|Women rated men's faces as more attractive when they were shown alongside a good-looking son|
Just as past research has shown that women, on average, find taller men with symmetrical faces more attractive because such features are indicators of good genes, the new finding suggests a man's offspring also influence women's judgments about his attractiveness. If a man can sire a handsome boy, the instinctual logic goes, then he must be in possession of valuable genes.
In the first experiment, Prokop presented dozens of young women with several triads of photographs showing an attractive or unattractive young man alongside pictures of two boys, one attractive, the other less attractive. For each triad, the women's task was to say which boy the man was father to. The finding here was that the women were more likely to assume that attractive men were fathers to attractive boys (and unattractive men the fathers of less attractive boys). This simple test lay the groundwork for the remainder of the study, confirming that women generally assume that attractive fathers have attractive sons.
Next, nearly three hundred more young women rated the attractiveness of a series of attractive and unattractive men's faces, each of which was presented alongside a boy (also attractive or unattractive), who was supposedly the man's son. In truth, but unbeknown to the participants, none of the pictured men and boys were actually related. A further detail was that each man was described either as the biological father or step-father to the boy shown alongside him.
When a man's face was presented alongside what participants believed to be his handsome son, he (the putative father) tended to receive higher attractiveness ratings from the participants, than if he was depicted with an unattractive son. There was some evidence that this effect was greater for unattractive men, and the effect was more apparent when men were described as biological fathers than as stepfathers. A weakness in the methodology (there were no sons of neutral attractiveness), means we can't know how much attractive sons were making their fathers appear more handsome to the women, compared with how much unattractive sons were having the opposite effect.
If handsome men are more likely to sire handsome children, and those handsome children exaggerate their fathers' attractiveness still further, a self-perpetuating cycle could be set in motion that might help explain a previous finding: attractive men tend to have more children (within the same marriage) than less attractive men. Of course there's also the possibility that the attractiveness boost gained by having a handsome son could leave a man more open to advances from his partner's female rivals (known as mate-poaching in evolutionary psychology), a possibility that awaits further research.
The main finding of this research – that fathers are rated more attractive when their sons are good-looking – is open to some counter-interpretations. For example, perhaps there was a simple priming effect at play and seeing any attractive image alongside a man's face would lead that man's face to receive higher attractiveness ratings.
Prokop tested that possibility in a further experiment in which men's faces were presented alongside attractive or unattractive non-human pictures, such as nature scenes and buildings (e.g. a beautiful beach versus a dirty beach). This time, women's judgments about the attractiveness of handsome men were unaffected by whether a beautiful or ugly scene or object appeared alongside them, suggesting the effect of a handsome son on a father's attractiveness is unique.
However, unattractive men did benefit from higher attractiveness ratings when their faces were shown alongside a beautiful scene or object. This is good news for men who don't have film-star looks – after all, while the influence of genetic inheritance means they are less likely to have the chance to bask in the reflected beauty of a handsome son, this result says they can easily turn to other means of boosting their attractiveness instead. For example, Prokop said they could try "wearing fashionable clothes."
Prokop, P. (2015). The Putative Son’s Attractiveness Alters the Perceived Attractiveness of the Putative Father Archives of Sexual Behavior, 44 (6), 1713-1721 DOI: 10.1007/s10508-015-0496-2
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Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.
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