Science of Valentine’s Day: The Truth About Love, Sex and Lust

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Women are turned on by strong, silent types. Men think about sex every seven seconds. Women go for alpha males, but men avoid successful women. So we’re told, at any rate – but is it true? Is love dictated purely by biology, or can we still believe in the magic of romance? This Valentine’s Day, we sort the science from the clichés.

Gentlemen prefer blondes

FALSE

Last month, researchers from the University of Westminster sent a woman to three different nightclubs with her hair dyed brunette, blonde and red, and recorded how many men approached her, and how they rated pictures of her. The study found that although the “blonde” received far more offers on the dance floor, the “brunette” was rated higher for perceived attractiveness and intelligence.

Does this tell us anything? In most societies, blondes are much rarer than brunettes (more than 90 per cent of us have dark hair), so it may simply be that in a dark, noisy environment, blondes stand out. In fact, most evidence shows that men’s preference is swayed more by fashion than biology. In the Sixties, brunettes took over as the epitome of beauty when Jackie Kennedy supplanted Marilyn Monroe. In the Eighties, blondes reasserted themselves – the Diana effect.

Women prefer gloomy men

TRUE

Ever wondered why the life and soul of the party usually goes home alone? It’s because women prefer men who glower rather than smile, according to Canadian scientists. They showed about 1,000 men and women several hundred pictures of both sexes in various states of cheerfulness, and asked them to rate them in terms of their “gut feelings” of lust and desire. “Men who smile,” says Professor Jessica Tracy, “were considered fairly unattractive by women.” Psychologists believe that what attracts women is not so much gloominess but pride – a puffed-out chest, a jutting chin, a look of steely determination and mild aggression. Men, however, prefer women who looked happy, and are least attracted to those who seem proud and confident.

Smell matters

TRUE

In Swedish folklore, to capture someone’s love, you should carry an apple in your armpit for a day then give it to your intended. There could be a grain of truth here: “We humans have very smelly armpit regions capable of producing molecules that it is difficult to see the function of, other than sexual signalling,” says Dr Peter Brennan, an expert in olfactory processing at Bristol University. A 1998 study from the University of New Mexico also showed that during their fertile periods, women prefer the smell of “symmetrical” men (see below).

Men think about sex more than women

TRUE

All studies show that men are more likely to think about sex, and have relations with more partners – probably because in evolutionary terms, the prospect of pregnancy and motherhood meant that women needed to think carefully about potential partners. That said, the old idea that men think about sex every seven seconds has been comprehensively disproved. Recent research by scientists at Ohio University found that on average, young men think about sex every 40 minutes (about as much as food); for young women, the average is 90 minutes.

Symmetry is a turn-on

TRUE

Well, up to a point. Back in 1991, Swedish zoologists noticed a correlation between the attractiveness of male barn owls to females and the symmetry of their feathers. On the whole, humans follow suit: it's thought that symmetry is a marker for genetic u201Cfitnessu201D, since an asymmetric appearance in animals is associated with a higher level of mutation. Symmetry also acts as a marker for u201Caveragenessu201D, another highly attractive feature. One study, carried out by the appropriately named biologist Randy Thornhill, suggests that women even have more orgasms when their partner's features are symmetrical.

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