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Seduced by a Scientist: A Romantic Interview with Robert Burriss

…I just can’t put my finger on it…

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?

https://www.theodysseyonline.com/give-social-media-healthy-relationship

 

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.”
 

23 Comments

  1. The article offers an unusual twist to “am I attractive or unattractive, that is the question”. The interviewer starts off with a burst of enthusiasm, which pops curiosity about a lesser known subject. With a broad base of questions, the article lends interest into what may otherwise come across as a dry subject.

  2. Hey there!

    I loved this interview and article as it took a real good look into many aspects of attraction. I think that too often the word attraction gets people thinking on a mostly physical level and focusing on sex. The reality is, as you have pointed out, that attraction runs much deeper than the physical component and effects peoples lives daily. Whether it be finding a life partner, a political party, where you want to eat dinner, or who you want to take home from the bar, attraction plays a role on some level. I find evolutionary psychology to be among the most interesting of psychological sub-disciplines as it often helps to explain common and consistent behaviours. It it evident that not all attraction is on a physical level but there is also emotional attraction, intellectual attraction, etc. Some behaviours such as smiling (as you mentioned), tend to make a person more attractive and through research we have found what makes a a person more physically appealing to others, so why don’t all people take all necessary steps to become a perfectly attractive being? I actually think the answer to this question is quite simple: people value intellectual attractiveness and individuality more than physical attractiveness. This is not to say this is the answer in every case, but if there were to be an equation for attraction, it would not just be physical, there would be many variable and components. In high school everyone seems to be into having the perfect body, hair, and acne free skin, but later in life people want experience and passion. Do you think that our ideas of attraction are constantly changing causing us to be serial monogamists? Do we have innate ideals of attractiveness and we are constantly search for the perfect specimen ? What do you think?

    1. Hey there Sabrina! I absolutely love all the points you are bringing up!
      You’re right in that attraction is subjective, but it seems for the most part, people want something more than physical attractiveness in finding a partner. And I believe this has a lot to do with the evolutionary roots discussed in this article.
      There are drastic social reasons for why people choose their partner as well. Compatibility, similarity, group dynamics expressed in the field of Social Psychology can offer more on this. But to answer your question, I do believe that attraction changes in different social settings.
      Even mentioned in the article, we find certain characteristics more or less attractive during what’s happening in the world around us. I think that also has to do with our evolution. What sets us apart from other species is that we have the cognitive ability to choose our mate based on preference and social constructs. However, I’m thinking that this desire for certain traits during critical events is a biological desire to preserve our species through procreation.

  3. this was an intriguing article but very enjoyable. I believe Dr. Burris was a good subject because of his unique research which he applied in the Islamic veiling, voting behaviors, and pop culture.

  4. This was a very insightful interview. I wasn’t aware that there is thought to be a correlation between female-female preference and exposure to testosterone. I wonder if this early exposure causes an increase in androgen production later in life, making the female appear slightly more masculine in features than other females. Perhaps these slightly masculine features would explain some of the attraction.

    I’m also thinking that this is probably unlikely because of the Femme/Butch distinction.

    Unless, regardless of how a women dresses, she may still be slightly more masculine in look or on some biological level than a female that wasn’t exposed to high levels of testosterone.

    For future reference, you should consider a more formal introduction. In this space, it can be a bit tricky navigating a writing style that is personable, yet professional. The intro reads a bit like an Op-Ed.

    1. You’re right! This interview was great! I wish he had delved more into the Female-female attraction or same sex attraction. Of course like he mentioned it’s difficult for various reasons. It would be so interesting to learn about same sexual attraction in an evolutionary sense and biological.
      Would you care to explain in more detail about your connection to increased androgen production and attraction?

      1. Hi Arianna!

        The interview states that a study in the Archives of Sexual Behavior makes a connection between exposure to testosterone in-utero and later female- female attaction.

        All females produce androgen. Androgen allows for the production of testosterone. The difference in balance could result in increased production of testosterone when in excess, which one of many effects is hair growth on the stomach or face and less body fat(though there are cases in which a person with Polycystic ovarian syndrome is obese as is with this reality star on TLC network named Whitney). I’m questioning whether the data shows that the early exposure impacts what naturally occurs.

        Also, taking from other parts of the interview, if we are to say that females are biologically wired to respond to more masculine features in males, then it would follow that there would be women that respond to other women, on a subconscious level, that are more masculine in some way.

        I hope that I’ve better articulated my point and thanks for asking for clarification!

        1. Hello,
          correct me if I’m wrong, this is a similar hypothesis for male male attraction in that it’s believe that excess estrogen in utero affects same sex attraction? Because the sexes contain both testosterone and estrogen if I remember correctly.
          If these are contributing factors, then I would also assume that part of this is a re-wiring of the biological trait of attraction, making it subconscious attraction like you mentioned? Which is really interesting in studying human attraction.

          1. I’m not familiar with any study in regards to males/male attraction. Nevertheless, from what I know of what I shared, I would assume that the results would be as you stated.

  5. Great subject to talk about when it is considered to be taboo in our western society. Article was very well written with a lot of background information and explanations. It was very clear to make sure readers did not get lost while reading it. This is a topic most people would most likely be interested in reading about!

  6. This is a fantastic, well-thought of and thorough interview. You ask really interesting questions, keep on topic, as well as doing your research on the topic and your interviewee.
    That said, the introduction is a little bit awkward, but it is overall, a great interview.

  7. This was an interesting and somewhat humorous article. It contained relevant and varying questions, which in turn, caused the answers to be insightful. I really appreciate the types of questions used in the interview, since it’s important for a single topic to have as many aspects and perspectives discussed about it as possible. This allows for more objectivity into the actual topic discussed.

    All in all, it was an enjoyable read that was also well written.

  8. Ooh, I find this subject really fascinating. I would have really loved to be there and listen to the interview/ask some questions myself.
    It would’ve been really nice with some follow up questions. I felt that some of the answers from Mr Burriss opened up for some fascinating discussions, but were cut short by the next question.
    For example, he mentioned that humans tend to be serially monogamous, but what would his opinions be on Polyamorous relationships? Is there any research done on the topic or is it similar to what he said about LGBTQ+ research, that it just doesn’t get done as much because of a lack of time and/or easy-to-find participants?
    Also, he mentioned that some research gets less talked about because people might not like the conclusions reached by the investigators. I’d be very interested to take a deeper look into that aspect of research. Does public support matter when it comes to searching for an answer? Do the findings necessarily reflect the truth or is there a certain amount of bias inherent in the research?
    I wanna know more about this! 😀 I’m gonna have to take a look at the podcast

  9. I like the humorous title and introduction of your article. It eases the reader into knowing what they’re getting themselves into. That said, the interview was quite fascinating. It contained vast amounts of information on the psychological, biological, and evolutionary preferences in attraction. However, I did feel like you attempted to crunch various topics into one. From politics to LGBT+ to Iran, there was an odd mix of research to compress into a single article. I suggest maybe choosing a focus area?

    Nonetheless, I still thoroughly enjoyed the interview with Mr. Burriss. Although I don’t necessarily agree with him on some points, it was refreshing to hear a different opinion from an expert in the field.

  10. Personally, I loved the humor included in this article by the author. It complimented Burriss’ style of talking and helped relieve some of the tension that automatically surrounds this subject.

    Like several interviews I have read, the subject talked about is a huge one and hard to cover in such a small amount of time. My suggestion to the author would be to continue researching this subject! It’s an important subject to talk about, so doing follow up articles would be fantastic. This is a large subject, so isolating subtopics and dedicating an interview to certain subtopics, in my opinion, would be the best way to talk about the subject of attraction from an evolutionary perspective.

  11. I love this topic. I often wonder what makes people more or less attractive. In my case, I’ve found that certain personality traits make people more attractive, such as benevolence, intelligence, open mindedness; whereas some traits make people less attractive, such as dishonesty and insincerity. I also wondered about these traits influence research methods. What kind of methods do you suggest to help control the variables that might influence how a person is perceived?

    I’ve often found it difficult to discuss sexuality with some of my friend. Do you have any advice for people who are too squeamish about the topic of sex, or anyone who is trying to help someone overcome their “squeamish” tendencies regarding the topic of sex?

  12. This topic is really fun, and always “trendy”, I like the way it is written. There are something about the history, situation today, about researches… But what I think is missing, are some of the question that are connected with attractiveness itself. I once read a good book by J.Reeve, where are lots of researches mentioned, and attractiveness too. It was good, because there are one chapter just for it, and it is mentioned wich face shape is often perceived as more attractive, what type of smile, body type and something like that. I think that with additional question like that, this article would be even better.

  13. The introductory paragraph is extremely grabbing and I was pleased with the mixture of narrative with a more scientific premise, the want to discover, and the proper grammatical structure of the paragraph. The second paragraph seemed somewhat odd, however, with the usage of ellipsis and the statement that Dr. Burriss was alluring to you. Though the topic of the article is on the premise of sex, it’s somewhat questionable as to the professionalism of being ‘seduced by a scientist’ or being ‘allured’ by Dr. Burriss. It seemed rather perverse than humorous, but perhaps that’s just in my opinion alone. Further, the introductory paragraph is slightly confusing in conjunction with the rest of the article, since it broaches the topic of vanity and physicalities rather than sex itself. However, the questions you asked Dr. Burriss were very thorough, and the blurb about him at the bottom was nice but should be placed at the beginning of the article so the reader knows more straightforward facts about him from the get-go.

  14. This article contains a great variation of questions asked and I enjoyed reading the responses by Robert Burris. I found the overall article to be very thought provoking yet also including a few comical inputs as well; especially with the title choice. This has been a very intriguing topic to me lately, however I have only read up on very little studies done on this topic, as I find it to be something I don’t see discussed very often. I became very interested by this side of psychology after a small assignment I was given once in one of my psychology classes and I hope to see more of these studies and articles done in the future.
    Questioning how topics such as evolution, personality traits, physical looks, religion, LGBTQA+ and pop culture affect attraction were all such great topics to mention in this article. It was very perceptive to think about how attractiveness can be compared from these different topics. I was very pleased by the work done on this article and the information it provided. As I said before, I would much enjoy seeing further studies done on this.

  15. There are a few sentences in the introduction that could be reworded to create a better flow, but this was an overall very well-written article. The questions asked were thought-provoking, I found the question about attraction in the LGBTQA+ community particularly interesting. This article was well-done, thank you for writing!

  16. I would be interested in knowing how a personality psychologist and relationship psychologist views attraction. I liked how there was humor in the article.

  17. Overall, this article was amazing! The topic was super intriguing, questions were interesting, and by reading the interview I can tell the author did their research. In addition, I appreciate the detailed and straightforward responses Robert Burriss gave. Ohh and Matty I wouldn’t have mind the weird questions… the weirder the better. I would honestly like to know what questions you did edited out, and if Robert gave a response.

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