You’d think that sex, something critical to the survival of the species (and also pleasurable), would mean we’d be quite a bit more conscious of the cues we—and prospective sexual partners—use for our intimate choices.
Anyone been to France lately? The French often say “je ne sais quoi” (literally meaning, “I don’t know what”) when describing a certain undefinable “something” that makes a particular person incredibly sexually attractive.
Yet the French saying suggests a larger truth; we are often not consciously aware of what those cues actually are. Study after study, where young adults rate the attractiveness of photos of the opposite sex, or smell clothes worn in tests by the opposite sex, demonstrate time and time again that although we know whom we prefer as potential mates, we rarely know the exact reasons why we prefer them. That’s kind of scary, right?
A quick review of the list of our subliminal “come hither” stimuli might shed a small light on the mystery of physical attraction in people. I’ll try and explain how, so if you’re inclined, you can take advantage of the information and adjust your “selection” skills. Yep, it might seem a bit dull at first, despite the topic, but stick with it and see here it takes you.
Unconscious sexual cues
Based on recent research, here is a list of unconscious attractors, suggesting which attributes unconsciously provoke our interest, along with the sensory methods that are thought to be responsible for sending out those sexual attractiveness signals. Here they are:
Body and face symmetry
(from smell alone)
Research has demonstrated that we consciously sense when someone’s face is symmetrical. Women also unconsciously prefer scents (on t-shirts) of men who unbeknownst to them, have a symmetrical body and facial features that are signs of health and genetic fitness. Exactly what the chemical signals of symmetry are still a bit foggy, but it is clear that they exist.
(from smell and visual cues)
Those t-shirt sniff tests also suggest that we have a limited ability to determine which of the “Big 5” personality traits, specifically extraversion and neuroticism, are dominant in another person from unconscious olfactory cues alone. (Spoiler Alert: scientists don’t yet know which chemicals are responsible). Likewise, we can also garner similar information unconsciously just by watching video clips of people’s behavior.
Putting aside obvious cues, such as the odor of infected wounds, new evidence suggests we reflexively detect olfactory cues associated with bacterial infection in another person. Studies have shown that both humans and animals tend to avoid mates that are ill. Makes a lot of sense from an evolutionary standpoint.
(from smell and taste)
There is more than just a little evidence that people can sense, from both sweat and saliva, how close a match another person’s DNA is to their own by detecting major histocompatibility complexes (MHCs). In order to avoid mutations in offspring and stillbirths, mating with someone whose DNA (as indicated by MHCs) is very different from your own is a really good idea. Also, combining your genes with someone with very different immune characteristics increases the odds your kids will have hearty immune systems and add those strengths to your community. It has been speculated that people kiss on the lips because of the disproportionately large swaths of sensory and motor brain tissue respond to lip, tongue, and mouth stimulation. But recently, with MHCs in mind, some biologists now believe that we kiss on the mouth in order to “taste” the saliva of prospective partners for compatible MHCs.
Non-familiarity is desirable
(from both smell and visual cues)
Research from kibbutz communities in Israel and colonies in Taiwan—where non-relatives are raised in close quarters—suggests that humans prefer to mate with people not raised alongside them (mating rates among non-relatives who grew up together are statistically very low). Again, low rates of mate-pairing among adults who grew up together or near each other increases healthy genetic diversity. At least from the point of view of mate selection, familiarity really just might breed contempt!
In a research article, “Birds of a feather do flock together,” Wu Youyou (yes, that is his name) and his colleagues found that we are drawn to people—both as mates and as friends—who share our personality traits. Whether or not we are conscious of being attracted to people because they have similar personalities isn’t exactly clear yet, especially in light of the research just cited on “sniffing out” the Big 5 personality traits, but it happens.
Benefiting from unconscious attractors
We always judge sexual attractiveness partly based upon cues and clues we aren’t always conscious of. You ask how knowing this improves your life? Here are some thoughts.
If you’re in the business of creating or using scents, say for perfumes, deodorants, food or soaps, and want to make people and products more appealing, this new research offers fresh ways to stimulate people’s unconscious desires. Perhaps soap that emits “symmetry” and “extraversion” will sell better than one that offers some other subliminal message?
Of course, even if you aren’t in the fragrance business, there are some ways to take advantage of these new findings on unconscious sexual attractors.
Something to Think About
Give this one some thought; say that you find yourself repeatedly dating, even marrying, “the wrong kind of person.” You don’t consciously seek out these types of individuals (no one looks for the wrong person on purpose) but somehow, you always end up with them.
Is it possible that a primitive, unconscious part of your brain is drawn to the scent, or another attribute, of “the wrong kind of person?” Consider it as you move forward in your world. If so, it wouldn’t be the only vestigial attitude or behavior that you inherited from your distant ancestors. That no longer makes as much sense as it once did; you know, like when saber- toothed tigers roamed free.
Consider that most people’s natural preference is for foods high in sugar and fat. That preference was very adaptive when starvation was a constant risk. But today, with abundant food in most parts of the world and skyrocketing obesity in developed countries, attraction to high fat and sugar foods is the dietary parallel of being “attracted to the wrong type of person.”
In the same fashion, our “temporal myopia,” which basically means valuing “now” much more than “later,” which can lead to impulsive, self-destructive behaviors such as overeating, overspending, gambling, and drug abuse, might have been logical a quarter of a million years ago when the average life expectancy was something like 20 years. Today though, with lifespans approaching 80-plus, the “take it now before it gets away” approach to life creates more problems than it solves for most people.
The short life expectancy that prevailed when our brains evolved to their current state could explain why our brains cling to those unconscious sexual attractors. “Until death do us part” probably averaged about five years in the old days when the majority of humans died from disease, violence, or infection by the age of 20. Seen in that light, long-term emotional compatibility between mates was probably not the crucially important issue it has become today. In ancient times, more primal, biological imperatives, such as genetic diversity and offspring fitness, was likely far more important than the more subtle, emotional compatibility factors that determine whether or not modern relationships succeed today.
Just being aware that your nose, and your prehistoric inclinations may be getting you into the wrong type of relationships could be a valuable first step to entering new relationships that work out.
A second and just as important a step might be to listen more closely to olfactory sensations when meeting prospective mates. The fact is that we’re usually unaware of those cues, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t consciously experience them if we focus on them. For instance, although you probably think you’re unable to track people from smell alone—like a bloodhound—researchers at Rutgers University and U.C. Berkeley demonstrated that humans can indeed track other humans across a lawn, just from scent, by placing their noses close to the ground. Follow your nose.
Now, I’m not suggesting your first move when meeting someone you plant your nose in their armpit, or emulate a dog’s way of introduction, However, it does make sense to pay close attention to what your nose is telling you so you can at least be aware when someone you meet smells like people you’ve already dated who, ultimately, didn’t work out so well. They might just be one of those people my daughter calls “smell-bads.”
You just never know. It might just be that the presence of the “right” smell— the one that unconsciously turns you on and might have saved you a quarter of a million years ago—is a warning sign that you are being physically attracted to the “wrong” person for this 21st century world.
Give it some thought…
Does any of this ring a bell for you?
If your answer is a big yes, give me a call so we can talk … schedule a time for a free call and lets see how all of this works in your life.
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