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 two current main areas of research are in Facial Attraction and 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.
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?
How do we learn what faces to be attracted to?
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.
Recent research: Parental separation and facial appearance
On the 24th May, 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!