Can music influence women's perception of male faces? Researchers weigh in.
In the 1871 book The Descent of Man, Charles Darwin tried to get to the bottom of the question, "Why is music so important in our human society?" He suggested that humans may have invented music to serve a reproductive aim.
Darwin implied that the fact that a person engages with music - be it to compose it or play it - may be a subtle indicator of cognitive as well as physical abilities. Since these are all abilities desirable in a partner, he thought that music may act as a signpost for biologically attractive characteristics.
Darwin's ideas were never proven true, but now, researchers from the University of Vienna and the University of Innsbruck, both in Austria, have decided to build on this hypothesis and test whether it - and how much of it - could actually be rooted in psychosocial and biological mechanisms.
The study - led by Dr. Manuela Marin, from the University of Vienna - set out to test whether or not women and men find potential partners more attractive "under the influence" of music.
The researchers' findings were published online in the journal PLOS ONE.
'Arousal transfer' noted in women
"Facial attractiveness is one of the most important physical characteristics that can influence the choice of a partner," explains study co-author Prof. Helmut Leder, from the Faculty of Psychology at the University of Vienna. "We wanted to find out how music can alter the perception of this feature."
The fact that music has a strong social element to it, the team says, makes it likely that listening to it could have an impact on how we see other people's faces and how we therefore perceive their attractiveness.
"There is some evidence in the psychological literature that so-called arousal transfer effects can occur if two stimuli are processed consecutively. The processing of the first stimulus produces internal arousal, [...] which is then attributed to the second stimulus. This mostly unconscious mechanism can then influence our actions, in this case, the choice of a partner."
Dr. Manuela Marin
The team worked with 96 heterosexual participants of both sexes, comprising 64 women and 32 men. The women were split into two distinct groups depending on whether or not they were at a fertile stage in their menstrual cycle. Both the men and the women had similar tastes in music, similar musical training, and the same relationship status.
All the participants were exposed to various fragments of instrumental music of different emotional intensities. Following exposure to music, the women were shown photos of male faces set in a neutral expression, and vice versa.
They were instructed to assess the attractiveness of the photographed faces on a seven-point scale, where 1 meant "very attractive," 4 was neutral, and 7 meant "very non-attractive."
For consistency, the results were compared with the outcomes of a control group, in which the men and women were shown photographs of members of the opposite sex but were not exposed to music.
The researchers noted that the women who had listened to music tended to rate male faces as more attractive and were more likely to say that they would consider dating them. The results were largely the same for all women, regardless of their fertility status at that point.
Men, however, did not exhibit any significant change in their perception of faces after having been exposed to music. It was also found that the more complex and emotionally stimulating music had the greatest influence on the participants.
Following this experiment, the researchers are interested in finding out whether they would be able to replicate the results in larger cohorts. They would also like to try to understand just how much influence music could have on perception when it comes to selecting a mate.
"Our goal is to replicate these results in a larger sample and to modify some aspects of the experiment," says study co-author Dr. Bruno Gingras, from the University of Innsbruck.
"For example," he continues, "we would like to clarify whether musical abilities and creativity can compensate partially for deficiencies in terms of physical appearance and fitness."