Women: Did you notice the hot guy eyeing you from the other end of the bar? Wouldn’t he make a devoted mate, and maybe even a great father?
Pay no attention to that voice in your head. It’s your hormones speaking.
New research suggests that, around the time of ovulation, many women attribute attractive qualities to sexually desirable men. Specifically, women are more likely to believe that handsome, charismatic guys—even those who are clearly out only for some short-term action—will turn out to be faithful husbands and doting dads.
“When presented with a romantic offer from a sexy cad, the hormonal changes associated with fertility can lead Mr. Wrong to appear like Mr. Right,” reports a research team led by Kristina Durante of the University of Texas, San Antonio. In a series of experiments, she and her colleagues found that “ovulation changed perceptions of sexy cads, but not perceptions of reliable, nice guys.”
Writing in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, the researchers report this hormone-driven delusion is quite specific. “Ovulating women perceive that sexy cads would be good fathers to their own children, but not to the children of other women,” they write. Such thinking is more prevalent in women who had puberty earlier in life; those who had their first period at a relatively advanced age appear to be immune.
In addressing that eternal question of “Why are women attracted to the wrong kind of guy?” past research has found that women’s desire for sexy, dominant and charismatic men is related to their monthly ovulation cycle.
“During the few days each month when they are fertile,” the researchers write, “they tend to be more attracted to men who have more symmetrical and masculine faces, are more socially dominant and competitive, and have deeper voices.” Unfortunately, they add, these males tend to make “unreliable long-term relationship partners,” presumably because so many women find them desirable.
To explore the psychology behind this, the researchers conducted three experiments. The first featured 33 female undergraduates who had regular monthly menstrual cycles and were not using hormonal contraceptives or antidepressants. Each visited a lab twice: once on a day when they were near ovulation, and once when they were at the low end of the fertility cycle.
On each visit, they viewed a photo of a physically attractive man, a champion skier who was described as “socially dominant, adventurous and charismatic,” or one of an average-looking man, an accountant who was described as dependable and a good provider. They were asked the degree to which they would expect the man to engage in various household and child-care chores, including shopping and cooking.
“Women expected that the sexy men would invest relatively more in their potential offspring when they were near ovulation, compared to when they were not ovulating,” the researchers report. “However, ovulation did not influence the perceptions of the reliable man.”
The second experiment, featuring 21 undergraduates, duplicated these results. In addition, it found this distorted thinking disappeared when the women were asked to imagine the man’s behavior if he married a person other than themselves.
The final study, conducted over the Internet, featured 318 women from 45 states (mean age 28). They read the aforementioned sexy-man profile and responded to the same questions as the students. In addition, they reported the age at which they had their first menstrual period. (The average age was 12.3 years; the range was large—from age 6 to 18.)
The researchers found a large difference in responses, depending upon the age of the woman’s first period. When they were ovulating, those who began menstruating earlier than most had unrealistic expectations of sexy men. But the effect was marginal for those who had their first period just slightly later than the mean age, and it reversed for those who had it significantly later than most.
“Girls who experience puberty earlier tend to have sex at an early age, and have more sexual partners,” the researchers write, “and they also show a stronger preference for more masculine men.” It seems these women are particularly susceptible to this distorted thinking during periods of peak fertility.
Durante and her colleagues speculate that this disturbing dynamic could be “a dissonance-reducing mechanism,” one that provides justification for entering a pleasurable but ultimately unwise relationship. They note that “the hormones associated with ovulation increase women’s sexual desire,” and add that, due to programming that is a product of our evolutionary past, “this desire is directed more strongly toward sexy cads.”
In other words, tricking yourself into perceiving that hunk as an all-around good guy provides the justification you need to heed nature’s call. At certain key moments, it’s difficult to distinguish husband from hunk.