Does the Pill Really Affect Our Choice of Mate?

A new paper suggests that the hormonal changes that come with oral contraceptives affects which individuals both men and women are attracted to. But does the pill really have that much impact on how we choose our mates?

A paper published this week in Trends in Ecology and Evolution reviewed a series of recent studies about the impact of halting women's ovulation on partner selection. Alexandra Alvergne and Virpi Lumma of the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at the University of Sheffield discussed each of the recent findings and their impact on partner selection and reproduction. They note studies that ovulating women tend to prefer men with more "masculine" features who favor dominance and male-male competitiveness. A study published last year also found that women not on the pill preferred the scent of men with immune profiles dissimilar from their own, while women on the pill preferred the scent of men with immune profiles more similar to their own. The paper authors also note that some studies have found that men can unconsciously detect whether a woman is ovulating, and prefer ovulating women to non-ovulating women.

Their conclusion, cited in EurekaAlert, is that the pill might be causing individuals to select otherwise less-preferred partners, and could be causing humans to have less healthy offspring:

Taken together, an increasing number of studies suggest that the pill is likely to have an impact on human mating decisions and subsequent reproduction. "If this is the case, pill use will have implications for both current and future generations, and we hope that our review will stimulate further research on this question," concludes Dr. Lummaa.

So is the pill really having an impact on which mates we choose? Maybe not. The New Scientist analyzes the claims in the paper and notes that even if the studies have some merit, they don't necessarily reflect real world conditions. One study, for example, asked men to rate women's walks, a signal for attractiveness, but one that we don't pay much attention to. And a study that found lap dancers earn more during the most fertile period of their cycle (winner of one of last year's Ig Nobel Prizes) also found that dancers on the pill and those off the pill earned similar tips during their non-fertile periods. As for the issue of scent (something that may have kept women from mating with close relatives when humans lived in smaller populations), it might be overrated as an indicator of mate selection. A separate study involving speed dating found that while women might prefer the scent of certain men, those aren't necessarily the men they ultimately select as partners.

Unnatural selection: Birth control pills may alter choice of partners [EurekaAlert]
Has the pill changed the rules of sexual attraction? [New Scientist]