Monday, 9 May 2016

Men who can tell a good story are seen as more attractive and higher status

The results fit with evolutionary theory
Stories can change how we think about the world, about the people they describe, and even ourselves. According to new research, they also influence our attitude to the storyteller. An article published in the journal Personal Relationships suggests that people portrayed as stronger storytellers are considered as higher status than those that aren’t – and this status can make them more romantically attractive, at least in the eyes of women. Cue editing of Tinder bios across the globe.

John Donahue and Melanie Green ran experiments with US undergraduate samples (388 in total, 55 per cent women, two-thirds Caucasian, average age 20) who were asked to rate the attractiveness of a potential partner of the opposite sex based upon basic printed information. In the first experiment, participants received a photo and a short biography of a would-be partner which included information on their storytelling abilities. Participants in the strong storytelling condition, for example, heard that the person “often tells really good stories…he makes the characters and settings come alive.” Other conditions emphasised the mediocrity of the person’s storytelling or did not mention it at all. Stronger female storytellers did not tempt male participants, nor did male raconteurs foster extra female interest in short-term dating. But women were more interested in talented male story-tellers as long-term partners.

A further experiment held the design but added another category of attraction – “Do you think this person would make a good spouse?” – and a measure of the person’s perceived status. Both male and female participants considered storytellers to have higher status than non-storytellers. But for men, that didn’t translate into finding women more attractive, whereas for female raters, there was a clear route from men's storytelling ability to status to desirability as a long-term partner or spouse.

To examine other explanations for the lure of the story-teller beyond the effect of status, the researchers ran another experiment where participants actually read a story, supposedly recounted by the potential partner. Some stories were fluid with lively vocabulary, and, as hoped, participants rated them as better and more involving than others that told the same facts in a hesitating and digressive manner.

But surprisingly, attraction didn’t depend on being swept up in the story – that is, would-be partners who’d produced a more engrossing story were not rated as more attractive than the bores. I should note, however, that a short oral anecdote transcribed onto paper is not the strongest way to entangle someone in the magic of story, and the researchers acknowledged that other unmeasured qualities of the story, such as personal identification, or sheer enjoyment, may well affect attraction.

Donahue and Green advance an evolutionary theory for their findings: females, with a biologically high investment into producing young, have evolved to seek mates with resources, and storytelling aptitude reflects advantages that prehistorically meant the difference between life and death. But there are other explanatory lenses: for example, that men are socialised to be suspicious of women who take space and focus, considering that active status a threat that masks any liking they might have for storytelling traits, whereas women are socialised to appreciate first impressions of male competence. I suspect there is a rich, specific picture of when and why storytellers appeal, a picture that will depend on looking across cultures and at the specific effects their stories arouse in us. For now, this evidence suggests that young western males who can spin a good yarn are seen, on first blush, as a better catch.


DONAHUE, J., & GREEN, M. (2016). A good story: Men's storytelling ability affects their attractiveness and perceived status Personal Relationships DOI: 10.1111/pere.12120

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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