dating tips from the world of science

Are you unhappy with your love life? Do you ever wonder who your perfect mate should be? Want some good advice, but don’t know where to turn? Skip the television psychic, and try talking to some scientists instead. Many researchers wonder about the same questions, and, like your mother, have a few ideas of their own on whom you should be dating and why.

Much of this scientific advice is offered from an evolutionary perspective: The emphasis is on propagating the species rather than romantic fulfillment. Who knew your grandchild-craving Mom was a card-carrying Darwinian?

But for those of you who want to hook up to pass on your genes, here are some dating and mating tips from the world of science.

1) Try to appear symmetrical. Various studies throughout the years have shown that both men and women prefer symmetrical faces. A hand growing out of the ear is unattractive to both sexes — unless, perhaps, there is another hand growing out of the other ear as well. Having symmetrical features, where the left side of the face closely mirrors the right and vice versa, appears to indicate good health and vigor, meaning you are sure to be boffo baby-making material.

2) Women, keep up that all important waist-to-hip ratio of 0.7, giving you that fine, hourglass figure. According to researchers, a waist smaller than your hips drives men wild. If at all possible, try to be young and attractive, too. Small noses, full lips, and high cheekbones all add to that youthful look, giving the impression you have tons of childbearing years ahead of you, or that you know a really good plastic surgeon.

3) Men, attempt to appear capable of providing for your offspring. Having wads of cash or huge herds of cattle is the simplest way, but being a little older doesn’t hurt either, since it might suggest you’ve attained a higher social status (and more cash or cattle).

4) Make sure your immune systems complement each other. One way women can tell this characteristic is by sniffing a potential mate. Odds are, if they’re a good immune system match, she’ll like his natural aroma. In 1995, Claus Wedekind (then at the University of Bern in Switzerland) asked female volunteers to smell unwashed T-shirts worn by different men. The women consistently preferred the scent of men whose immune systems were different from their own: Potential children from such a union will have a better chance of fighting off disease. Never underestimate the selling power of smell.

5) But, on the other hand, you don’t want to be too different from your potential mate. Contrary to popular belief, opposites don’t attract. Look for someone who resembles you — or looks like dear old Mom or Dad, who should look like you anyway. Last year, David Perrett and his colleagues from the University of St Andrews in Scotland asked volunteers to rate the attractiveness of faces flashed on a computer screen. They found that men and women preferred faces that more closely resembled their own. Then the researchers morphed each subject’s face onto a gender-reversed image. The positive ratings shot through the roof. According to the St Andrews team, wanting a mate that looks like you is driven by sexual imprinting, the tendency among animals to choose mates that look like their parents, the reasoning being that if your parents were able to have offspring, someone that looks like them should be able to have offspring, too. That might explain why many married couples look alike (but not why they dress alike).

6) Looking alike might not be enough, though. To be happy, you’ll also need to be alike, researchers from Cornell University reported last month. Peter M. Buston and Stephen T. Emlen asked volunteers to rank 10 attributes they valued most in a potential mate, including wealth, status, and commitment to family. They then had the respondents rate themselves on the same characteristics. The researchers found that people who rated an attribute important in a partner also rated themselves highly on the same attribute. Their final piece of advice, so romantically put: “Individuals seeking stable long-term relationships should not seek the highest-quality partner available, but should simply look for partners who are similar to themselves.”

If this seems like too much to worry about, perhaps you should just let Mom pick out your mate after all. But give them a quick sniff, just to be sure: You can never be too careful about the immune system.

This article appeared in the Light Reflection column of the Boston Globe’s Health/Science section on 8/19/2003.
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