It's vacation time for Team Family, as my daughter calls us. While we're skating and skiing, enjoy this repost from my old blog on hormonal contraceptives and mate choice.
Imagine you are a single, heterosexual woman. You meet a nice man at the driving range, or on a blind date. You like him and he likes you. You date, you get engaged, you get married. You decide to have a child together, so you go off the pill. One morning you wake up and look at your husband, and it’s like seeing him through new eyes. Who is this stranger you married, and what did you ever see in him?
After an article made the news when it suggested mate preferences change on hormonal contraception, this seemed to be the scenario in the heads of many women. Is my pill deceiving me? What if my birth control is making me date the wrong man?
Several articles over the years have demonstrated that women prefer men with more masculine features at midcycle, or ovulation, and more feminine features in less fertile periods. Based on body odor, women and men also often prefer individuals with MHC (major histocompatibility complex) that are different from theirs, which may be a way for them to select mates that will give their offspring an immunological advantage. These findings have been replicated a few times, looking at a few different gendered traits. And as I suggested above, other work has suggested that the birth control pill, which in some ways mimics pregnancy, may mask our natural tendency to make these distinctions and preferences, regarding both masculinity and MHC (Little et al. 2002; Roberts et al. 2008; Wedekind et al. 1995).
On the one hand, I think it’s both interesting and important to consider the implications of the birth control pill beyond just contraception. Hormones are messages, so any cells that have receptors for these messages, like specialized mailboxes, can receive them. The pill is made of synthetic versions of estradiol and progesterone, and there are estradiol and progesterone receptors in your brain. And yes, these hormones do change your brain, both during the natural cycle and on hormonal contraception; Scicurious has written well on this in the past.
On the other hand, I have a lot of questions: First and most important to me, how does any of this translate to non-straight women? I find the constant focus on mate choice between men and women a bit exhausting, and am not sure we can assume non-straight relationships to work the same way. Next, how well do preferences over the cycle map on to actual choices for mates, short term or long term? If we happen to find Brad Pitt more attractive than Justin Bieber at midcycle, does that mean no one will do but Brad Pitt? And finally, what are all the factors that we need to consider in mate choice besides a deep voice or square jawline (again, especially if you try to expand your thinking beyond straight relationships)?
I’ll start with the last two questions that deal with mate preference versus ultimate mate selection. As you all might expect, women and men choose mates for lots of reasons, not just masculinity or complementary immune systems. Bereczkei et al (1997) looked at singles ads and found women often sought mates with high parental care. In a separate singles ad evaluation, Pawlowski and Dunbar (1999) found that women mostly selected men of high resource potential who were interested in long-term relationships (either unlikely to divorce or unlikely to die within twenty years), where men selected women by markers of fecundity (ability to have babies). In a sample of 18-24 year old straight people in the US, Buston and Emlen (2003) found that most people selected mates who had similar characteristics to themselves. And a speed dating sample showed that people under those conditions selected dates based on easily observable traits, like physical attractiveness (Kurzban and Weeden 2005).
Now on to the fact that all of this research is on straight people. I found very little on lesbian women and the menstrual cycle... but what I found was very cool! Brinsmead-Stockham et al (2008) found that, like heterosexual women, lesbian women are quicker to identify unknown faces at midcycle, as long as they were the faces of the sex they preferred. So straight women were good at identifying male faces, lesbian women good at identifying female faces. Burleson et al (2002) found that sexual behavior in lesbian and straight women was mostly similar through the menstrual cycle, with both peaking at midcycle.
So, mate preference may be about telling a research assistant who is the hottest to you at a particular point in your cycle. And it is a fairly robust and consistent finding. However, when it comes to ultimate mate selection the most important thing to consider is a great point made by Pawlowski and Dunbar: finding a mate is about advertising what you have to offer while making known what you want in a mate. Then it’s all about finding some kind of compromise through a series of trade-offs based on what the individual wants, what they can offer, and what’s available in the dating pool. (So, since neither Brad Pitt nor Justin Bieber are currently in the dating pool, my previous comparison was pointless.)
Those of you who met your mate while on the pill: not to fear. I don’t think that the possibility that you may have some suppression of masculinized preferences at one point in your cycle means you’ve chosen the wrong person.
Who knows, it could have opened you up to the Mr. or Ms. Right.
Bereczkei T, Voros S, Gal A, and Bernath L. 1997. Resources, Attractiveness, Family Commitment; Reproductive Decisions in Human Mate Choice. Ethology 103(8):681-699.
Brinsmead-Stockham K, Johnston L, Miles L, and Neil Macrae C. 2008. Female sexual orientation and menstrual influences on person perception. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 44(3):729-734.
Burleson MH, Trevathan WR, and Gregory WL. 2002. Sexual behavior in lesbian and heterosexual women: relations with menstrual cycle phase and partner availability. Psychoneuroendocrinology 27(4):489-503.
Buston PM, and Emlen ST. 2003. Cognitive processes underlying human mate choice: The relationship between self-perception and mate preference in Western society. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 100(15):8805-8810.
Kurzban R, and Weeden J. 2005. HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior 26(3):227-244.
Little AC, Jones BC, Penton-Voak IS, Burt DM, and Perrett DI. 2002. Partnership status and the temporal context of relationships influence human female preferences for sexual dimorphism in male face shape. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 269(1496):1095-1100.
Pawlowski B, and Dunbar RIM. 1999. Impact of market value on human mate choice decisions. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B: Biological Sciences 266(1416):281.
Roberts SC, Gosling LM, Carter V, and Petrie M. 2008. MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275(1652):2715-2722.
Wedekind C, Seebeck T, Bettens F, and Paepke AJ. 1995. MHC-Dependent Mate Preferences in Humans. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 260(1359):245-249.