Competing for ‘Mr. Right’

In what is believed to be the first study of its kind, Maryanne Fisher, a York University researcher, has demonstrated that women do compete with each other for a man’s attention. The findings were published yesterday in Biology Letters, the online journal of the Royal Society. A York University advance press release led to a spate of international media reports on the study (see York in the Media).

Left: Maryanne Fisher

The research shows that women at the peak of their fertility cycle will be critical of another women’s facial attractiveness as a strategy in competition for a mate.

While the news may come as no surprise to casual observers, the study demonstrates that women compete among themselves for potential mates in this way. Fisher, a doctoral candidate in psychology at York, says women rated the attractiveness of the same female faces higher when their fertility was at its lowest.

“When a female finds a ‘potentially’ good mate, she will compete for him, and do so most fiercely when it is critical for conception,” said Fisher.

Previous studies have shown that men prefer attractive women and Fisher’s study suggests women know this and attach great importance to their looks in the fight for a few “good” men. The results also show that women’s perception of male attractiveness – which they rated even lower than their opponents’ looks – remained the same regardless of changes in the fertility cycle.

Researchers conducted the study by asking 104 male and female first-year students to rate colour photographs of other students’ faces taken several years before. The subjects were then screened to eliminate mitigating factors such as sexual orientation and the use of oral contraceptives or anti-depressants. To gauge fertility, the women who took part were asked to indicate where they were in their ovulatory cycle.

While “the theory of intrasexual competition in women has been controversial,” Fisher said, “this study demonstrates a potential competitive process.” Fisher goes on to say in the report that derogating other women’s looks – the polite term for “dissing” the competition – is just one tactic women might employ. She suggests others could include attacking other women’s fidelity, promiscuity or maternal aptitude.

In future studies, Fisher said she hopes to look at how women compete in social situations. “It would be interesting to study what women say about each other in a normal, social environment and how this changes with the state of their fertility,” she said. “Women are very willing to talk about these things and volunteer readily for these studies.”

News of the study can be found on the Royal Society Web site, and the study itself is available here.