The French say “je ne sais quoi” (literally, "I don’t know what") when describing a certain mysterious something that makes a particular person sexually attractive.
You’d think that with something as vital to the survival of the species as sexual selection, we’d all be very conscious of the cues we (and prospective sex partners) use for mate selection.
But as the French saying suggests, we are often not consciously aware of these cues. Numerous laboratory studies (where young adults rate the attractiveness of photos of members of the opposite sex, or smell clothes worn by test subjects of the opposite sex) have proven that although we know whom we prefer as prospective mates, we don't always know the exact reasons why we prefer them.
After reviewing a list of subliminal "come hither" stimuli that might shed some light on the mystery of physical attraction, I'll explain how--if you're so inclined-- you can take advantage of the new information.
Unconscious sexual cues
Based on recent research, here is a list of unconscious attractors, indicating which attributes unconsciously arouse our interest, along with which sensory modalities are thought to be responsible for communicating signals of sexual attractiveness.
How to benefit from unconscious attractors
Okay, so we judge sexual attractiveness partly based upon cues we aren't conscious of. How can knowing this improve your life?
If you’re in the business of creating or using scents (for perfumes, deodorants, food additives or soaps) to make people and products more appealing, this new research offers fresh ways to stimulate people’s unconscious desires: Perhaps soap that emits “symmetry” and “extraversion” will sell better.
Even if you’re not in the scent business, there might be ways to take advantage of these new findings on unconscious sexual attractors.
Say, for instance, that you find yourself repeatedly dating (even marrying) “the wrong kind of person.” You don’t consciously seek out these types of individuals, but somehow, you end up with them.
Is it possible that a primitive, unconscious part of your brain is drawn to the scent (or another attribute) of “the wrong kind of person?”
If so, it wouldn’t be the only case of vestigial attitudes and behaviors that we inherited from our distant ancestors that no longer make nearly as much sense as they once did.
Most people’s innate preference for foods high in sugar and fat, for example, was highly adaptive when starvation was a constant threat. But today, with abundant food in most societies and skyrocketing obesity, attraction to food that is high in fat and sugar is the nutritional equivalent of being "attracted to the wrong type of person."
Similarly, our “temporal myopia” (the cognitive bias of valuing “now” much more than “later”), which can lead to impulsive, self-destructive behaviors (overeating, overspending, gambling, and drugs abuse) was logical 300,000 years ago when the average life expectancy was only 20 years, but today, with lifespans approaching 80, the “grab it now before it slips away” approach to life often creates more problems than it solves.
The short life expectancy that prevailed when our brains evolved to their current state—roughly 300,000 years ago—could explain why our brains cling to unconscious sexual attractors. “Until death do us part,” probably averaged about five years in prehistoric times, as the majority of humans died from disease, violence or infection by the age of 20. This suggests that long-term emotional compatibility between mates may not have been as crucially important as it is today. In ancient times, more primal, biological imperatives, such as genetic diversity and offspring fitness, could have far outweighed more subtle, emotional compatibility factors that determine whether or not modern relationships succeed.
Simply being aware that your nose may be getting you into the wrong type of relationships could be a valuable first step to entering relationships that work out better for you.
A second step might be to tune in more closely to olfactory sensations when meeting prospective mates. The fact that we’re usually unaware of such cues doesn’t mean that we can’t consciously experience them if we try hard enough. For instance, although you probably think you’re unable to track people from smell alone—like a bloodhound—researchers at Rutgers University and U.C. Berkeley demonstrated that humans can indeed track other humans across a lawn, just from scent, by placing their noses close to the ground.
Now, I’m not suggesting you plant your nose in someone’s armpit (or some other body part) upon first meeting them, but it might make sense to pay close attention to what your nose is telling you so you can at least be aware when someone you meet smells like people you’ve already dated who, ultimately, didn’t work out so well.
It may turn out that the presence of the “right” smell—that unconsciously turns you on—is a warning sign that you are being physically attracted to the “wrong” person.
Want to learn more about the awesome power of the unconscious? Check out the new book I have co-authored "The listening cure: healing secrets of an unconventional doctor" on "About the author" below.
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