The age-old question, "What do women want" may be rooted in biology, according to two new studies.
While most women have no idea when they are ovulating, the studies show that women in the most fertile part of their cycle prefer the stereotypical sexy man, and one suggests they are more likely to flirt with him.
The studies are being presented at a meeting of The Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas, this weekend.
One, a UCLA analysis to be published Feb. 24 in the Psychological Bulletin, looked at dozens of studies on more than 5,000 women to see if there was evidence across the studies that women's preference in a mate shifts during ovulation. It found that when women are ovulating, they are more interested in men with masculine bodies, symmetrical facial features, dominant behavior, and certain body odors. This attraction to men with more masculine characteristics doesn't last all month, just during the height of fertility.
Findings suggest that when women are highly fertile they look for the most desirable genes to pass on to their children, says Martie Haselton, a professor at UCLA and the paper's senior author.
"On fertile days of the cycle women prefer the George Clooney type of guys, the sexy ones," she says. "Whereas on the less fertile days of the cycle women prefer the partner that will be there for them potentially and help them care for their offspring, someone more stable."
A second study, from the University of Minnesota, looked beyond attraction, to whether women's behavior actually changes during ovulation — whether they become more flirtatious, for example. That study will be published in Psychological Science in the spring.
"We wanted to know what women do behaviorally if they find a man attractive when they are ovulating," says Jeff Simpson, a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota and a researcher on the study. "We looked at verbal and nonverbal behavior and found women are more likely to signal interest or flirt with the more dominant, charismatic man they are attracted to during ovulation."
Simpson says the researchers studied the way 31 women acted during different parts of their cycle with a masculine man who may have a shorter-term mating pattern, vs. a "good dad" or more stable long-term partner. The women rated their preference for the men and researchers compared their verbal and non-verbal flirting behaviors when they were ovulating and not.
As in Haselton's review, the Minnesota study found that women were more interested in masculine men during ovulation. It also found that they were more likely to display a behavior change and flirt with them. Simpson says ovulating women also showed a decrease in interest in short-term relationships with men deemed "good dads," and instead preferred more masculine men.
Simpson said studies on women's sexual attraction may help explain why women can fall for a man they know won't be a good long-term partner.
"A woman may want a steady long-term relationship, but meets someone when she is ovulating and is drawn in by the charismatic dominant tendencies that may not be a good long-term person," Simpson says. "It's important to know women might be biased to find certain men attractive at certain points."
Steve Gangastad, a professor of evolutionary development at the University of New Mexico, who was not involved in either of the studies, says the studies open the door to other questions about women's sexual attraction during other parts of their cycle.
"The emphasis has been on what about men women distinctively prefer closer to ovulation," Gangastad says. "There's been relatively little attention to what characteristics women might prefer when they are not fertile."
Haselton says there is power in knowing where certain urges come from. "While men are driven by biological motivations, the same is true for women," she says. "We are driven by motives that have a biological foundation but people can choose not to follow them."