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The Comparison Trap

Unconscious Cues That Define Sexual Attractiveness

The French say, “je ne sais quoi” (literally, "I don’t know what") when describing a certain mysterious something that makes a particular person sexually attractive.

You’d think that with something as vital to the survival of the species as sexual selection, we’d all be very conscious of the cues we (and prospective partners) use for mate selection.

But as the French saying suggests, we are often not consciously aware of these cues. Numerous studies — in which young adults rate the attractiveness of photos of members of the opposite sex, or smell clothes worn by test subjects of the opposite sex — have proven that although we know whom we prefer as prospective mates, we don't always know the exact reasons why we prefer them.

After reviewing a list of subliminal "come hither" stimuli that might shed some light on the mystery of physical attraction, I'll explain how you could take advantage of the new information.

Based on recent research, here is a list of unconscious attractors, indicating which attributes unconsciously arouse our interest, along with which sensory modalities are thought to be responsible for communicating signals of sexual attractiveness.

1. Body and face symmetry (from smell alone).

We can consciously sense when someone’s face is symmetrical. Women also unconsciously prefer scents (on t-shirts) of men who have symmetrical body and facial features (signs of health and genetic fitness). Exactly what the chemical signals of symmetry are is unclear.

T-shirt sniff tests also indicate that we have a limited ability to determine which of the “Big 5” personality traits (e.g., extraversion and neuroticism) are dominant in another person from unconscious olfactory cues; again, scientists don’t yet know which chemicals are responsible. Apparently, we can also glean similar information unconsciously just by watching video clips of people’s behavior.

Putting aside obvious cues, such as the odor of infected wounds, new evidence suggests we can unconsciously detect olfactory cues associated with bacterial infection in another person. Both humans and animals tend to avoid mates who are ill.

4. Genetic diversity (from smell and taste).

There is evidence that humans can sense, from both sweat and saliva, how close a match another person’s DNA is to their own by detecting major histocompatibility complexes (MHCs). In order to avoid mutations in offspring and stillbirths, mating with someone whose DNA (as evidenced by MHCs) is very different from one’s own is a good idea. Also, combining your genes with someone who has very different immune characteristics increases the odds your children will have robust immune systems. In a previous blog, I speculated that people kiss on the lips because disproportionately large swaths of sensory and motor brain tissue respond to lip, tongue, and mouth stimulation. But some biologists now believe that we kiss on the mouth in order to “taste” the saliva of prospective partners for compatible MHCs.

5. Non-familiarity (from both smell and visual cues).

Research from kibbutz communities in Israel and colonies in Taiwan, where non-relatives are raised in close proximity, shows that humans prefer to mate with those who were not raised with them; mating rates among non-relatives who grew up together is very low. Again, low rates of mate-pairing among adults who grew up together may foster healthy genetic diversity. At least from the point of view of mate selection, familiarity really does breed contempt.

In a research article, "Birds of a feather do flock together," Wu YouYou and colleagues at Cambridge found that we are drawn to people — both as mates and as friends — who share our personality traits. Whether or not we are conscious of being attracted to people because they have similar personalities is unclear, especially in light of the research just cited on “sniffing out” the Big 5 personality traits.

So we now know that we judge sexual attractiveness partly based upon cues we aren't conscious of. How can knowing this improve your life?

If you’re in the business of creating or using scents to make perfumes, deodorants, food additives, or soaps more appealing, this research offers fresh ways to stimulate people’s unconscious desires: Perhaps soap that emits “symmetry” and “extraversion” will sell better.

And consider the scenario in which you find yourself repeatedly dating or even marrying “the wrong type." You probably don’t consciously seek out these types of individuals, but somehow you end up with them. Is it possible that a primitive, unconscious part of your brain is drawn to the scent (or another attribute) of "the wrong type"? If so, it wouldn’t be the only case of vestigial attitudes and behaviors we inherited from our distant ancestors that no longer make as much sense as they once did.

Most people’s innate preference for foods high in sugar and fat, for example, was highly adaptive when starvation was a constant threat. But today, with abundant food in most societies (and skyrocketing obesity), attraction to food that is high in fat and sugar is the nutritional equivalent of being attracted to "the wrong type."

Similarly, our temporal myopia — the cognitive bias of valuing “now” much more than “later," which can lead to impulsive, self-destructive behaviors like overeating, overspending, gambling, and drug abuse — was logical 300,000 years ago when the average life expectancy was only 20 years. But today, with lifespans approaching 80, a “grab it now before it slips away” approach to life can create more problems than it solves.

The short life expectancy that prevailed when our brains evolved to their current state — roughly 300,000 years ago — could explain why our brains cling to unconscious sexual attractors. “Until death do us part” probably averaged about five years in prehistoric times. This suggests that long-term emotional compatibility between mates may not have been as crucially important as it is today. In ancient times, more primal imperatives such as genetic diversity and offspring fitness could have far outweighed more subtle, emotional compatibility factors that determine whether or not modern relationships succeed.

Simply being aware that your nose may be getting you into the wrong type of relationships could be a valuable first step to entering relationships that work out better for you.

A second step might be to tune in more closely to olfactory sensations when meeting prospective mates. The fact that we’re usually unaware of such cues doesn’t mean that we can’t consciously experience them if we try hard enough. For example, although you probably think you’re unable to track people from smell alone, like a bloodhound does, researchers at Rutgers University and the University of California, Berkeley demonstrated that humans can indeed track other humans across a lawn just from scent by placing their noses close to the ground.

I’m not suggesting you plant your nose in someone’s armpit (or any other body part) upon first meeting them, but it might make sense to pay closer attention to what your nose is telling you, so you can at least be aware when someone you meet evokes people you’ve already dated who, ultimately, didn’t work out so well.

It may turn out that the presence of the “right” smell — the one that unconsciously turns you on — is a warning sign that you are being physically attracted to the wrong person.

C. Bushdid, M. O. Magnasco, L. B. Vosshall ,A. Keller Humans Can Discriminate More than 1 Trillion Olfactory Stimuli Science 21 Mar 2014: Vol. 343, Issue 6177, pp. 1370-1372

Christina Regenbogen, John Axelsson, Julie Lasselin, Danja K. Porada, Tina Sundelin, Moa G. Peter, Mats Lekander, Johan N. Lundstrom, Mats J. Olsson. Behavioral and neural correlates to multisensory detection of sick humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2017; 201617357 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1617357114

John P. McGann. Poor human olfaction is a 19th-century myth. Science, 2017; 356 (6338): eaam7263 DOI: 10.1126/science.aam7263

Alphus D. Wilson and Manuela Baietto Advances in Electronic-Nose Technologies Developed for Biomedical Applications, Sensors 2011, 11(1), 1105-1176

Wu Youyou, David Stillwell, H. Andrew Schwartz, . Birds of a Feather Do Flock Together Behavior-Based Personality-Assessment Method Reveals Personality Similarity Among Couples and Friends, Psychological Science, January 2017

Jeffrey A. Hall, Chong Xing. The Verbal and Nonverbal Correlates of the Five Flirting Styles. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 2014; 39 (1): 41 DOI: 10.1007/s10919-014-0199-8

Randy Thornhill et al The Scent of Symmetry: A Human Sex Pheromone that Signals Fitness? Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 20, Issue 3, May 1999, Pages 175-201

Psychological State and Mood Effects of Steroidal Chemosignals in Women and Men, Hormones and Behavior

Volume 37, Issue 1, February 2000, Pages 57-78

5-?-androst-16en-3?-on: A male pheromone? A brief report

Volume 14, Issue 3, May 1993, Pages 201-207

R. Elisabeth Cornwell, et al Human pheromones and sexual attraction European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology

Volume 118, Issue 2, 1 February 2005, Pages 135-142

David R. Feinberg Are human faces and voices ornaments signaling common underlying cues to mate value? Evolutionary Antropology Volume 17, Issue 2 March/April 2008 Pages 112–118

Menstrual cycle variation in women's preferences for the scent of symmetrical men. Proceedings of the royal Society (b) Biological

Randy Thornhill Steven W. Gangestad Robert Miller Glenn ScheydJulie K. McCollough Melissa Franklin Major histocompatibility complex genes, symmetry, and body scent attractiveness in men and women Behavioral Ecology, Volume 14, Issue 5, 1 September 2003, Pages 668–678,

Markus J.Rantalaa1C.J. PeterErikssonbAnssiVainikkaaRaineKorteta2 Male steroid hormones and female preference for male body odor, Evolution and Human Behavior, Volume 27, Issue 4, July 2006, Pages 259-269

Agnieszka Sorokowska et al, Does Personality Smell? Accuracy of Personality Assessments Based on Body Odour, European Journal of Personality Volume 26, Issue 5, September/October 2012 ,Pages 496–503

"It may turn out that the presence of the 'right' smell—that unconsciously turns you on—is a warning sign that you are being physically attracted to the 'wrong' person."

Look at the divorce rate for those males that have those symmetrical facial features that everyone believes are physically superior.

". look at those divorce rates. "

"Symmetry. by Calvin Klein."

What if it turns out that this has something to do already with which fragrance smells good or bad on someone?

The author makes some pretty far fetched conclusions that have almost no relation with the research cited and proposes unethical manipulation of pheromones by perfume manufacturers as a way of profiting over people's insecurities. Even if the perfume did succeed in masking one own's smell for a short period of time it would be at peril of ignoring the cues that say that this is a bad match that would surface fast the moment the person forgets to apply more perfume. The perfume becomes a crutch - and a very expensive habit.

Also, in my experience, people that have a string of bad relationship choices aren't attracted to a "bad guy smell", they are actively ignoring red flags because they have psychological issues and therapy is very successful in helping people see why they made those bad choices.

Really, this article is filled with very bad advice claiming to be "helpful" while preying on people's insecurity. "Oh you don't think you are attractive? You are right, you smell bad, but you can buy perfume to manipulate people into bedding you." "Had a string of bad relationships? All those people smell exactly the same and you are totally addicted to it. Train yourself to smell it. You can succeed in avoiding the assholes this way, unless they are using that perfume to mask their scent I proposed, in which case you are screwed."

Summed up perfectly. I agree.

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A few things I've noticed that may support this articles' conclusions:

In high school I dated a girl that when she sweat, like at a dance, she gave off a strong pepper smell. I couldn't stand it. As much as I liked her, I would literally gag when we did anything physical together. Years later I found out she had cancer. May be something to it.

I'm a very physically active person. Competitive bodybuilder. I noticed that over the years I seem to attract young, slender, tall women, with A size breasts. I'm a breast guy and couldn't figure out why I always seem to attract the opposite type of girl that I find attractive. Maybe because skinny girls are more fit and we seem to attract based on smell?

I seldom wear anything but deodorant. But I get comments all the time that I smell "clean". Maybe the fabric softener I use but girls seem to love it.

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I am very skeptical about this story. It seems to me that Psychology Today exaggerates to get the attention of readers.

My understanding is that the low average life expectancy of hunter-gatherer populations was due to a particularly high infant and childhood mortality rate.

Once a person became an adult, his life expectancy was supposed to be much higher. (Hillard Kaplan; Kim Hill; Jane Lancaster; A. Magdalena Hurtado (2000). "A Theory of Human Life History Evolution: Diet, Intelligence and Longevity". Evolutionary Anthropology, 156–185.)

This was supposed to have dipped dramatically with agriculture ("The bases of paleodemography". American Journal of Physical Anthropology).

Since the olfactory cues we're talking about are only relevant for an adult, and I'm not seeing any evidence we were agrarian for long enough to develop an entirely new sexual subsystem from scratch, I would think we would have to assume an adult life expectancy of about 54, not 20.

Thank you Alan, I love thoughtful critiques such as yours, because they remind readers to think for themselves, not to be spoon-fed by "experts" (like me) :)

I agree my conjecture about different mating priorities in pre-history is just that..a guess.

That said, Eric Trinkaus asserted in PNAS, from fossil records, that only 25% of early H. Sapiens survived into their 40's.

So yes, some people did live long lives, but "Darwinian Scripts" --as the EP folks at UC Santa Barbara call them--are based upon probabilities and liklihood ratios (witness temporal myopia), so the expected value of lifespan , on which Darwinian Scripts are based( if you believe in Darwinian Scripts), was probably much shorter than 40 years

Again, this is just speculation. What we don't know about the brain is vastly greater than we do know.

Thanks again for your insightful comment.

I would take issue with the word 'very' in the following context:

>In order to avoid mutations in offspring and stillbirths, mating with someone whose DNA (as evidenced by MHC’s) is very different from one’s own is a good idea. Also, combining your genes with someone with very different immune characteristics increases the odds your children will have robust immune systems.

A 2008 paper, following up on less clear, earlier studies, showed that reproductive success (number of children and grandchildren per couple) is highest in couples who are 3rd or 4th cousins. If a third cousin's kiss tasted bad, one would expect a very different result; the ideal degree of genetic distance between a couple seems rather slight. Go beyond it, and you may get things like differing RH status, which can (absent modern medicine) doom the couple as a reproductive unit.

It might be useful to know in studies that involve sexual attraction are control groups with people with anosmia used.

Even anosmia can be broken down to acquired and congenital forms.

I have Kallmann syndrome, which includes congenital anosmia as one of its symptoms. I know the type of people who I am sexually attracted to but would that be different if I had been able to smell.

When people have acquired anosmia do they experience any change in the signals they detect from potential partners ?

It is an interesting area for study I think.

Having Kallmann syndrome, with its disruption in puberty puts me at a disadvantage already but when you add that to not be able to smell might make it even more difficult for me to find a sexual partner perhaps.

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Please hear this Guys. Wash your body, especially your armpits, genitals, and feet with soap every day and use deodorant regularly. Wash your hair every day, and your hats often. The stink of head odor from your hair glands in a hat when you walk by is repulsive. Do your laundry regularly, and put on clean smelling clothes everyday. Get shoes that you can wash, or at least wash the insoles often, Women may not tell you why you are being rejected, but this may be why. If you're sick, well, some can sniff that to. Get help.

. Thanks Eric for writing . hope many will read this article and get smart.

Getting to Know You Questions

When you first meet someone who interests you, it's common to be infatuated, but over time, you want to get to know the person better and have some honest conversations. There are a million things to ask a person, but the most important questions depend on the stage of the relationship and where you want it to go.

Getting to know someone is an adventure in itself! As you learn about each other, it's fun to ask silly questions and laugh together. These questions will give you a sense if you're on the same page together. Just make sure your relationship isn't all about asking questions. Get out there and share some memorable activities too!

  1. If you could have any superhero power, what would it be?
  2. Would you ever be naked in public?
  3. If you could have any career, what would you choose?
  4. What's the best gift anyone has ever given you?
  5. If you had three wishes, what would they be?
  6. If you were going to sing karaoke what song would you choose?
  7. What is your favorite movie and why?
  8. Where is your ideal vacation spot?
  9. Who is your favorite person in the world?
  10. What makes you feel most alive?
  11. What's the kindest thing anyone's ever done for you, and why did it mean so much to you?
  12. What's the craziest thing you hope to do one day?
  13. What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?
  14. Are you a dog person or a cat person?
  15. Do you like to plan things out or do you prefer to be more spontaneous?

Now that you've been dating for a while, here are some questions to use when things are heating up. You can also try some questions to test your compatibility. Remember, you're not interrogating your partner. Bring up these questions naturally in conversations and over time as your relationship progresses.

  1. Have you ever been in love?
  2. Have you ever had your heart broken?
  3. What does a successful relationship look like to you?
  4. What happened in your last relationship?
  5. Are you friends with your former boyfriends or girlfriends?
  6. What has been the best decision you've ever made?
  7. What was your first impression of me?
  8. What is your biggest fantasy?
  9. What is your biggest fear?
  10. Is there anything about yourself you would change?
  11. What is something you like to do that other people would probably consider "weird" if they knew?
  12. What is one thing you've done (or not done) that you regret?
  13. If I were to give you a free pass to go on a date with a celebrity, who would it be and why?
  14. What was your parents' relationship like?
  15. How was your relationship with your siblings?

Before walking down the wedding aisle, you'll want to have covered some basic questions on top of all the ones you went through while getting to know one another in the early stages of your relationship. These are a little more serious but just as important for a satisfying long-term relationship that leads to marriage.

  1. Do you want to have children?
  2. Do you want a big family or a small one?
  3. What are your religious or spiritual beliefs?
  4. Where do you see yourself living when you're older?
  5. Do you like your current career or want to change it?
  6. How important is it to you to be faithful?
  7. Are you satisfied with our sex life?
  8. Do you have any debt or money problems?
  9. How often do you drink?
  10. What are your reasons for wanting to get married?
  11. Will you want one parent to stay home with the kids, or do you think day care (or a nanny) is the way to go?
  12. What do you think is the secret to a long, mostly happy (every couple has their moments!) marriage?
  13. What is your love language? How do you express love in a relationship and what makes you feel loved?
  14. How do you cope with hard times in life (i.e. grief, job loss, family stress, lack of sleep, periods of overwhelming responsibilities)?
  15. Is there anything from your past that could become an issue for us in the future?

There are both fun and serious questions you can discuss as you're getting to know each other. Just make sure you get to know about the obvious things, as well as the stuff underneath the surface. Together, you'll be prepared to give your best to the relationship.

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