Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
People in small-scale societies don't have the same preferences for sex-specific traits that those in urbanized environments do.
Evolutionary psychology offers the classic explanations for why people prefer certain characteristics in the opposite sex.
A guy's fondness for a lady's narrow chin, the theory goes, is a result of sexual selection—since such a trait signals youth, fertility, and thus a good mate. Ditto for a woman liking a man's broad forehead: High testosterone means good health, and that he's a good source of genetic material.
These predilections have typically been seen as universal. But a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that they may have more to do with where we live, and how urbanized our surroundings are.
Researchers at Brunel University London and the University of Bristol surveyed twelve populations at varying levels of economic development, from college students in Alberta, Canada, to village farmers in Fiji and Aka foragers in the Central African Republic.
Nearly 1,000 participants viewed a series of composite portraits of the opposite sex (seen at left), which the researcher digitally configured to show greater or lesser degrees of masculine and feminine traits.
The subjects ranked the faces they found the most attractive. Participants who lived in highly developed, dense societies with market economies, such as the U.K., Canada, and China, had the strongest preferences for more exaggerated sex-specific characteristics.
But participants from farming or foraging-based societies, such as the Shuar tribe in Ecuador or the Aka, did not have those preferences long thought to be universal. In those small-society environments, the researchers write, "typical 'Western' perceptions are attenuated or even reversed." The chart below graphs this unexpected trend:
What gives? The researchers surmise that living in a densely populated, diverse setting might be a bit like data overload. Developing a liking for certain characteristics—curvy hips on a woman, say—may be a shortcut to filtering through lot of social information. Urbanized preferences may also be shaped by the barrage of arbitrary cultural standards we are pummeled by daily in the West: T.V., movies, and advertisements that feature ultra-sexualized, often unrealistic, bodily norms.
Moreover, the "classic" standards of "attractiveness" may actually be pretty new, linked as they are to fairly new forms of society.