Seduced by a Scientist: A Romantic Interview with Robert Burriss
I went through a brief vanity phase in high school and it’s very possible that I’m still in it. So I’ve done my fair share of researching what makes people attractive: facial feature ratios, body postures, not picking your nose in public, etc. Of course the stuff I read was probably not scientifically accurate, and I wasn’t ready to accept the fact that I needed the ideal facial structure of Angelina Jolie to be attractive. Luckily, I could just interview an expert in this area and ask them questions until I got answers I was happy with.
There is something…alluring about Robert Burriss, something that made him so irresistibly attractive that I just had to interview him, something I could not put my finger on…lucky for me, he is just the person I could ask to explain all that business. A professor of psychology, podcast host, and a researcher based in Switzerland, Burriss is an evolutionary psychologist with a specific interest in human attraction. This was my chance to ask an expert all of my weird sex questions, but I edited those out to make sure this is article wouldn’t scare anyone away.
How did you first become interested in human attraction?
It wasn’t a well thought out plan. I enjoyed studying for my BSc and decided to continue with a masters, but I wasn’t sure which field to choose. My university offered courses in addictive behaviour (depressing), forensic psychology (expensive), and evolutionary psychology. I didn’t know anything about evolutionary psychology, but I didn’t have anything against it either, so it made it to the top of the list by default.
What really hooked me was when I learned about a now classic study by Ian Penton-Voak, which showed that women prefer more masculine-faced men when they are in the fertile phase of their menstrual cycle. It occurred to me that women’s feminine-faced long-term partners might not like this, and that men might have evolved a counter-strategy to prevent their partners from cheating on them with beefcake men. I concede this is hardly an “Isaac Newton is hit on the head with an apple” level of insight, but it was my first taste at generating a novel testable hypothesis from existing data.
And, apart from anything else, attraction is inherently interesting! We’re all amateur psychologists in a way, and judging the attractiveness of others is most people’s specialist subject. I like the idea of studying something that is central to all of our lives, and which we all have a vested interest in.
Your research interests imply that you’re more comfortable talking about sex than most people. If so, have you always been this way? If not, do you feel this hinders your research?
I am as squeamish about sex as the next Englishman, but somehow I get over it when I’m recording my podcast. After all, when I record, there’s no one else in the room. If it gets too weird, I can just hit delete. To be honest, I think it might be better for someone who researches human attraction to be a little averse to discussing carnal matters. Once, during my PhD studies, I suggested to my adviser that we do some research on male penis size. He warned me off: “Don’t do it. Everyone will call you Dr. Dick”. Best advice I ever got.
Many of your articles tackle questions people definitely think about but are too uncomfortable to ask. Why do you think there is still such a stigma around sex today?
For most of us, sex is a very private matter. This means that we are less willing to share, but also that we are less able to judge what is normal behaviour because we can’t easily discover what everyone else gets up to. Most of the research I do myself, or talk about on my podcast, is not directly about sex. My main focus is studying attraction, but even that is a difficult subject to talk about. Many people assume that attraction is an ephemeral process, naturally impossible to explain. Attempts to do so can feel unsatisfying to these people, because talk of “good genes indicators” and fertility cues are so divorced from our conscious experience. It doesn’t feel real. But, of course, evolution does not care about our conscious preferences, and we may partner up with people for various reasons, some of which we don’t realise have an impact.
Viewing attraction through the scope of evolution implies that people are attracted to traits that will benefit the species genetically. Why then, do you think people can have such a range of physical preferences when choosing partners?
First of all, I have to correct you on a common misapprehension. Evolution doesn’t care about species: it cares about individuals and the genes we carry. We each vary on any number of traits, and some of these traits will be important for survival or reproduction. The genes of those who are more successful at reproducing will, over deep time, come to be more represented in the gene pool. One prediction we can make about human preferences is that they will be, to some extent, universal. All humans prefer a healthy looking partner, for example. And there is a lot of agreement about who is attractive: most people would agree that Ryan Gosling is better looking than Danny DeVito. But, as you point out, we do not always agree 100% on what we find alluring. Many of us have a “type”. However, this is what we would predict from evolutionary theory. People who are more attractive can better compete for attractive partners, so their preferences tend to be more exacting. There is also evidence that living in a harsh environment can change our mate preferences such that we prefer less attractive partners, perhaps because we think they are more likely to invest their resources in the relationship. Other studies have shown that we “imprint” on our opposite-sex parents, and prefer partners with the same hair and eye colour. One way of thinking of it is that we have minds like Swiss army knives: designed to cope with different problems, but with the appropriate tool determined by the situation.
To what degree do you think personality affects one’s physical attractiveness as perceived by others?
Well, we know that smiling is very attractive, and people who are more agreeable in their personality are likely to smile more. But it is difficult to quantify the relationship because most research on physical attractiveness uses passport-style photographs as stimuli. Some people think this is very unnatural, but with other methods it is difficult to control for all the possible variables that might influence how a person is perceived. Another problem is that evolutionary psychologists (who have got the physical attractiveness racket cornered) don’t interact much with personality psychologists or relationship psychologists. We need to collaborate more between our sub-disciplines if we want to answer questions like this. But I might just be saying that because I work in a psychology department that focuses on personality psychology…
Do you think humans are naturally monogamous, or is this just a Western societal norm?
The consensus among evolutionary psychologists appears to be that humans are serially monogamous. That is, we come together in more-or-less exclusive pairs to raise offspring, but may dissolve the relationship after a number of years to enter into another long-term relationship with someone else. Of course, some people stay together their whole lives and others prefer short-term relationships, so there is clearly a lot of variation in behaviour and preferences. One interesting observation is that the males of species which are more promiscuous (e.g. chimps) have larger testicles so as to produce more sperm. This is so that males can engage in sperm-competition: to put it crudely, the more semen you can produce, the more likely you are to be the father of a promiscuous female’s offspring. Males from monogamous species tend to have smaller testicles. Humans are roughly intermediate on this scale. You can also point to the differences in male and female body size: the males and females of monogamous species tend to be similarly sized, but males who are polygamous tend to be larger so that they can effectively compete for mates (think elephant seals and gorillas). Again, men are generally bigger and stronger than women, so this points to moderate polygyny in our past. Having said all this, I should point out that this doesn’t excuse people from cheating or imply that any one type of mating strategy is “normal” or “natural”. We can make our own minds up about what we think is right for us, and some environmental pressures can affect which relationship style is most prevalent (e.g. in some rural areas of Tibet, one woman marries a group of brothers, a system that may have emerged to prevent family farms being split up).
Your bio on psychologytoday.com says that you also have published research in Islamic veiling and voting behavior. Do you relate these topics to evolution and attraction or are they other standalone interests of yours?
I have published one paper on Islamic veiling with a collaborator from Iran, Farid Pazhoohi. We found that women were much more likely to be offered a ride by a male motorist if they were wearing liberal rather than conservative clothing. Other studies from France have shown that motorists are more likely to pick up female hitchhikers who wear red clothes, have blond hair, or have larger breasts. The effect of clothing style in Iran is much stronger, and we think it’s because motorists judge liberally dressed women to be easier to sexually exploit. The voting paper I was involved with showed that we could predict the results of genuine political elections based on the facial appearance of the leadership candidates (we asked our volunteers to choose between faces, but they couldn’t recognise the politicians because we used computer graphics software to mask their identities). We also found that feminine-faced male candidates fare worse when the vote takes place during a time of war, which may account for why typically macho politicians often focus their campaigns on external threats. Usually my research is inspired by evolutionary theory, and these two studies are no exception.
People from the LGBTQA+ community are more visible in society than ever. How has this changed evolution, attraction, and sexuality research over the past decade?
I do see a number of research papers being published on gay/lesbian and bisexual mate preferences, but I don’t know if they have become more frequent in recent years. There might be a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, it is just more difficult to recruit non-heterosexual research participants. That’s not to say it’s impossible, or that we shouldn’t be trying. It’s just that all scientists have limited time, and the standard student population — from which we recruit our research participants — contains more people who are attracted to the opposite sex. Also, if you happen to be working from an evolutionary perspective, it is likely that your hypotheses about what people find attractive are based on male-female relationships because these are the relationships that lead to offspring: the currency of evolution. Finally, I wonder if much of the research on sexuality from a psychological or biological perspective is simply not palatable to a general audience. For example, a recent paper in the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior discusses the evidence for female-female preference being associated with greater exposure to testosterone in the womb. Some people, whether they are lesbians or not, may find this interesting, others will not, and some may have rather more negative feelings about this kind of research. This uncertainty may lead researchers to avoid the media spotlight.
Besides voting behavior, do politics and pop culture influence your research interests? If so, how?
Because pop culture is saturated with sexual images and attractive people, it’s inevitable that it will have some kind of effect. A few years ago I noticed that the male leads in action movies are often depicted in advertising campaigns with cuts and scars to their faces (usually with a massive explosion behind them). I wondered whether these injuries might be attractive, so I did some research into it. Turns out that men with subtle facial scars make a man more attractive for a hook-up, but that scarring doesn’t make a man more or less attractive as a marriage partner. But mostly I use pop culture images to explain research: whenever I give a class about male facial masculinity, I always break out pictures of Thor and Loki to demonstrate what a super masculine and a super feminine man look like.
Robert Burriss, PhD, is a research fellow at the University of Basel in Switzerland. He has researched and taught psychology across Europe, and also held a research post at Pennsylvania State University. “Rob produces The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast http://psychologyofattractive nesspodcast.blogspot.com, a monthly show about new research on attractiveness, jealousy, lust, and love.”