image of a female face

Prof Lynda Boothroyd

Research areas

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 behaviours.

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 body perception and body image, and with Physical Attraction; I have also had an interest in Father Absence.

I have also written abotu my research in The Covnersation, and occasionally write long threads on masculinity research on Twitter.

Take part in research!

Physical Attraction

I've been conducting research 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 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

A research paper 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 in Personality and Individual Differences 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 good thing.

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.

Father absence

I have done research on 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, but more recently it looks as if any effects are small or non-existent.  Here is a brief guide to father absence theory I wrote in 2005.

TV show corrections!

Lynda 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 here).  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 imprinting.  

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 of London 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.