Saturday, September 06, 2008

Men marry their mothers?

Men tend to wind up with life partners who look like their mother, while a woman is lured to a partner who looks like her father, scientists reported today. Heterosexuals are deeply attracted to individuals whose faces are similar to that of their opposite-sex parent, they said, suggesting that this characteristic is rooted in an evolutionary drive.

A team led by Tamas Bereczkei at the University of Pecs in Hungary created a model of facial ratios - width of jaw, distance between mouth and brow and so on - comprising 14 facial zones. They measured 312 Hungarian adults from 52 different families using this method. Each family included a couple, along with two sets of parents. The researchers found a significant correlation in facial similarities between a woman's mate and her father, and also between a man's partner and his mother. The team tested the model on faces that were randomly selected from the general population and repeated the experiment with a panel of judges, who also picked out the same pairings from randomly selected groups of photos.

Interestingly, men and women focused on different parts of the face when they home in on a potential mate, they found. A man's lover and his mother tended to have similar fullness in the lips, width of mouth, as well as length and width of jaw. But for women, the critical features were the distance between mouth and brow, the height of the face, distance between the eyes and the size of a man's nose.

The choices are driven less by psychology and socialisation and more by evolutionary pressures, suggests Bereczkei. Too much genetic overlap - as can happen with incest - is an evolutionary no-no. But seeking similar genetic traits "may confer individuals with additional adaptive advantages," he wrote. It could increase the degree to which parents share genes with offspring, enhancing the genetic representation of future generations.

Finding similar partners might also help perpetuate genetic complexes that have evolved to adapt to a particular environment. There may be an additional bonus, which probably has more to do with happiness than a genetic imperative. "Human couples who are similar in physical and psychological characteristics are more likely to remain together than dissimilar partners, possibly leading to an increase in fertility," the study concludes.

The research appears in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. The Royal Society is Britain's de facto academy of sciences.


A drug for everything

Bad, quirky and obsessive behaviour is not new. Now there's a drug for everything - but is that the answer? Spending too much time on the internet? Worried about a low sex drive, shyness or lack of social skills? Or do you lose your temper too easily, blush too readily or spend too much time and money shopping?

There was a time when such behaviours might have been regarded as individual differences, or put down to lack of self-control and restraint. But not any more. Increasing numbers of behavioural conditions are being treated with drug therapy. Bereavement issues, blushing, low sex drive, high sex drive, sex addiction, lack of orgasm, gambling, fear of public speaking, stealing, domestic violence and phobias are all being targeted with drugs that are either in clinical trials or already available.

For drug companies, this market is potentially huge. It is claimed, for example, that almost half of women have a sexual problem. Nearly 8 per cent of adults, it seems, have intermittent explosive disorder; another 8 per cent are compulsive shoppers. Thirteen to 15 per cent are said to be social phobics, and up to 10 per cent have a fear of public speaking. On top of that are gamblers, phobics and the depressed - all suitable cases for treatment.

But critics argue that some of these treatments amount to medicalisation of individual differences and traits. Unlike physiological diseases such as cancer, behaviour disorders are a grey area, with no clear boundary between normality and illness. People at the extreme end need treatment, but others who may have symptoms may not.

Another problem is defining symptoms of some conditions. Take intermittent explosive disorder, the definition of which seems to defy even people in the field. "It is a vaguely defined condition for which effective treatments have not been identified," say researchers at the University of Chicago who have been involved in one drug trial.

One of the major areas for trials of new drugs is sexual problems. Reports have suggested that one in three women have low sex drive - and one drug trial has involved women whose symptoms include failure to achieve orgasm in half of their sexual encounters.

Professor Graham Hart, of the University of Glasgow, co-author of a paper on this issue in the British Medical Journal, says that the imperative now is for more and better sexual gratification. "Celibacy is the new deviance," he says. "The problem with such an overly medical approach to sexual behaviour is that social and interpersonal dynamics may be ignored.

"People choose one another for their uniqueness. The last century saw a considerable increase in acceptance of diversity of sexual expression - it would be a shame if this century saw diversity replaced by uniform expectations of performance and desire."

At the University of East Anglia, DrRay Crozier, an expert on shyness, makes a similar case about the medicalisation of blushing. He argues that, in many cases, there is nothing inherently wrong, painful or unhealthy about blushing, yet it is treated both with surgery and drugs. More often than not, he says, the problem is in the eye of the perceiver.

"Shame and embarrassment are powerful experiences that lead people to find a way to escape from them," he says. "But anxiety about blushing is not caused by inherent properties of the blush, and something important would be lost if blushing were eradicated."

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