Recently, there’s been a (free) paper going around the various psychology blogging sites by Swami & Tovee (2012) that deals with how stress appears to affect men’s ratings of women’s attractiveness by body type. The study purports to find that men, when placed in an apparently stressful situation, subsequently report finding heavier women more attractive. My take on the issue, for what it’s worth, is that the authors (and a few bloggers who have picked up the study) might have, in the excitement of talking about this result, seemed to have overlooked the fact that their explanation for it does not appear to make much sense.
Swami & Tovee (2012) referenced what they call the “Environmental Security Hypothesis”. This hypothesis suggests that when an individual is facing some environmental stress, they will tend to prefer mates that can more successfully navigate those stressful life events. In certain contexts, then, the author’s further suggest that physical attractiveness ideals should change. So, in the case of body size, their general argument would seem to go something like this: since fat stores are a measure of caloric security and physical maturity, when their caloric security is low, men should subsequently find women with more fat more attractive because they hold a higher mate value in those contexts.This argument strikes me as distinctly bad.
Presumably there are a number of modules inside our brain that function to assess the mate value of others. We should expect these modules to being paying attention, so to speak, to traits that correlate with the reproductive potential of those potential mates. Given that the current caloric state of women is one of those traits, we certainly should expect some of men’s mating modules to assess it. That’s all well and good, but here’s where the authors lose me: when a man is assessing a woman’s reproductive potential, how does information about that man’s current state help in that assessment? My being hungry or stressed should, in principle, have little or nothing to do with whether any individual woman is fertile or capable of successfully dealing with stressful life events, or anything, really.
Now maybe if I was chronically hungry or stressed, there might be some value in selecting a mate with more fat, but only insomuch as my levels of hunger and stress are predictive of theirs. This argument would hinge on the notion that stress and hunger are shared, more or less, communally. However, even granting that chronic levels of hunger or stress for me might be predictive of the risks that others will encounter these things as well, this study was not examining chronic levels of these variables; it was examining acute levels of stress or hunger. This makes the argument seem even weaker. The mate value of others should not really change because I have a stressful day (or, in the case of this experiment, a stressful few minutes competing for a fake job and counting backwards in intervals of 13 in front of a few people).
They should only change after I make it to happy hour.
Because of that, the question then becomes: what value would information about my current state have when it comes to assessing another individual’s state? As far as I can tell, this answer amounts to “not much”. If I want to assess someone else’s state my best bet would probably be to, well, assess it directly, rather than assessing mine and assuming mine reflects theirs. Despite this, the research did show that men were assessing heavier figures as more attractive after they had been stressed, so how should we explain this?
We can start by noting that neither men’s BMI or current hunger levels correlated with their ratings of attractiveness. Since adipose tissue is supposed to be signaling caloric security, this casts some doubt on at least part of the Environmental Security Hypothesis put forth by Swami & Tovee (2012). It would also appear to contradict some previous research they present in the introduction about how men’s preferences for female body size shift with their hunger levels. Nevertheless, men in the stressed group did tend to find the heavier figures more attractive. Those same men also happened to find the figures in the normal weight category more attractive, and, even though the preference was slightly shifted, also still found women in the underweight category to be the average ideal. In other words, their ratings of attractiveness shifted up in overall magnitude about as much as they shifted towards the heavier end. While the authors focus on the latter shift, they don’t seem to pay any mind to the former, which is a rather severe oversight.
Let’s consider that finding in light of a hunger analogy. There’s no denying that preferences can shift on the basis of one’s current caloric state. How appealing I find the idea of eating an unpalatable food will change on the basis of how recently I ate and how long I’ll likely have to wait before being able to eat something else. When I’m hungry, normally unpalatable food might appear more acceptable whereas food that was initially appetizing will now be highly appetizing. How attractive food seems, in general, would shift upwards. You might also find that, provided that not all food is equally as attainable, that I shift my standards towards food that I can more easily acquire and away from food that appears more difficult to obtain. When you’re hungry, a meal of lower quality now might seem more appealing than a meal of higher quality later, provided that meal of higher quality would even be available at all. Finally, you might find that no matter how hungry I get, my preference for eating things like bark or sand remains relatively unchanged, no matter how easy or difficult they are to obtain.
Returning to the attractiveness ratings in the current study, this is basically what the paper showed: there was little variance in whether or not men found starving or obese women attractive (they didn’t). Stressed men also shifted their ratings to the right (perhaps towards more attainable mates) and similarly shifted them up (women were generally more attractive). Taking both of these effects into account gives us a better grasp for what’s really going on.
Now maybe the title of “stressed men lower their standards” has a bit less of a positive ring to it than the authors and bloggers intended, but it’s certainly consistent with the pattern of data observed here. It would at least appear to be more consistent than the author’s explanation for the pattern of results which hinges on ecological variation in access to resources, since the overall ecology for men wasn’t changing in this study: acute stress levels were. Whether your stress level is more useful for predicting useful things about other people, or whether it’s more useful for predicting which course of action you yourself should pursue, I feel, should be clear.
References: Swami V, & Tovée MJ (2012). The Impact of Psychological Stress on Men’s Judgements of Female Body Size. PloS one, 7 (8) PMID: 22905153