Partnered-up men tend to be more attractive and some theories have used this to suggest that evolution favors women who are attracted to other women’s partners. Now a new study casts doubts on this interpretation, painting a more nuanced picture.
According to a paper published in Scientific Reports, men do receive an “attractiveness boost” when they are in a relationship, but so do abstract works of art that have been rated favorably by others.
"Women in our study found men's faces more attractive if other women had given that face high ratings. But the same goes for pictures of abstract artworks," project leader Dr Kate Cross, from the University of St Andrews, said in a statement. "Women appear to copy the mate preferences of other women, but this might simply be because humans have a general tendency to be influenced by the opinions of others.”
The concept that the team investigated is called mate-choice copying. If a potential partner is chosen by someone else, they appear to be of higher quality than the forever-alones (this is not a technical term). This has been observed in several species of birds and fish and it comes in handy for females trying to ensure they choose the best possible partner for reproduction. Although it has previously been argued that this phenomenon also occurs in humans, research has never directly investigated it.
The team collected attractiveness ratings of pictures of men, men’s hands, and abstract art from heterosexual women. Before and after, they were given information about how the other participants had voted.
The study was then repeated with the inclusion of lesbians and bisexual women and the results stayed the same, highlighting the fact that all women behave in the same way, regardless of who they are attracted to.
"Social influence affects every area of our lives, and this could include partner choice," added joint author Dr Sally Street, an assistant professor at Durham University. "But there isn't, at the moment, clear experimental evidence of a specialised mate-choice copying mechanism in humans."
So when it comes to judging how attractive a potential partner is, it seems it’s always best to discuss it with a group. To quote Mean Girls: “Well, I mean, you wouldn't buy a skirt without asking your friends first if it looks good on you.”