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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – For heterosexual men, women who are “nice” are also “attractive,” according to a new study, but the same doesn’t hold true for women meeting a man for the first time.
“Although dating patterns have changed over the years, gender-stereotypic behavior persists in the dating realm,” said lead author Gurit E. Birnbaum.
“Women are expected to be more caring and concerned about others than are men. Men, in contrast, are expected to take control of the dating environment,” said Birnbaum, of the School of Psychology at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.
Past studies have also found that for heterosexuals, having gender-typical qualities that line up with your biological sex is generally attractive to the opposite sex, Birnbaum told Reuters Health in an email.
To better understand why niceness in a stranger is a turn-on for men, but less of one for women, the researchers recruited around 100 heterosexual, single students from an Israeli university for each of three stages of the research.
For the first part, students were randomly paired with another of the opposite sex in a laboratory setting. One was prompted to share a story of a recent difficulty, like failing a test, which the students then talked about for about five minutes.
The storyteller later rated the responder’s ability to understand, validate and care for them in the conversation. The storytellers also rated their partner’s sexual desirability and masculinity or femininity.
Men thought a responsive stranger was also more feminine, but women didn’t equate responsiveness with masculinity, the authors report in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Part two involved a similar conversation between strangers in an online chat scenario, but in this case volunteers were asked to disclose a recent negative experience to an opposite-sex stranger who was actually working from a script of caring or uncaring responses.
Again, for men but not women, a nice partner was perceived as more feminine and also more attractive.
Part three built on part two, using the same online chat scenario but adding measures of sexual arousal and desire for a long-term relationship.
For men, more responsive partners seemed more feminine and elicited more sexual arousal as well as greater desire for a long-term relationship.
For heterosexual couples, a partner whose biological sex and gender markers line up – such as a woman who has feminine qualities – may be more attractive, the authors explain. Niceness lines up with our social expectations for the biological female, but not the biological male, they write.
Men may also conflate niceness and genuine caring with sexual interest, Birnbaum noted.
“We still do not know why women are less sexually attracted to responsive strangers; it may not necessarily have to do with ‘being nice’ per se,” she said.
“For example, they may perceive this person as inappropriately nice and manipulative (i.e., trying to obtain sexual favors) or as eager to please, and perhaps even as desperate, and therefore as less sexually appealing.”
Some women may like responsive men, and others may not, so the overall trend for women is not significant, she said.
“From my perspective, these results tell us something important about the factors that guide initial attraction and how they may diverge for men and women,” said Justin Lehmiller, a sex educator and researcher at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.
A man’s perceptions on meeting a nice woman seems straightforward, but a woman’s perceptions appear more complicated, said Lehmiller, who was not involved in the study.
“Women don’t dislike nice men, but niceness just doesn’t seem to be that important to them in a first encounter,” said Eli J. Finkel of the Relationships and Motivations Lab at Northwestern University in Chicago, who also was not involved in the new research.
“Perhaps they’re focused on other variables, such as sense of humor, although we’ll need to await future research to know for sure,” Finkel told Reuters Health by email.
There’s no reason to think these results among 20 and 30 year olds would change for people over 40, Lehmiller said.
“If anything, it’s possible that the effects could be stronger for older men, given that older adults hold more traditional views of gender and, therefore, may be even more sensitive to gendered cues.”
But they could, and probably would, change with a different context. This study only considered initial attraction to strangers.
In long-term relationships, kindness and honesty are among the most important traits, Lehmiller noted.
“And while ‘nice guys’ may seem to come in last in this scenario, they actually finish first in the end,” he said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1m18MGq The Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, online July 25, 2014.