January 22, 2011

Pride: Female Ovulation, Visual Attention & Memory, by Mikki Miranda

As a bona fide heterosexual woman with indubitably natural woman tendencies, I admit that I sometimes feel my womanly senses tingling whenever I see a subjectively attractive man. (Believe it or not, I had put aside my feminist-pride card for this.) It may seem for you, my Y-chromosomed reader, rather creepy and slightly objectifying, but I just can't help it.  Consider this hindsight bias or something else, but I think that even if I have successfully been able to acquire a stable manboy for myself, I find good-looking men a sight to behold. (I can't give examples though, no one will actually believe me if I do.)  But seriously, because of my seemingly innocent natural reactions to beautiful creatures, this led me to having a heightened interest on pursuing how and why the human mate selection scheme operates in real life. Moreover, having to read those recent articles relating the key role of unconscious biological processes to mate selection was pretty exciting - to me it's like a perfect menage a trois of psychology, biology and human evolution!

If you don't know what menage a trois means, just stare at this picture for 5 seconds.

Yes, I'm pretty sure we're fully aware of those experiments about male and female preferences: several researches found out that males are relatively more nonselective about potential relationships than females, who have generally higher standards in those areas.  Predominantly explained because of the cost of energy expenditure in child rearing, women are more likely to select males who would at least appear to provide ample resources for the offspring. But I am not here to babble further about the initial researches on human mate selection scheme, I am here to discuss an experience that I guess only women can relate to: OVULATION. (Male readers are still encouraged to read further. I will not be talking about the gross stuff here, Sir Mamaril already took care of that.) When it comes to female ovulation, one of the well-known researches are Penton-Voak et al's (2003) study on the relationship between a woman's stage in her ovulation cycle and her preferences in males. They found that ovulating women are more attracted to men showing high levels of masculinity, and the alternative occurs vice versa. They explained that symmetry and masculinity seem to reflect the possession of genetically-suitable traits for survival. 

Allegedly the epitome of American masculinity

Despite evidence of ovulatory shifts related to behavior and expressed preferences, the question still remains: how can ovulation affect early-stage cognitive processing? In the 2010 research entitled "I only have eyes for you: Ovulation redirects attention (but not memory) to attractive men" by Anderson et al, they hypothesized that ovulating women tend to have an increased attention to handsome men compared to their non-fertile counterparts. They further predicted that such enhanced cognitive processing, i.e. visual attention, should lead to increased memory for the particular man-target.

Their methodology was actually quite simple. The ninety female participants were divided according to whether they were fertile or not. Using an eye tracking software to stabilize eye movements and measure attention, the participants were shown four pictures of neutrally-expressive faces of men who were pre-rated according to their physical attractiveness. They were then given a memory test in which they would have to indicate whether they have or have not seen the faces that were shown to them.

I feel sorry for this guy. Dubbed as "Least Attractive Male Face". Can they at least comb his hair?

So what did the experimenters saw? Using the eye tracking device, they found out that ovulating women paid relatively more attention to attractive male targets in arrays of varying faces. However, they also found out that the fertility status of participants had no effect on attention to other face types, and did not produce an analogous effect on memory. Basically it means that women would pay initial attention to handsome men, but this increased visual attention would not likely translate into better memory of them. 

Why is this so? One explanation may be because the visual attention of highly fertile women did not actually reflect increased cognitive processing but rather a strategic (albeit unconscious) inclination to communicate romantic interest to those desirable men. Also, the researchers suggested that an additional "cognitive suppressing mechanism" in women prevents them from expending more processing than what is necessary especially to male strangers. They further expect that women in highly committed relationships experience this effect more than non-committed women.

The research definitely showed promise in the future of visual attention and its relationship to human mate selection, but I honestly felt that the researchers' explanations did not suffice as much. One reason is that their discussion section did not relate the effects of ovulation according to its actual behavioral and cognitive effect on women. Also, as I've learned so far in our Perception class, attention and memory are composed of different factors and components that cannot solely be measured by eye movements and simple questionnaires. I believe that an imaging approach, through an fMRI or PET scan, in addition to eye tracking, would possibly be a better way to describe the cognitive processing expended upon visual attention and attraction. 

Man in dark blue: my personal eye tracker

Anderson, U., Perea, E., Becker, D., Ackerman, J., Shapiro, J., Neuberg, S., & Kenrick, D. (2010). I only have eyes for you: Ovulation redirects attention (but not memory) to attractive men. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46, 804-808.

Penton-Voak, I. S., Little, A. C., Jones, B. C., Burt, D. M., Tiddeman, B. P., & Perrett, D. J.(2003). Female condition influences preferences for sexual dimorphism in faces of male humans (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 117, 264–271.

1 comment:

  1. I've been using OVULATION PREDICTOR for a long time and I still get butterflies when that little smiley shows his face. :) I got one from the internet by searching on Google HOME CHECK OVULATION TEST KIT it was great!