work.

Explore further: Study shows women's menstrual cycle phase impacts sexual preference for composers of more complex music

Related Stories

Study shows women's menstrual cycle phase impacts sexual preference for composers of more complex music

April 23, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—An intriguing study conducted by Benjamin Charlton, of the University of Sussex, has resulted in findings that suggest women prefer male composers that produce complex pieces of music when at the most fertile ...

What do women want? It depends on the time of the month

February 13, 2014
(Medical Xpress)—If she loves you and then she loves you not, don't blame the petals of that daisy. Blame evolution.

Prejudice linked to women's menstrual cycle

June 22, 2011
Women's bias against male strangers increases when women are fertile, suggesting prejudice may be partly fueled by genetics, according to a study by Michigan State University psychology researchers.

Menstrual cycles may affect women's shopping patterns

July 31, 2012
(HealthDay) -- The hormonal fluctuations associated with women's menstrual cycles could color their shopping habits, research suggests.

Research study shows men find dancing women more attractive during most fertile time

August 17, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- Researchers from the University of Göttingen in Germany have found that men viewing videos of silhouettes of dancing women were more likely to describe those who were ovulating at the time as more ...

Timing crucial in achieving pregnancy

September 3, 2012
A survey of women seeking fertility assistance to become pregnant found most did not know which days of the menstrual cycle they were fertile and most likely to conceive.

Recommended for you

Short-course treatment for combat-related PTSD offers expedited path to recovery

January 23, 2018
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating and standard treatment can take months, often leaving those affected unable to work or care for their families. But, a new study demonstrated that many ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet May 15, 2014
The studies showing the effect have been well controlled and carried out correctly, mainly on uni students. Such innate predisposition are likely to have a stronger effect on the young and to wane with age.

It has already been established that girls on the pill are unaffected and I'm fairly sure that it has less effect on girls in long term relationships.

So if you arrayed them all together you would find the effect greatly diminished.

She is the world's leading expert on 'self-control and regulation' AND speaks of the 'Trap' of biological determinism.

In other words, her meta-analysis conveniently agreed with her philosophy. Note that her objections were related to how newspapers and magazines treated the science and of the science she claimed, without offering any evidence, that journals only accept the results which the public want.

This is one of those people that is trying to prove a nurture only model. Next she'll be telling that no behaviour is influenced by biology.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.