Everyone knows the adage that when it comes to choosing prospective mates,
opposites attract. But this is not the case in David Perret's lab. In the
psychology department in St. Andrew's University in Scotland, each time an
experiment is conducted, results show that like attracts like.
Perrett is a cognitive psychologist. For more than a decade, he and his
team have been seating students in front of a computer, showing them a
stream of faces and asking them the simple question. "Who do you fancy
Perrett and his team have found out that being average is a good way to
attract. Blend lots of faces together and a bland yet curiously attractive
composite is obtained which people rate more highly than the most appealing
of the individual faces.
His team also found that people are attracted to faces, not because they
are unconsciously reminded of themselves, but because they remind them of
mum and dad. In other words, there may be a grain of truth in the Freudian
idea that we learn what to look for in a partner by gazing onto the faces of our
parents during our impressionable years.
This basic observation that people tend to choose mates who are boringly
similar to themselves is nothing new. Psychologists have known for decades
that total strangers can pair up married couples from photographs with
However, this theory is contrary to Charles Darwin's theories. According
to Darwin, babies from two different gene pools are more biologically fit than
offspring from the same gene pools. That is why in many societies,
inbreeding is frowned upon. So, according to Darwin, surely we are
programmed to find opposite types attractive?
All sorts of reasons have been given as to why we end up with people like
ourselves. And these reasons have nothing to do with biology. Marriages, for
instance, usually unite people of the same religion, educational background and socio-economic status. The safest tactic is also to choose someone who is
about the same level of attractiveness as us. Trying to find a mate who is way
above or below ourselves is bound to end in tears.
Perrett and his team doubt it. They say that couples tend to match on a
wide range of characteristics such as size, eye colour and strength. In these
cases, we must be choosing partners who look like us ... or members of our
It was this realization that drew Perret's team into investigating
whether our parents' looks might influence our choice of mate. To test the
idea, the researchers presented undergraduates with a computer-generated
image of an average face at different ages and asked them to rate it for
attractiveness. The results were striking. Although all students chose
younger faces to old, those whose parents were older than 30 when they were
born were significantly attracted to older faces than were students born to
young parents. It would seem the older your parents are when you are
growing up, the more likely you will prefer older partners later in life.
To settle the matter once and for all, there is a need to compare the
preferences of people by biological and adoptive parents. If Perrett and his
team are right, adopted children should show a preference for faces that are
similar to those of their adoptive parents, not their biological ones.
This is not something new in the animal kingdom. From looking at their
parents, many young animals learn very early in life who they should mate
with later on in life. And they can be easily hoodwinked. A duck brought up in
a goose family will try to mate with geese when it reaches maturity. Thus
cross-fostered animal chose to mate and socialize with their adopted mother's