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Proc Biol Sci. 2011 Jul 7;278(1714):2032-9. doi: 10.1098/rspb.2010.1925. Epub 2010 Dec 1.

Exposure to visual cues of pathogen contagion changes preferences for masculinity and symmetry in opposite-sex faces.

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Department of Psychology, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK.


Evolutionary approaches to human attractiveness have documented several traits that are proposed to be attractive across individuals and cultures, although both cross-individual and cross-cultural variations are also often found. Previous studies show that parasite prevalence and mortality/health are related to cultural variation in preferences for attractive traits. Visual experience of pathogen cues may mediate such variable preferences. Here we showed individuals slideshows of images with cues to low and high pathogen prevalence and measured their visual preferences for face traits. We found that both men and women moderated their preferences for facial masculinity and symmetry according to recent experience of visual cues to environmental pathogens. Change in preferences was seen mainly for opposite-sex faces, with women preferring more masculine and more symmetric male faces and men preferring more feminine and more symmetric female faces after exposure to pathogen cues than when not exposed to such cues. Cues to environmental pathogens had no significant effects on preferences for same-sex faces. These data complement studies of cross-cultural differences in preferences by suggesting a mechanism for variation in mate preferences. Similar visual experience could lead to within-cultural agreement and differing visual experience could lead to cross-cultural variation. Overall, our data demonstrate that preferences can be strategically flexible according to recent visual experience with pathogen cues. Given that cues to pathogens may signal an increase in contagion/mortality risk, it may be adaptive to shift visual preferences in favour of proposed good-gene markers in environments where such cues are more evident.

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