A recent study into the cognitive processes behind ally selection found that men and women show distinct differences in ally preference based on how a person’s face looks, as well as the surrounding social cues and context. The researchers propose this has to do with an evolutionary need to preserve social survival. While no comment can be made on that specific assumption, the results themselves can be examined.
The study had 246 young adults complete an online survey. The survey asked them to visualize either winning or losing in one of two situations: a physical fight, or a contest for a job promotion; in both cases, they were paired with a same-sex rival. Afterwards, the participants were shown 20 pairs of male and female faces, each pair consisting of the same individual whose image had been digitally manipulated to appear as masculine or feminine. Participants were asked to choose who they deemed to be a better ally based on facial characteristics.
For the purposes of the study, the phrases “masculinity” and “dominance” were used interchangeably. The same applies to “feminine” and “prosocial.”
The findings were:
- When losing the physical contest, the men’s preference for a “dominant” ally strengthened (compared to victories)
- When losing the physical contest, a woman’s preference for female, “prosocial” allies strengthened (compared to victories)
- Women did not show a preference for masculine or feminine men when considering males as allies
- Feminine-looking women were preferred by both sexes
- In the promotion contest, losing women showed increased preference for dominance in allies, though the overall effect is less clear
The proposed explanation for these findings is that men, after losing in a fight, prefer dominant-looking allies in order to obtain backup and reinforcement in case of future conflict. Women, conversely, take a “tend and befriend” approach following a loss and seek prosocial allies, possibly to avoid the costs associated with having a dominant ally as a long-term social partner.
How valid the conclusions are, given the assumptions about the cognitive processes and motivations, is up for debate. The findings do have some support in prior research on the topic, however. In any case, the use of the survey scenario does suggest that men and women do take recent social experience into account when showing preferences for different faces—even if the actual reason isn’t identified.
Watkins, C., & Jones, B., “Competition-related factors directly influence preferences for facial cues of dominance in allies,” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 2016; 10.1007/s00265-016-2211-2.