Charlotte Bronte fans probably already know: The brooding Byronic hero Edward Rochester is winning, the self-confident, proud Jane Eyre, not so much.
According to research from the University of British Columbia (UBC), broody or proud men are attractive to women, but proud, confident women don’t capture the eye of the opposite sex so easily. The study, published in the journal Emotion on May 23, 2011 – yes, there’s a journal for emotion – may have people rethinking their choice of social media avatars.
Jessica Tracy and colleagues at UBC showed 1,000 heterosexual adults hundreds of images of members of the opposite sex. Participants rated the smiling or brooding and proud or ashamed men and women in the images in terms of sexual attractiveness. Any fan of Rochester or James Dean could have predicted that the brooding or proud men proved far more sexually attractive to the women than the brightly smiling men. In keeping with the Mars vs. Venus stereotype, men seemed to find a smiling happy woman far more attractive than a proud-looking woman giving off confident vibes.
Alec Beall said that the study looked only at first impressions and gut responses about sexual attractiveness. “We were not asking participants if they thought these targets would make a good boyfriend or wife,” he said. “We wanted their gut reactions on carnal, sexual attraction.” According to Beall, studies examining what people want in a life partner do show a preference for positive emotional traits and a “nice personality.”
Why would a woman find male brooding attractive? Tracy and Beall suggested a number of explanations based on other findings. A pride display, it seems, implies competence, which according to the guts of these 1,000 participants, is attractive in men but not in women.
Pride can be pretty straightforward, but smiling is a complicated act. Among primates, showing teeth often serves as conciliation, a gesture of “Hey, we’re all friends here, right?” A smiling display in this study was great in a woman (blame those guts again), but not so much in a man. Also, Beall said, “Previous research has suggested that happiness is a particularly feminine-appearing expression.” Women with expressionless faces, you’ve been warned. If you’re on the dating scene, show some teeth, or else.
Oddly enough, the researchers found that shame was rather attractive to both sexes. The authors suggest that shame gives an impression of “Hey, I’m willing to do what’s necessary to make it up.” This appeasement behavior, Tracy said, might make others feel more trusting and find the appeasor more attractive.
It might not surprise you, Dear Reader, to learn that men in general gave women higher attractiveness rankings than women gave men. This difference suggests a … shall we say … greater choosiness among the women when we’re talking about gut-instinct carnal reactions.
As a woman who has been told many a time by total strangers to “Smile! It can’t be that bad!,” I’ve got my own gut reaction to these findings. When a woman sees a brooding man, she sees a path of greatest resistance, a project and a challenge. To paraphrase Charlotte Bronte, only the sure hand of the just-right woman could puncture that brooding exterior and turn that frown upside down. With men, a show of teeth is the path of least resistance, and that’s got its appeal. In brooding, women see a challenge to take on, while men see less challenge in a smile. Jessica Tracy and Alec Beall themselves don’t reach that conclusion, instead citing long-standing Western social norms as a driving force in their findings that when it comes to instant attraction, for men, a smile can be devastating, one way or the other. Excuse me a mo’ while I go change my avatar.
Dr. Emily Willingham came to EarthSky from The Biology Files. Her background includes a PhD in biological sciences, a bachelor's degree in English, and a published book: The Complete Idiot's Guide to College Biology. She is a scientist, writer, editor, teacher, autism & ADHD parent, and "all around opinionator." Says Emily: "Got an English BA & biology PhD, & I'm not afraid to use them, often together."