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Does She, or . . . ?

Once, only their hairdressers knew for sure.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By PIA CATTON
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Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes?

Bodies, Behavior, and Brains--The Science Behind Sex, Love & Attraction

by Jena Pincott

Random House, 351 pp., $20

One of life's great conundrums has been solved. And it has been accomplished in a book that poses this profound mystery in its title: Do Gentlemen Really Prefer Blondes? And the answer, according to its traitorous author, is yes. Men, somewhat like toddlers, are drawn to color: "The human eye is attracted to light, bright colors, so blondes stand out more than brunettes and even redheads," the dark-haired Jena Pincott writes.

But she can be forgiven. In this informative and amusing book, she poses nearly 100 questions about sex, love, and attraction. The short answers are judiciously packed with information culled from hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. All of it is relayed in a light, engaging tone, and even the author advises browsing: "Flip through and let your interests guide you."

Some of the questions-and-answers are guessable, such as, "Why do men have more casual sex?" Men have an incentive to spread their genes, whereas women have an incentive to be selective: possible pregnancy. Likewise, it doesn't take a degree in biology to figure out "Why is long hair sexy?" Because it is a sign of youth, health, and fertility.

But other questions open up the doors to some fascinating research. "How long does it take to decide if a person is hot?" Answer: milliseconds! This, according to a study by two neuroscientists who "exposed men and women to a series of pre-rated faces, some gorgeous and others homely, and asked them to rate their appearance. The twist was that the faces flickered on the screen for only thirteen milliseconds--a flash so fast that the exasperated viewers swore they didn't see anything." But even though they complained of not seeing the images, the judges scored accurately, giving "good-looking faces significantly higher scores than unattractive ones."

The brain just knows who's hot and who's not. Or at least certain parts of the brain--the nucleus accumbens, orbitofrontal cortex, and the amygdala--know. Naturally, those areas can be overridden if you're in a bar and a guy lays down a line like: "Hey there, I may not be Fred Flintstone, but I bet I can make your bed rock." This and other crash-and-burn duds ("You remind me of a parking ticket because you've got fine written all over you") are addressed in the book's funniest section: "What's the hidden agenda in men's pick up lines?"

In two studies, British psychologists "asked several hundred men and women to consider the variety of opening gambits that men use when picking up women, how successful they are in general, what type of guy tries each line, and what type of woman falls for him." Lines that suggested wit, character, and culture were effective, as was humor--though not on introverted women. Flattery (like the parking ticket line) only loosened up the neurotic gals. Fred Flintstone pretty much bombed.

The hidden agenda here is that guys look for a quick way to decide where to focus their energy: "The more controversial or sexual or humorous the come-on, the better it is as a filter. Consciously or not, a man uses these lines as a way to reject (or not waste time on) women who aren't looking for someone like him."

Of course, there are much better ways to break the ice. The strongest signal you can use to get someone's attention is a smile and a direct gaze--but it has to be both. Even more important than what you see, however, is what you smell.

Ever sniff your lover's clothes? Scientists have. In several studies, men have been asked to wear a T-shirt for consecutive days (and to refrain from garlic, cumin, sex, alcohol, or smoking--so that the smell of sweat is natural). Then in the studies, women sniff and judge. As it turns out, opposites attract. "Women prefer the body odors of guys who have major histocompatibility complex (MHC) gene variants that are mostly different from their own. The MHC is a cluster of immune system genes responsible for detecting and identifying bacteria and viruses that invade the body."

By mating with someone who has a different set of defenses, you increase your chances of survival. And you can pass on to your children a wider immune system. These bodily scents are totally different from perfumes or even the smell of food, which can be enticing but are more culturally based.

The facts and studies go on and on at a quick pace, perfect for bathroom reading. Some points may seem absurdly reductive, but for good reason: "Much of what we desire is rooted in deep evolutionary biases. .  .  .  It all boils down to the basic biological truth that in one year's time, a woman could sleep with a googol of men but only have one full-term pregnancy, whereas a man could sleep with a googol of women and have a googol of babies."

Love may be complicated, but humans are not.

Pia Catton is a writer in New York.