January 25, 2010

What signals does your dancing send?

Tyler Cowen points out an article that reviews some findings from the scientific study of dancing.

The results showed that women gave the highest attractiveness ratings to men with the highest levels of prenatal testosterone. The men with the lowest testosterone in turn got the lowest attractiveness ratings. "Men can communicate their testosterone levels through the way they dance," Lovatt told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "And women understand it -- without noticing it."

And what exactly is it about the more attractive dance styles that girls dig?

The men who got the female students hot under the collar danced with large movements which were "complexly coordinated." But it's a fine line between hot and not, however: Those men who made big moves but who were less coordinated came across as dominant alpha males -- and were unlikely to win women's hearts. The researchers also found that the size and complexity of the dance moves decreased in parallel with testosterone levels.

This sounds like a paradox -- don't perceived alpha males have higher prenatal testosterone, and aren't females supposed to gravitate toward them? How is it that the best male dancers had high prenatal testosterone -- aren't complex dance moves a girly thing?

The paradox is easily resolved by distinguishing two sub-types of high-T males, one for each type of mating strategy. First, there are those who invest their great energy to engage in male-male competition, where the winner inherits the available females, as though two knights waged war over a plot of land and a passive group of peasants. Then there are those who invest their great energy to directly signal their quality to females, who then choose the winner of their own accord, as though two corporate headhunters struggled to make the most appealing pitch about their companies to a sought-after partner. The former overpower male competitors through physical intimidation, violence, and so on, while the latter win over female onlooker-choosers with signals of genetic quality. (Research from Jamaica shows that males who are judged better dancers by females have greater bodily symmetry.)

Finally there are the low-T males who engage in both male-male competition and direct-to-female signaling. They obviously can't compete against other males individually, since they'd get crushed. Rather, they form teams with other low-T males. These cooperatives are large enough to protect members from getting violently pounded by individual bully males. (And bully males are too rowdy to cooperate in large groups of equals.) On the female choice side, they obviously can't compete against sexy males either individually or as an aggregate -- unlike the case of violence, 10 plain-looking guys are not, as a whole, as competitive or more than a single Adonis. Rather, they try to persuade female choosers that they shouldn't take the risk of mating with an exciting, rootless charmer; they should instead settle down with a drab, gentle family-raiser. The low-T male teams can also patrol to make sure none of the charmer males mate with their females on the sly. *

Another way to see this for yourself is to go to a dance club and see which males occupy a focal location and are allowed lots of space, one of the clearest signals of high status. There are the large males who (clumsily) move their body around to clear away other males, but there are the skinny lead singer lookalikes whose moves also clear out a large personal space. In a lek, the low-status males are crowded together out along the periphery like wallflowers.

What about female dancing?

In women, the link between dancing style and testosterone levels were similar -- but the reaction of men was just the opposite. Dancers with high levels of testosterone moved more parts of their body, with their movements being somewhat uncoordinated, while those with lower testosterone made more subtle movements, especially with their hips. The male students found the latter style most appealing.

News you can use if you're looking for a girly girl. BTW, that's how most gays dance -- with subtle hip-based movements. After all, they are appealing to male brains.

And what article on mating dances would be complete without a discussion of teenage girls?

The largest degree of [dance confidence] can be found in girls under the age of 16. "They see dance as something fun, not as part of mating behavior," says Lovatt. That changes around the age of 16. "Between 16 and 20, dance confidence among girls falls markedly," says Lovatt. "Girls begin to see dance as a social act rather than a way of expressing themselves. They begin to worry about how they look and start searching for a boyfriend."

That won't surprise anyone who's seen girls dancing confidently on YouTube: they're more likely to be younger high school students than college students. I've noted several times before how wildly girls dance in clubs that cater mostly to high schoolers, even compared to ones that cater to college people. Still, that's a pretty nice combination in the 16 to 20 range -- high-stamina dancing, while not thinking so highly of yourself. Girls want that extra confidence in guys, but guys want girls to be more humble.

But once young women have come to terms with their lost dancing innocence, the satisfaction ratings start rising again. From the age of 20 onwards, their opinion of their own dance floor competence starts to improve and keeps increasing until the age of 35. After that it hits a plateau, however, as satisfaction levels stagnate. From 55 onwards, the value even drops. "That coincides with the menopause," says Lovatt. And it doesn't get any better: "Dance confidence remains low for the rest of a woman's life."

Yikes. Despite their plummeting levels of girliness, they're growing more self-confident. Again no surprise if you've ever been in a dance club surrounded by high school or college girls one night, and then by 30 year-olds the next night. The younger girls are at or near the peak of their girliness, and they're either justifiably confident or virtuously humble about it. As they grow older, they become more contemptible, rating themselves increasingly higher than they merit. Think of Kelly Kapowski vs. Mrs. Robinson.

Men also become more pleased with themselves as they age, although that could be due to dancing more attractively, so that the rise in confidence is deserved. I didn't start using larger and more complex moves -- or really any moves at all! -- until I was 24 or 25.

The pattern is somewhat different among men. Their dance confidence levels keep rising until the mid 30s. It then stagnates before starting to sink from the age of 55 onwards. But then, surprisingly, men get a second wind. From 65 on, they start to once again see themselves as pretty smooth operators on the dance floor.

The reason that older men, but not older women, get back into feeling good about dancing is that men can re-enter the mating market while women can't at that age. Younger guys signal their youthfulness just by their looks. A 65 year-old man doesn't have that option, so he turns more to a carefree attitude toward dancing, ribald humor, and other ways of signaling that he still has a healthy energy level and is ready to go.

* I've stolen this three-part typology of male mating strategies from Barry Sinervo, who discovered these patterns among the common side-blotched lizard.

1 comment:

  1. It's interesting that the guys with the highest testosterone levels were the most well-coordinated. Kinda matches the stereotypes, though - large awkward movements bring to mind images of skinny tall white kids without much muscle mass. Guys who are good at sports are usually good dancers.

    Interesting to see the information on age and confidence, too. I'm recruiting some women for a hip-hop video and, yeah, university students are often all "Can I just stand there looking pretty? Do I actually have to move?" when they hear what you want from them.


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