Heterosexual men tend to be more attracted to the faces of women when they are near ovulation compared to when they are at other phases of their menstrual cycles, according to new research published in the scientific journal Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology. However, men’s preference for fertility cues appears to be driven by unconscious mechanisms rather than conscious detection.
Attraction between the sexes has long fascinated scientists and researchers, prompting numerous studies exploring the dynamics at play. One critical aspect of this attraction centers around a woman’s fertility, which has been suggested to play a role in shaping men’s preferences in potential partners.
Previous research has indicated that men often exhibit a preference for women who display cues of high fertility. These cues, believed to be unconsciously detected by men, may include subtle changes in scent, facial features, voice, and even body movements. These cues have led scientists to ponder the evolutionary origins of such preferences.
The recent study aimed to delve deeper into the intricacies of human attraction, specifically focusing on men’s responses to cues associated with women’s fertility. The researchers were motivated to investigate why some men appear more sensitive to these cues than others.
“Considerable research over the last couple decades has investigated changes in mating-related behaviors and preferences in women across their menstrual cycles,” explained study author Lisa Welling, a professor of psychology at Oakland University and author of “The Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioral Endocrinology” and “Evolutionary Perspectives on Social Psychology.”
“Some of that research has found evidence that men consider women more attractive near ovulation when they are most fertile, which suggests that men are picking up on subtle cues to ovulatory status in women. However, no research has investigated variance in men’s ability to perceive these cues. We were interested in which men are particularly good, or particularly bad, at perceiving these subtle cues to women’s conception probability.”
The researchers devised a study involving 182 male participants who ranged in age from 18 to 52 years. These participants, a mix of single and partnered heterosexual men, were presented with photographs of female faces. The participants first rated the physical attractiveness of the women. Then, they were asked to assess each woman’s perceived fertility.
The researchers used pairs of facial photographs collected previously to assess participants’ preferences and their ability to detect cues to high fertility in female faces. Each pair contained a luteal phase (low fertility) and a late-follicular phase (high fertility) version of the same female face. Fertility status was confirmed using diary data and hormone samples. The images were taken under standard lighting conditions, and participants were instructed to adopt a neutral expression and remove jewelry and makeup.
The findings confirmed that men, on average, showed a preference for faces with cues associated with high fertility. Despite their preference for high-fertility faces, the researchers observed that men could not consciously identify which images depicted women more likely to get pregnant.
“We replicated previous research finding that men prefer the faces of women when they are near ovulation compared to when they are at other phases of their menstrual cycles, which again suggests that men are picking up on cues to fertility on some level and are showing a preference for women exhibiting those cues,” Welling told PsyPost.
“This is not a conscious perception, however, because when asked which woman had a greater chance of conceiving, the men were no better than chance at choosing the correct face. In other words, men seem to be rating women as more attractive when they are fertile, but do not consciously link that preference to increased conception probability.”
Interestingly, the study highlighted that single men with lower sociosexuality (indicating a preference for long-term relationships) displayed a stronger preference for high-fertility faces. This finding suggests that men seeking long-term partnerships may prioritize mate quality and fertility cues more than their short-term counterparts.
“We also found that single men who reported being less open to unrestricted, casual sex had a higher preference for cues to fertility than did other men,” Welling explained. “This suggests that men who are less open to casual sex and are using more of a long-term mating strategy may benefit from being more discerning about a potential partner than men who are more open to casual sex and short-term mating strategies.”
However, the study did not find any evidence to support the Paternal Investment Hypothesis — the idea that men who are more attracted to fertility cues in women are more likely to engage in mate retention tactics, especially those that involve costs to their partner. In other words, there was no link between a man’s preference for women displaying signs of high fertility and his willingness to use tactics like jealousy or possessiveness to keep his partner from being interested in other potential mates.
Men’s relationship status, whether single or partnered, also did not significantly influence their preference for high-fertility faces. Both groups exhibited a similar level of preference for these cues.
“We investigated the influence of a few other variables, including mate quality, partner quality, and cost-inflicting mate-retention tactics, which refers to jealous behaviors that inflict a cost of some kind on a mate, such as violence,” Welling told PsyPost. “None of these other variables related to preference for cues to fertility.”
While this study has unearthed intriguing findings about men’s preferences for women’s fertility cues, there are some limitations to note. For instance, the research focused exclusively on facial cues, overlooking other sensory cues like scent and voice, which have been shown to play a role in mate selection.
“This study is the first to look into these sources of variation in the strength of men’s preferences for cues to fertility in women,” Welling said. “It is, however, somewhat preliminary and a great deal remains to be investigated, including other aspects of male mating psychology.”
“Also, we used facial photographs of the same women at different points in their menstrual cycles, but future research could look at other cues, such as changes in scent, gait, or behavior. This work also doesn’t consider variation in the expression of ovulatory cues by women. Just like men appear to vary in how much they prefer cues to fertility, women may vary in how well they signal fertility, and the sources of that variation should also be investigated.”
“Demonstrating that some men can better detect cues to ovulation and show a greater preference for these cues relative to other men opens up a fruitful area for future study in understanding the evolution of human mate preferences,” Welling concluded. “There’s a lot we still don’t understand about our own mating psychology.”
The study, “A Preliminary Investigation Into Individual Differences that Predict Men’s Preferences for Cues to Fertility in Women’s Faces“, was authored by Lisa L. M. Welling and Alex Orille.