Another day, another study charting the female brain. Or, more accurately, another slew of media reports that overstate the findings of a single study.
Everyone's having a field day with a new survey of how masculinity in male faces is perceived. Instead of dealing with the study's tedious scientific details, media reports are trumpeting it with headlines like "Feminine Men Make Perfect Partners, Say Women" and "Why Women Are Now Looking for More Feminine Men." The study doesn't show that women view feminine men as perfect partners; nor does it reveal that women are suddenly starting to search for feminine male partners. These, of course, are the most extreme examples of applying creative license to the study's findings. But there are plenty of other reports that more subtly ring the women-are-going-for-wussies alarm (or, conversely, celebrate the downfall of the alpha male).
Here are the actual specifics: For starters, the study focused on what personality traits men with faces falling all along the Orlando Bloom-Russell Crowe spectrum are perceived to have. Researchers at Durham and St. Andrews universities in the U.K. had 335 women and men analyze male faces digitally altered to appear more masculine or feminine (as well as healthy or unhealthy and older or younger). The participants were asked to evaluate various faces based on seven personality traits: ambition, commitment, faithfulness within a relationship, dominance, parenting ability, warmth and wealth. They found that masculine faces were associated with greater dominance but less commitment; feminine faces were viewed as having greater "pro-social traits" like commitment and parenting ability. (Note that responses from men and women were grouped together and analyzed as a whole because there wasn't a significant difference between male and female responses.)
It would be wrong to conclude from this study -- like those two pieces mentioned above -- that women prefer feminine men, period. Along the lines of a recent study finding that college-age women tend to have flings with muscular men and longer relationships with less beefy boys, it could be that women prefer more feminine-looking men for long-term relationships; they are associated with greater faithfulness and parenting skills, after all. I maintain a pinch of skepticism, though, about women's partner choices being such an easy nut to crack. There's a whole host of things that influence what qualities a woman actually looks for -- not what she's expected to look for or says that she looks for -- in a long-term partner.
The study's lead author, Lynda Boothroyd (the same researcher behind the study finding that women are attracted to men who look like their fathers) concludes that women -- and, mind you, men -- are largely in agreement when asked to "judge a book by its cover." She adds: "They may well use that impression of someone to decide whether or not to engage with that person. That decision-making process all depends on what a woman is looking for in a relationship at that time of her life."
Translation: Generally, people associate a masculine male face with the same set of personality traits, but how they respond to those characteristics is more particular.