The psychology of attractiveness


One happy side effect of natural selection is that it gave psychologists an excuse to talk about sex and romance at great scientific length. Welcome to the world of “mate markets” and “sexual receptivity”!

Guess who is more likely to get pregnant.

Dr. Rob Burriss, producer of the Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast, knows firsthand just how fun and vexing evolutionary psychology can be. His line of work has been called sexist, biased, and irrelevant, yet it also gets huge airplay in the news cycle. After all, who wouldn’t want to know if “the pill” ruins relationships or whether facial scars are attractive? Our link-up between Chapel Hill and Liverpool led to a great discussion; the topics below are just a sampling of what we covered. Join us, and download the podcast here.



Women taking the hormonal contraceptive pill are more jealous with their partners. On the pill, they may not be as attracted to macho guys. While off the pill they prefer the scent of men with dissimilar immune profiles, but on the pill they prefer genetically similar men.

Two recent studies confirmed that men find women more attractive when they are ovulating. In a real-world demonstration of this principle, a 2007 study of professional lap dancers found they earned much more in tips during ovulation compared to during menstruation ($335 vs $185 per five hour shift).

Yes, facial scars in men are attractive, but more so for short-term than long-term relationships.

One aspect of attractiveness men can control is their participation in sport. Competitive and aggressive sports give the biggest attractiveness boost. 

Don’t be shy: some background on the menstrual cycle is in order.

Facial appearance is hugely important in political contests. Faces guide first impressions, and people’s face-based snap judgments of trustworthiness, aggressiveness and many other traits tend to agree.

Evolutionary psychology cannot help but evoke emotionally fraught questions about gender, sexuality and morality. There is always a danger of bias and sexism; for a parable we look to biologists’ historically slanted descriptions of sperm and eggs (as documented by anthropologist Emily Martin).

Follow Dr. Burriss’s work at his website and podcast. For more chances to participate in research on what people find attractive in faces and voices, Dr. Burriss recommends

Image credit: The Guardian