Do men in relationships subconsciously force themselves to find ovulating women less attractive? That's the claim of one study — but take it with a grain of salt.
In the Times, John Tierney writes about the new science of "relationship maintenance," a branch of evolutionary psych that seeks to explain how people stay coupled up, not just how they choose their mates in the first place. He leads with a Florida State study in which a 21-year-old woman participated in a Lego-building experiment with a series of men, at various stages in her menstrual cycle. The men found her more attractive when she was ovulating, unless they were in relationships, in which case they found her less attractive. Tierney opines that this result occurred "presumably because at some level they sensed she then posed the greatest threat to their long-term relationships. To avoid being enticed to stray, they apparently told themselves she wasn't all that hot anyway." Tierney appears to be echoing study author Jon Maner's explanation:
It seems the men were truly trying to ward off any temptation they felt toward the ovulating woman. They were trying to convince themselves that she was undesirable. I suspect some men really came to believe what they said. Others might still have felt the undercurrent of their forbidden desire, but I bet just voicing their lack of attraction helped them suppress it.
That's a pretty big assumption. Maner and his co-author Saul Miller presumably didn't subject their unsuspecting males to polygraph tests or other mind-reading procedures, yet they're absolutely confident that the men were more attracted to the ovulating lady — and just lying to themselves about it. This isn't not totally surprising, given that the psychologists were also responsible for some of the research implying that ovulating women are sexier to guys — it makes sense that their explanation would be in line with their previous work.
But why is Tierney so eager to hop on board? Why doesn't he bring up any of the criticisms leveled at ovulation research last year by Slate's Jessica Grose? The most germane to this particular study is one made by science editor Harriet Hall: "They are isolated studies that have not been replicated, and the findings could be inaccurate due to chance factors." Unless I'm misreading Tierney's account, Maner and Miller's research involved men's varying levels of attraction to just one woman — the potential for said "chance factors" seems quite high.
This is not to say that Maner and Miller's study is worthless, or that the other research Tierney cites — on such behaviors as "mate-guarding," which "unsexy" guys apparently do more of when their ladies are ovulating — is uninteresting. Maner argues that findings in these areas can help us conduct healthier relationships, and at the very least, it's always fascinating to explore the way humans behave. But we should beware of taking evo-psych research — especially when it has yet to be replicated — as gospel. Sound bites like "women are always more attractive when they're ovulating" are easy to repeat and pass around, but believing them without question can blind us to alternate explanations.
The Threatening Scent of Fertile Women [NYT]
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