By Jennifer Copley (Last Updated 2 February 2012)
A recent study of more than 1,000 men and women conducted by University of British Columbia (2011) researchers found that men were most attracted to smiling, happy-looking women, whereas women found men who looked strong and proud or ashamed and moody the most attractive. Study co-author Jessica Tracy attributes the male preference to the fact that smiling may be seen as an indicator of friendliness and availability in women, which men find attractive.
Women’s attraction to proud-looking men is unsurprising, given that pride suggests confidence and status, and that proud body language accentuates some of the features in men that women find attractive, such as a broad chest (proud body language involves puffing up the chest). As for the finding that women are attracted to lowered heads and other indicators of shame in men, Tracy attributes this to the fact that women want a trustworthy partner, and a display of shame suggests that the individual is aware of and responsive to social norms. Essentially, a person who is capable of feeling shame is less likely to do bad things to others.
Many online reports covering this study have gleefully announced that women don’t like happy men, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, it’s possible that in some cases a male smile is viewed as a sign of lower status. Deutsch (1990) found that men in dominant roles smile less frequently, and Manusov and Patterson (2006) note that those in subordinate positions are more likely to smile. This suggests that if women do indeed show less interest in smiling men, it’s more likely to be a status judgement than a happiness judgment.
It wouldn’t be logical for women to prefer unhappy men, given that unhappy people tend to be less healthy (Carnegie Mellon University, 8 November 2006; Davidson et al., 2010; Steptoe et al., 2005), and thus poorer reproductive prospects. If women show a preference for non-smiling men, it’s more likely due to the fact that such men appear tough, stoic, and dominant, rather than because they’re perceived as unhappy (with the exception, perhaps, of women who like to “rescue” others, but that’s a subject for a different article).
Other researchers have failed to find an attractiveness penalty for smiling men. Mehu, Little, and Dunbar (2008) conducted a study in which subjects looked at photos of neutral and smiling men and women. As in the University of British Columbia study, subjects rated smiling women as significantly more attractive. However, the researchers found that men’s attractiveness was perceived as slightly higher when they were smiling as well. Furthermore, both men and women judged smiling men to be healthier, and health is associated with attractiveness.
It’s also worth noting that participants in these studies looked at photographs rather than interacting with live people. In real-life interactions, facial expressions might be perceived differently. For example, an unsmiling female moving in a sultry way may be sexier than a smiling woman, and a smiling male will probably be more attractive if his body language exudes confidence and robust health. In addition, graduate student Alec Beall, one of the University of British Columbia study coauthors, notes that the researchers sought only to identify what people reflexively judged as attractive, not what they would find most appealing for a serious relationship. For these reasons, we should be careful about jumping to conclusions based on studies that take attraction out of real-world contexts.
Thus far it appears that no similar studies have been conducted with people in non-Western cultures, so it’s difficult to say whether the smiling penalty for men (if indeed there is a penalty) is cultural or biological.
- Carnegie Mellon University (8 November 8 2006). “Happy People Are Healthier, Psychologist Says.” Science Daily, sciencedaily.com.
- Davidson, K.W.; Mostofsky, E.; & Whang, W. (2010). “Don’t Worry, Be Happy: Positive Affect and Reduced 10-Year Incident Coronary Heart Disease: The Canadian Nova Scotia Health Survey.” European Heart Journal (Advance Access Published Online).
- Deutsch, F.M. (1990). “Status, Sex, and Smiling: The Effect of Role on Smiling in Men and Women.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16(3),pp. 531-540.
- Mehu, M.; Little, A.C.; & Dunbar, R.I.M. (2008). “Sex Differences in the Effect of Smiling on Social Judgments: An Evolutionary Approach.” Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology, 2(3), pp. 103-121.
- Masunov, L., & Patterson, M.L. (2006). The SAGE Handbook of Nonverbal Communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Inc.
- Steptoe, A.; Wardle, J.; & Marmot, M. (2005). “Positive Affect and Health-Related Neuroendocrine, Cardiovascular, and Inflammatory Processes.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 102, 6508-6512.
- University of British Columbia (24 May 2011). “Happy Guys Finish Last, Says New Study on Sexual Attractiveness.” Science Daily, sciencedaily.com.