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Oct. 28 2009 - 10:08 am | 1,774 views | 2 recommendations | 15 comments

The Science of a Butterface


Image by slushpup via Flickr

At the risk of alienating any females in the audience, today we’re going to discuss… the science of a butterface. What’s a butterface? No, not a face carved into butter patty (pictured, right). I’ll defer to Urban Dictionary:

A girl with an exceptionally hot body but an exceptionally ugly face. Everything but-her-face is attractive.

Google images might also help you get your mind around the concept.

Regardless… where were we?

Oh, right. Science!

A research team out in Texas decided to tackle the concept of butterfaces through the lens of evolutionary psychology. (We have people tackling concepts through lenses today. Metaphor status: Awesome.) How’d they do that? They asked 375 college students to pick whether to date someone based on either seeing just their face or their body.

And they were given two conditions: 1) a long-term relationship, 2) a short-term relationship.

Everyone in both conditions preferred to see the face… except for one gender in one condition. And, yes, you guessed that gender correctly (male) and that condition (short term).

For a short-term relationship, men were as likely to say they wanted to see the face as the body. 50-50. For long-term, 75% of men wanted to see the face.

Frankly, this is probably “better” than most people would expect men to do on such a measure, given cultural jokes about how men think about women. But why the difference?

“Cues of immediate fertility which are more important to a man pursuing short term relationships are more densely concentrated in her body than in her face. Where as her face may have more cues of reproductive value like age and health,” researcher David Buss told Scientific American.

And what kind of cues for the long-term does the face have that the body doesn’t? “Skin and wrinkling gives a cue to her age – men … want to make sure she’s not at the tail end of the fertility window.” While such cues are also present in the body, they’re more concentrated in the face.

Women, meanwhile, show no difference when considering long-term versus short-term. “There is not this huge discrepancy in cues that women are interested in, like his good genes cues and good dad cues, health and symmetry. Those are present in face and body equally, more so in men.”

These results match up with earlier research, such as this study (abstract), which found that when people were asked to rate faces and bodies separately, and then together, the faces were most predictive of the combined ratings. But there also: “Females showed no difference in ratings between short- and long-term conditions, but male ratings of female bodies became relatively more important for a short-term relationship compared with a long-term relationship.”

So, men may sort of be pigs. But we’re bigger pigs when it comes to a one-night stand. For the long haul, we seem to take a broader view.

Follow Neuroworld on Twitter: @ryansager


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8 T/S Member Comments Called Out, 15 Total Comments
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  1. collapse expand

    Oh, please. Women’s hands, as every woman knows, are the more accurate giveaway of her age — harder to Botox and Restylane. And any guy who really wants kids can find the $10,000 per cycle for IVF if he makes the mistake of falling for an egg-deprived 46-year-old he thought (oooh, nice face) was only 37.

    • collapse expand

      While it may be so that a woman’s hands are now, in the age of cosmetics, more likely clues. In the past 1 million years of evolution that have shaped this behaviour in men the hands were likely no more or less useful than looking at the face.

      This is not conscious behaviour on the part of the men. No man consciously thinks about fertility when assessing beauty, just as many women will not admit to finding men more attractive when they are wealthier.

      But when speaking in general of a great number of cases the data shows that there are strong correlations. The underlying common cause, when we talk about human assessment of a mate, is reproductive capabilities and resources.

      The error is to apply some normative value to this data. There is nothing inherently right with choosing a mate for reproductive reasons. Likewise there is nothing wrong with choosing a mate for non-reproductive reasons. Some may say in fact that such a judgement is a triumph of reason over animal urges, and find it approbative.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  2. collapse expand

    Being that this is still the internet, I would be remiss if I were to let this post pass without a (gratuitous?) cat pic:


    You may continue.

  3. collapse expand

    Do you really think Betty Friedan would be relieved to know that men base their relationship decisions on a woman’s face rather than her body?

  4. collapse expand

    “Butterface”?? When you consider what the average bloke looks like…

  5. collapse expand

    I wonder what the definition of “short-term relationship” was for the study. If “short-term” was equal to “one night,” I’m guessing that the value of the face would have dropped significantly.

    By the way, Ryan, this has to be one of my favorite headlines I’ve seen on True/Slant and there have been some great ones lately.

  6. collapse expand

    You’ve got to be kidding me with some of the conclusions reached in this study (great article by the way)

    “Cues of immediate fertility which are more important to a man pursuing short term relationships” HUH??? Guys looking for (or talking about) short term relationships aren’t interested in a woman’s ability to bear children? In fact, most would probably be looking for the opposite (girls on the pill). The reason more guys would base their short term relationship seeking sights on a woman with a smoking body is because they are looking for sex – and in the bedroom, a great body is more valuable than a beautiful face (especially with the lights down low).

    There’s a reason for the saying, “Beauty is but a light switch away” and that’s because you don’t normally see much of her face when you’re “doin’ it”. (at least, not if you’re doing it right)

    I’ve always been one to base (physical) beauty at about 70% face and 30% body, but if I was looking for a one night stand, it may drop down to about even.

    The one thing you certainly wouldn’t want though, would be to have to look across at your wife’s (husband, whatever) face and see that “butter-face” for the rest of your life. That is why it’s weighted substantially towards the face for long-term relationships – that and the fact that you can always work out, but you’re stuck with the face God gave you.

  7. collapse expand

    I’m curious to know how race plays into this.

  8. collapse expand

    If you don’t want to alienate women, you might start by not calling us “females”. You’re a big boy now, you can say “women” without it making you feel funny in your pants.


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    About Me

    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

    These days, I'm interested in humanity's ever-expanding understanding of its own irrationality. Hence, this blog.

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