I am interested in the evolution and development of social behaviours.
From the perspective of evolutionary psychology I want to
discover more about the 'ultimate' reasons for our behaviours; what
past selection pressures seem to have shaped our brains and our
behaviours? From a developmental perspective I'm interested in
understanding how these 'adaptations' become instantiated across
development. The human brain is staggeringly complex and flexible
and many of our behaviours are the result of our innate
behavioural biases combining with our environment to produce our adult
I'm interested in aspects of behaviour such as aggression, attraction
and parenting, and in aspects of biology such as testosterone, the
menstrual cycle and timing of puberty.
My current research is primarily concerned with Physical Attraction; I have also had an interest in Father Absence.
I've been conducting rsearch into facial attraction since my undergraduate dissertation and my PhD was carried out in the PerceptionLab in St Andrews which has a worldwide reputation for facial perception research.
Most recently I have been running a cross-cultural research project examining the role of television in shaping body size ideals in rural Nicaragua.
Key questions I am interested in are:
What are the adaptive (i.e. evolutionary) benefits to women in choosing a facially masculine man?
How does healthiness relate to male facial masculinity?
What are the sources of individual differences in attraction to various physical traits? What role might culture play in this?
How do we learn what faces/bodies to be attracted to?
Previous research news:
Visual experience affects the bodies we find attractive...
Our research paper published in the journal PLoS ONE, shows the potential impact of visual imagery on our preferences for female body shape. In previous research it has been shown that Zulus who have moved to the UK rate female body shapes for attractiveness in a manner which is intermediate between their compatriots in South Africa, and their hosts in the UK. It was hypotnesised that this could be because they learn a thin-is-good association in Britain. Alternatively, it could be because British media are saturated with thinner bodies and this biases their perceptions of 'normal' and changes their preferences accordingly.
In our experiment, we attempted to mimic both these possibilities. We found that presenting female participants with a series of 'thin' or 'large' bodies changed their preferences to be for thinner or larger bodies respectively*, suggesting that just the prevalence of low BMI bodies in our media could be enough to induce changes in migrants' preferences.
Importantly, we found these changes whether we used typical media images (models and beauty queens) or relatively unappealing images of women with very high or very low body weight. There have been recent campaigns against anorexia featuring images of very emaciated sufferers; however, our research suggests that such images would only increase, not decrease, a preference for thinness. They are not enough on their own to counteract the thin ideal.
In contrast we found that presenting aspirational and 'glamourous' large bodies (plus size models and beauty queens) alongside the plain images of underweight women in grey leotards did shift preferences away from thinness - this suggests that learning associations (in this case large-is-good) may also play a role in our body weight preferences.
*It should be noted that everyone in our study prefered thinner bodies than the midpoint on our scale, but preferences shifted up and down depending on what kind of images they had seen.
Judging sexual strategy from faces - redux
We recently published further research looking at physical facial correlates of scores on the sociosexual orientation inventory (SOI). Observers
were 'average' images of faces of men and women scoring high and low on this scale, and we also had information on how impulsive these people were. Despite the fact that impulsivity did relate to interest in 'casual' sexual encounters in our sample,
there was no evidence that this could explain why people were once again able to correctly determine SOI in the female composites (it's not just that they looked generally more impuslive),
nor why women were averse to high SOI men. This suggests that, however they arise, any accuracy in stereotyping reagrding sexual behaviour is more likely to be specific to that behaviour rather than a generalisation from underlying triats.
Judging sexual strategy from faces
research paper currently published in Evolution and Human Behavior shows that we
may be subtly aware of other people’s attitudes to sex. Three groups of
undergraduate students were photographed and completed a questionnaire called
the sociosexual orientation inventory (SOI) which asks about past sexual
behaviour (e.g. number of one night stands) and current attitudes – such as "is sex without love okay"? Observers
were then shown either real individuals faces or ‘average’ images of faces, and
it seemed that across the studies, observers were often able to
distinguish between those who scored low on the SOI (and thus are not generally
keen on casual sex) and those with high scores (who tend to have had more
partners and be more comfortable with uncommitted sex).
However, what is
far more interesting, is that despite the subtlety of the explicit awareness of
who-thinks/does-what, there is a very strong tendency for women to be attracted
to men who score low on the SOI – i.e. men who are less interested in casual
sex. Men have the opposite preference with female faces; they strongly prefer
the ‘high SOI’ women. In fact, even other women thought that high SOI females
were more attractive.
Furthermore, high SOI men were also viewed as looking more masculine.
This backs up previous work which showed that more masculine men were
perceived as being less likely to commit to a long term relationship;
now we can see that men who are less likely to be in a long term
relationship (although the questionnaire doesn’t actually ask
about that) also look more masculine. These convergent lines of
evidence support the idea that part of the variation in women’s
preferences for male masculinity is due to the negative connotations it
has for long term partnerships.
Percieved personality traits of masculine and healthy male faces
Research conducted both during my PhD in St Andrews, and since I came
to Durham, published this month in Personality and Individual
shows that while women see facial masculinity as both a good and bad
thing in male faces (old news!), they see facial health as unifomily a
Both male and female observers considered more masculine faces to be
more dominant, but less likely to be committed to, and faithful in, a
long term relationship. On the other hand, healthy faces were
seen as both more dominant, ambitious and wealthy than, but also as
better long term partners and parents than, less healthy faces.
The fact that people see the choice between masculine and feminine, and
the choice between healthy and unhealthy, as two completely different
choices in terms of what you're likely to get in your partner, helps to
explain why women's preferences for masculinity do not seem to have
anything to do with their preferences for healthiness (Boothroyd et al,
2005), despite the predictions of the Immunocompetence Hypothesis.
Attraction to Father's Facial Features
Research by myself and my co-workers, Agnieszka Wiszewska (who collected the data) and
Bogus Pawlowski (her supervisor), which is appearing in Evolution & Human
Behaviour has shown that women who report a good relationship with
their fathers are more attracted to faces which have similar facial
dimensions - particularly in the central region of the face.
Does this mean that Freud was right? Well no - according to
Freud normal people should resolve their 'complexes' in childhood and
stop feeling attracted to their parents before puberty. This
research shows that we learn what is good in a face partly from the
faces of men to whom we have a strong positive relationship.
Further research may show whether this is just fathers or,
for example, whether elder siblings may play a role.
I am interested in the way that the presence or absence of a biological
father from the family home during childhood relates to a woman's
physical, behavioural and psychological outcomes in adolescance and
adulthood. Father absence theory has been a subject of research
for nearly three decades. Here is a brief guide to father absence theory.
TV show corrections!
Lynda recently appeared on a BBC Four programme 'The
Biology of Dads' to talk about the role of fathers in their daughters'
physical and relationship development. As in all things, science
tends to get over-simplified in the media, often through multiple people editting scripts/articles, so it's worth pointing out a
couple of things which slipped in/out by accident...
1. Why do 'father absent' girls reach puberty
earlier? One of the most recent theories (from noted researcher
Bruce Ellis) is that during times of stress, it is advantageous for
children to mature quickly and reach a point where they are no longer
vulnerable to the dangers in their environment. However, neither he nor I would argue (as implied)
that girls are maturing quickly to get a man to look after them.
2. We also looked at 'composite' average facial images of girls from
different backgrounds, however it is important to point out that none
of the individual faces featured on screen (during a demonstration of
how to make a composite image) were actually from these images, as the final cut seemed to imply.
We would never reveal that kind of information about someone in
public. Information about the father absence composite images and the study
they were drawn from can be found here.
And an additional bit of extra information, rather than a correction...
3. We also covered 'facial imprinting' whereby we use our parents'
faces as models for future partners (see
One of the nuances we didn't have much time to get into during filming is that
it doesn't matter whether those parents are biological parents or not,
simply that you had a good relationship across childhood, so that you
are able to learn from their faces. For instance, one of the
pairs of 'fathers and husbands' featured was in fact a step-father and
husband, but where the step-father had only lived with the woman from
mid-childhood onwards, we wouldn't necessarily expect strong
Previous research news:
Father absence and age at first birth
Our paper published in The American Journal of Human Biology, showed that women who experienced father absence in childhood had their first child significantly earlier than women whose parents did not separate prior to them reaching adulthood, even accounting for those women who never had children at all.
Parental separation and facial appearance
Proceedings of the Royal Society
published a piece of my research investigating how family background
(particularly parental separation) relates to physical development. You
can find the abstract at the PRS website. I have written a summary of the paper
in layman's terms, plus a 'What
does this mean for me?' for those who have concerns about
their own families.
Right now I am running a new study to try and
whether all the patterns we see relating parental divorce to physical
development in daughters (timing of puberty in this case) is really a
result of the divorce, or whether it's actually just genetic. Women who
are interested should click
here to help me with my research!