(Composite face on the left shows low stress; face on the right shows high stress.)
Men with low stress levels are significantly more attractive to women than highly stressed rivals, according to new research conducted at the University of Abertay Dundee.
Dr Fhionna Moore, a Psychology Lecturer at Abertay University, led a research team investigating links between hormones and attractiveness. By analysing hormone levels in young men and developing ‘composite’ images of typical faces, they could judge how attractive a group of women found facial cues to different hormone levels.
The study – which is published (Wednesday 15 September) in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B journal – found a strong link between low levels of the stress hormone cortisol in men and how attractive they were to women. It also found no clear link between attractiveness and high levels of the sex hormone testosterone, as has been previously claimed.
The results suggest the situation is more complex than previously thought. Other scientists had claimed that high levels of testosterone – which are thought to have evolutionary links to male dominance of rivals and the strength of the immune system – are linked to levels of male attractiveness.
By contrast, the researchers believe that men with low stress levels are in fact more attractive, partly because this suggests ‘strong’ genes to be passed on to offspring.
Dr Moore said: “Previous studies suggested a link between high levels of testosterone and greater attractiveness because of health benefits, as only males with a strong immune system could cope with high levels of this sex hormone.
“However, our study suggests this may not be the case at all. We analysed different levels and combinations of cortisol and testosterone, and found a strong link between low cortisol levels – which is present when someone has low stress levels – and being highly attractive to women.”
The study also showed that female attraction to men with low stress levels was at its highest during the fertile phase of the female menstrual cycle.
She added: “We believe that the link between low stress levels and high attractiveness to women is because an ability to handle stressful situations suggests a strong genetic make-up, the future suitability of a partner, and their ability to pass on ‘good genes’ to their children.
“Interestingly, our research also showed increased attractiveness for men with consistent hormone levels. So low cortisol and low testosterone, or high cortisol and high testosterone, were both found to be more attractive than one level being high and the other low.”
The research was split into two separate experiments: the first looked separately at testosterone and cortisol levels and attractiveness, while the second used computer imaging software to prepare ‘composite’ faces representing different mixes of hormone levels.
Four images were presented to the female participants, representing high cortisol and high testosterone, high cortisol and low testosterone, low cortisol and high testosterone, and low cortisol and low testosterone.
The greatest attractiveness was found for low cortisol levels, particularly in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. This gives strength to the ‘good genes’ analysis – where calmer responses to hazardous situations give an evolutionary advantage – which has been previously shown by other researchers working with zebra finches.
Furthermore, an advantage was found for cortisol and testosterone levels being both low or both high, but only during the non-fertile phase, suggesting a difference in choices depending on the risk of successful conception.
Images of the composite faces are available on request.
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