Well, here’s the headline: “How women can tell when other females are ovulating using clues in their face – and how they may then try to hide their partners from the ‘threat’ of these fertile ladies” (discovered by reader Ken Steele).
I was intrigued because of a stock photo purporting to be an “angry female”, shown above. I thought, is this the best they can do for an “angry female”? Was Hillary Clinton not available that day? No feminists circulating about in the newsroom?
Anyway, the news report is based on the peer-reviewed paper “Can women detect cues to ovulation in other women’s faces?” by Janek S. Lobmaier, Cora Bobst, Fabian Probst in Biology Letters. I can’t do better than the abstract at summarizing what happened (with added paragraphification and emphasis):
Recent research suggests that men find portraits of ovulatory women more attractive than photographs of the same women taken during the luteal phase. Only few studies have investigated whether the same is true for women. The ovulatory phase matters to men because women around ovulation are most likely to conceive, and might matter to women because fertile women might pose a reproductive threat.
In an online study 160 women were shown face pairs, one of which was assimilated to the shape of a late follicular prototype and the other to a luteal prototype, and were asked to indicate which face they found more attractive…
In addition to choosing the more attractive face, these participants were asked which woman would be more likely to steal their own date.
Because gonadal hormones influence competitive behaviour, we also examined whether oestradiol, testosterone and progesterone levels predict women’s choices. The women found neither the late follicular nor the luteal version more attractive. However, naturally cycling women with higher oestradiol levels were more likely to choose the ovulatory woman as the one who would entice their date than women with lower oestradiol levels. These results imply a role of oestradiol when evaluating other women who are competing for reproduction.
The paper opens “Women have been reported to dance and walk, sound, smell and look more attractive during the fertile days of their menstrual cycle. Most of these studies looked exclusively at preferences of men as men directly benefit from ovulation detection in women…” Who knew? There are also clues, subtle and masked, that men find non-ovulating women angrier, especially during a certain phase of a woman’s menstrual cycle.
But never mind that. Here’s the picture, slightly modified, of the oestradiol level of the women in the pictures by the percent the participants thought the pictured women would steal their dates. I removed the regression line (via an inexpert use of Gimp) which the authors had.
Now consider that if the participants were asked to pick which of a pair of photographs, and there was no real difference in those photographs, the rate would be somewhere around 50% regardless of the level of oestradiol. Is it?
Whatever skill women have in picking out competitors (in this sense) based on oestradiol levels of their enemies, it at least isn’t strong. The regression line, which I removed, wasn’t much to look at, either. But it did give a wee p-value, which is defined as a p-value less than the magic number, and which is taken as proof of cause.
The conclusion states
…men find the ovulatory face more attractive. Such results can be interpreted as men’s ability to detect ‘leaky cues’ to ovulation, serving men in the arms race between women’s effort to conceal ovulation and men’s selective advantage to detect it. Alternatively, men’s preference for ovulatory cues might occur because facial signals of ovulation are identical to what is typically seen as attractive in women’s faces.
Isn’t that interesting? It says, scientifically speaking, beauty is objective. That can’t be politically correct.