How interested women are in short-term relationships and how much they value themselves as partners don’t directly affect whether they prefer masculine facial features in men, according to new research published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior. However, these factors do affect their visual attention patterns when viewing male faces. The findings suggest that women’s visual attention to facial masculinity is influenced by individual differences in sociosexual orientation and self-perceived mate value.
“I was interested in this topic based off some previous work that I did with my collaborator Dr. Jennifer Byrd-Craven on investigating individual differences in women’s assessments of men’s facial and bodily traits using eye tracking technology,” said study author Ray Garza, an assistant professor of psychology at Texas A&M International University. “We wanted to further explore how women’s interest in short-term mating and mate value (i.e., self-perceived attractiveness) would be associated with how they view men’s faces.”
In particular, the researchers aimed to understand if women who have a disposition for short-term mating would demonstrate a stronger preference for masculine faces and if women with higher mate value would also show a preference for such faces. They also wanted to explore whether these preferences would be reflected in visual attention patterns.
To conduct the study, they recruited 72 women from a midwestern university. These participants were required to primarily identify as heterosexual, not be on hormonal contraceptives, and be aged between 18 and 40 years. The participants’ demographics included a mix of racial backgrounds.
The participants’ short-term mating orientation was assessed using the Sociosexual Orientation Inventory-Revised, which measures restricted and unrestricted sexual attitudes, desires, and behaviors. The Mate Value Inventory (MVI) was used to assess participants’ self-perceived mate value.
Subsequently, the women were instructed to view pairs of male faces presented on a computer screen. The researchers used the Face Research Lab London Face Set, which consists of masculinized and feminized versions of the same faces, to create pairs of images with different levels of facial masculinity. Each image was displayed for 3000 ms. After viewing the images, participants were asked to rate the attractiveness of the male faces on a 7-point scale.
Eye-tracking technology was employed to measure participants’ eye movements while they viewed the stimuli. The researchers were particularly interested in first fixation duration (early processing), dwell time (cognitive processing), and the number of fixations (looking behavior) directed towards masculine and feminine faces.
The researchers found that women’s facial masculinity preferences, as indicated by attractiveness ratings, were not directly influenced by facial masculinity, sociosexuality, or mate value. However, there were notable interactions involving sociosexual orientation and mate value in relation to visual attention patterns.
Women with an unrestricted sociosexual orientation and those with high mate value displayed longer dwell times and more frequent fixations when viewing masculine faces compared to feminine (male) faces. In other words, women who were more interested in short-term relationships and those who believed they were more desirable as partners tended to look at men’s faces with more masculine features for a longer time when they saw them.
“Women’s assessment of men’s faces is associated with their short-term mating interest and overall mate value. Women who are more in favor of uncommitted sexual opportunities and women with higher mate value process men’s faces differently, where they view men’s faces that have been manipulated to appear masculine longer compared to feminine faces.”
Although women who thought of themselves as more desirable partners spent more time looking at faces with masculine features compared to faces with feminine features, these women seemed to spend less time overall looking at all the faces compared to women who didn’t think of themselves as highly desirable.
“One finding that was surprising was that women with higher mate value viewed men’s faces less in general. This may suggest that they do not expend much cognitive resources when assessing men as potential partners.”
The study’s findings are consistent with previous research that also used eye-tracking technology to understand what women look at when assessing men’s attractiveness. For example, one study looked at women’s interest in different body shapes and found that women who considered themselves very desirable to potential partners tended to look longer at more masculine bodies.
But the new study, like all research, includes some caveats.
“We only assessed one measure of mate value, so it would be of interest to consider other indications of mate value, such as third-party ratings or manipulating mate value temporarily to see if results would be different. Another thing is that previous research has suggested that assessment of men’s faces may be moderated by relationship status, and in this study we did not have a sufficient sample size to make those comparisons.”
“Women’s assessment of men’s faces in this study sheds light on modern methods of mate selection, as mate selection has been influenced by modern dating applications. Although eye tracking studies have shed light on women’s assessments of men’s faces, research should also investigate further the individual differences that are driving men’s assessments of women’s faces.”
The study, “Women’s Mating Strategies and Mate Value Are Associated with Viewing Time to Facial Masculinity“, was authored by Ray Garza and Jennifer Byrd‑Craven.