Three studies have shown that when facing uncertainty, women are more attracted to men with tougher facial features, while men are more attracted to women with tender facial features, according to the European Journal of Social Psychology.
Uncertainty is a fundamental part of human existence, from epidemics to financial turmoil to political revolutions. Researchers distinguish between aleatory uncertainty (uncertainty due to the random and unpredictable nature of life events) and epistemic uncertainty (lack of confidence in one's knowledge).
When confronted with both types of uncertainty, people tend to be particularly vulnerable. These are situations in which a person cannot even imagine the outcomes due to a lack of knowledge (unknown probabilities).
When confronted with uncertainty, people seek more perfection, adopt more extreme convictions, and have more belief in conspiracy theories. They often exhibit compensatory behaviors in order to compensate for the uncertainty.
Research suggests that individuals are more susceptible to making emotional decisions, and have greater support for various religious or secular systems, as well as preferences for boundaries in the environment. However, do their preferences for romantic partners also change?
A team of three researches on Amazon Mechanical Turk (MTurk) employees demonstrated that under external uncertainty, women will prefer men with more tougher (over more tender) facial features, while men will prefer women with more tender (over more tougher) facial features, while these preferences will become smaller or disappear under certainty.
The first study involved 173 heterosexual Mturk workers who participated in the first study. They were asked to imagine a date on an online platform in a situation in which they felt uncertain or certain.
The researchers explained that after a brief introduction on online dating, students were presented with the tender and tough features version of four different male or female faces, all of which were rated on three scales: 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree), all of which were averaged into one attractiveness scale.
The second study consisted of 174 heterosexual students who participated in the first study, with the only difference being that, instead of evaluating the attractiveness of faces, the participants were asked to indicate the degree in which they were drawn towards a caring partner and towards a strong partner.
Study 1's results demonstrated that under uncertain conditions, women rated tough male faces as more attractive than under certainty conditions. In contrast, men rated tender female faces as more attractive under uncertain circumstances than under certainty conditions.
“We hypothesize that people who are unconfident are more attracted to gender-stereotypical partner types (caring vs. strong), because to which they are more attracted to certain facial features from which these stereotypical characteristics are derived.”
Under uncertainty, men's preferences for the caring female partner and women's preferences for the powerful male partner increased. Similar effects were observed in Study 1.
In the third study, 141 heterosexual students were asked to imagine a particular type of woman/man as a partner. One group was asked to imagine a compassionate partner, while the other was asked to imagine a strong partner. They were then asked to describe their attractiveness.
When questioned about a caring partner, men rated tender facial features as more attractive. Tough facial features were rated as a bit more attractive.
Study 3 finds that tender facial features are perceived as more attractive when people seek for a caring partner (for men), while tough facial features are judged as more attractive when people seek for a partner who is protective and strong.
The research illuminates how uncertainty alters perceptions of attractiveness. However, there are limitations that must be taken into account. For example, MTurk employees and students were asked to provide feedback. Other characteristics of a potential partner might not be the same as in real life.
Femke van Horen and Kobe Millet co-authored the book "Unpredictable love?"