A series of three studies showed that, when facing uncertainty, women become more attracted to men with tougher facial features. Under same conditions, men are more attracted to women with more tender facial features. The study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology.
From pandemics to financial crisis and political revolutions, uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of human life. Researchers distinguish between aleatory uncertainty (uncertainty due to random and unpredictable nature of life events) and epistemic uncertainty (lack of confidence in one’s knowledge).
People tend to feel particularly vulnerable when faced with events that involve both kinds of uncertainty. These are situations when a person is faced with an unpredictable situation in which he/she cannot even assess the probabilities of various outcomes due to a lack of knowledge (unknown probabilities).
Research has shown that when faced with uncertainty, people display an increased need for order and structure, adopt more extreme convictions and increase beliefs in conspiracy theories. They often display compensatory behaviors, meant to attenuate for the uncertainty of the situation.
They can become more prone to making decisions based on emotions, increase their endorsement of various religious or secular systems and preferences for boundaries in the environment. Research shows that their focus shifts towards cues that provide a feeling of predictability. But do their preferences for characteristics of romantic partners also change?
To answer this question, study authors conducted a series of three studies of students and Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers. They hypothesized that “under external uncertainty, women will prefer men with tougher (over more tender) facial features whereas men will prefer women with more tender (over tougher) facial features,” while these preferences will become smaller or disappear under certainty. They also assumed that this happens because people look for stereotypical partner types in situations of uncertainty as part of an effort to attain predictability.
The first study included 173 heterosexual Mturk workers participated in the first study. They were instructed to think or write about a situation in which they felt uncertain or certain (depending on the experimental situation). After that, they were told to imagine that they are looking for a date on an online platform.
“After a short introduction on online dating, they were presented with the tender and tough features version of four different male or female faces and were asked to rate these faces on three items (‘I think this Candidate is attractive’, ‘I like this Candidate’, ‘I would like to go on a date with this Candidate’) all from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), which were averaged into one attractiveness scale,” the researchers explained.
The second study included 174 heterosexual students as participants. The procedure was similar to the first study with the difference being that, instead of rating the attractiveness of faces, the participants were asked to indicate the extent in which they were drawn towards a caring partner and towards a strong partner.
Results of Study 1 showed that, under conditions of uncertainty, women rated tough male faces as more attractive than under conditions of certainty. In contrast to this, men rated tender female faces as more attractive under conditions of uncertainty compared to conditions of certainty.
“We hypothesize that under uncertainty people have an increased desire for gender-stereotypical partner types (caring vs. strong), due to which they are more attracted to particular facial features from which these stereotypical characteristics are inferred,” the researchers wrote.
Study 2 showed that under uncertainty men’s preferences for the caring female partner and women’s preferences for the strong male partner increased. As in Study 1, these effects were not present in the certainty condition.
In the third study, 141 heterosexual students were first asked to imagine a particular type of woman/man as a partner. One group was asked to imagine a caring partner and the other to imagine a strong partner. They were then told to imagine that they are not in a relationship and that they are looking for a date. They were then presented the set of faces from Study 1 and asked to rate their attractiveness.
Study 3 showed that men rated tender facial features as more attractive when they were asked to think about a caring partner. Tough facial features were rated as a bit more attractive when participants were asked to think about a strong partner.
“The results of Study 3 demonstrate that faces of the other sex with tender facial features are perceived as more attractive when people search for a partner with caring characteristics, whereas faces with tough facial features are judged as more attractive when searching for a partner with strong characteristics (for men marginally so). This is compelling evidence that people infer from tender facial features that a partner is comforting and caring, and from tough facial features that a partner is protective and strong,” the researchers wrote.
The study sheds light on how uncertainty changes perceptions of attractiveness. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, participants were MTurk workers and students. Results on samples more representative of the general population might not be the same. Additionally, attractiveness was rated based on pictures of faces and real-life attractiveness assessments are likely to take into account many additional characteristics of a potential partner.
The study, “Unpredictable love? How uncertainty influences partner preferences”, was authored by Femke van Horen and Kobe Millet.