Sunday, February 17, 2008

Valentine's Day news

Yeah, yeah, this is late. So?

Every year we read news stories like the following right around this time. Worth thinking about. (By the way, Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from "Tristan und Isolde" is playing on my computer right now. Synchronicity?)

And here's a little more advice you didn't ask for. First, go see the movie Juno, if you haven't yet. It's good. Really. Second, if you want to understand all this you need to get the perspective of evolutionary psychology. Matt Ridley's The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature is a good place to start, if you need one.

The Differences in Gender -- Sealed With a Kiss
A kiss, it turns out, is definitely not always just a kiss.

As Valentine's Day approaches, research has begun shedding light on that most basic of all human expressions of love -- the smooch -- which has received surprisingly little scientific scrutiny.

"You'd think there would be a lot of research on kissing behavior. It's so common," said Susan M. Hughes, an assistant professor of psychology at Albright College in Pennsylvania, whose recent study is one of the first to probe snogging in depth. "But there isn't. It's really been ignored."

In fact, much about love and attraction remains mysterious.

"This is a seminal paper," said Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist who studies love. "It's remarkable that we don't know more about these things. But love has not really been well studied until recently."

In people, kissing to express affection is almost universal. About 90 percent of human cultures do it.

Carnal Knowledge: They give pleasure; science asks why
There are some natural phenomena whose wonder only deepens upon scientific investigation.

Take the orgasm. Scientists know it involves muscle contractions. They know it makes your pupils expand, and heart rate and blood pressure surge.

But why do orgasms feel good?

I was surprised to find that this is still something of a scientific mystery - though one that a few intrepid researchers are just starting to unravel.

"Really and truly, people don't know," says Julia Heiman, director of the Kinsey Institute for Sex Research and coauthor of Becoming Orgasmic.

Right now, says Heiman, there's a big debate over how the female orgasm evolved. Researchers would also like to know just how different the female kind is from the male.

"Why is it easier for women to have multiple orgasms than it is for men?" Heiman asks. "How does it interact with attachment issues?"

There are lots of other questions, she says, but oddly, in our supposedly sex-obsessed society, it's nearly impossible to get funding for sex research.

Another complication: The orgasm question touches on some profound mysteries about how feelings and consciousness can emerge from the brain.

The Merry Band of Wrigglers
The old adage says that a wife can't change her husband, but the truth is that women for thousands of years have been shaping one crucial male attribute: sperm. Men tend to produce as many sperm as possible as quickly as possible, a manufacturing decision that sacrifices quality control: Their sperm are frequently mutated or deformed as a result. Why, then, do men make millions of sperm at once? Because they're adapting to ward off the effects of women's frequent cheating, according to a paper published in December in the Journal of Theoretical Biology.

Humans aren't especially good at monogamy. Evidence gathered from surveys and paternity tests suggests that 25 percent of women and 30 percent of men cheat on their spouses at least once during marriage. The evolutionary reason that men cheat is pretty simple: to father as many children as they can. It's more complicated for women, who can only give birth so many times. The quality of the child, then, wins over quantity. Because men with the best genes aren't always the most stable and resourceful partners (they don't have to be), women might marry the latter but cheat with the former. Then they can become pregnant with a genetically superior child who will, if her mother can pull it off, grow up with the help of her unwitting spouse.

Why Perfect Dates Make Lousy Partners
The best "catches" in dating land may be the worst choices in the long-run, new research shows.

Popular people who monitor themselves carefully in social situations and thereby appear to be the most socially appropriate are often highly sought after as romantic partners, a study finds, but these people show less satisfaction and commitment in relationships than socially-awkward people.

By self-monitoring, people assess how their actions affect others and adjust to fit the appropriateness of the situation. They screen their words and behavior to suit the people around them.

"High self-monitors are social chameleons," said Northwestern University professor of communication studies Michael E. Roloff."And, because they're quick to pick up on social cues, are socially adept and unlikely to say things upsetting to others, they are generally well-liked and sought after."

Self-monitoring is often a helpful attribute.

"Research finds [self-monitors] to be excellent negotiators and far more likely to be promoted at work than their low self-monitoring peers,” Roloff said.

But there’s a downside for high self-monitors when it comes to their romantic relationships.

"High self-monitors may appear to be the kind of people we want to have relationships with, but they themselves are less committed to and less happy in their relationships than low self-monitors," Roloff said.

More: Is Your Dating Partner Happy? With Some People It Is Hard To Know

The next item is about rats, but human folklore suggests it's very likely true for humans as well:

Females love the sweet smell of sexual success
It might be the sweet smell of success or the bitter whiff of despair, but there's something in the odour of a male rat that tells a female whether he's been copulating like crazy or starved of sex for days. And to make matters worse for frustrated males, the females much prefer the smell of road-tested studs.

The next is a fairly interesting article. Unfortunately, the link may turn into a pumpkin rather soon, since Nature isn't very generous with such things. Snarf it quickly if you want it.

Love: You have 4 minutes to choose your perfect mate
Eli Finkel and Paul Eastwick have probably seen more first dates than most. The social scientists at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, have watched hundreds of videos of single people as they participate in a curious, but not unpopular, trend known as speed dating. Two participants spill their souls to each other for a set time, say four minutes, and try to decide whether they might have a future together. When the time is up, they move on to a new partner, sometimes talking to a dozen or more people in a night. ...

From a purely biological standpoint, the success of a partnership hinges mainly on one thing, reproduction. But for humans, who give birth to exceptionally weak, awkward and totally dependent babies, strong pair bonding and the sharing of parental duties can play an important part in the success of their offspring. It is strange, then, that a goal as simple as forming a pair bond could lead to an emotion as complex as romantic love. ...

Since the 1940s, social scientists have brought the tools of their trade to bear on such lofty questions. Finkel and Eastwick are now using some of the newest and most controversial techniques. The fast-paced format of speed dating could be exhilarating, daunting or perhaps even dorky for participants and observers alike. Nevertheless, the researchers say that it could help to reveal some of the mysteries behind that uniquely human emotion — love. Indeed, their research, including a paper published today1, has already started to turn up some surprises.

In the 1940s, when scientists first started to pick at the basis of human attraction, psychologists interviewed single people and asked them what they would value in a partner. Many of the values were the same in both men and women, but two things stood out in survey after survey. Women valued the wealth of their partner much more than men did, and men valued attractiveness more than women did.

These differences can even make sense in evolutionary terms. A woman looking to have children would want the support of a good provider to help her children succeed in life. Men's seemingly superficial preference for beauty was seen as a proxy for health. Symmetry, skin tone and a favourable waist-to-hip ratio could reasonably point to a woman who would not only survive childbirth, but also pass on lots of healthy genes.

More: What Men And Women Say And Do In Choosing Romantic Partners Are Two Different Matters

Other studies on such themes:

Women More Perceptive Than Men In Describing Relationships

'Love Hormone' Promotes Bonding: Could It Treat Anxiety?

Beauty Bias: Can People Love The One They Are Compatible With?

A Sense Of Scarcity: Why It Seems Like All The Good Ones Are Taken

'Hotties' Not So Hot When You're In Love, Online Dating Researchers Find

Probing Women's Response To Male Odor

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