How Handsome Sons Help Dull Dads

How Handsome Sons Help Dull Dads

Why you should care

Life is short. Have a son.

The sexy son. For decades, evolutionary biologists and psychologists have been stalking this elusive but desirable creature — not to mention quietly observing the legions of Mrs. Robinsons squatting next to them in the bushes. You see, in the currency of Darwinian selection, there should be no commodity more valuable than a handsome son. Put simply, the mother of a successful Casanova, from Wilt Chamberlain to Leonardo DiCaprio, should have — at least in theory — a disproportionate impact on the subsequent generation’s genetic makeup. (I’m the King of the Gene Pool!)

The trick, of course, is locating that man who can give you a sexy son. And, as with everything from choosing politicians to eBay sellers, one of the best indicators of future success is finding someone who has already delivered the goods. Which is likely one reason why, according to a new study:

Men with handsome sons tend to appear more attractive to women.

Most researchers who study sexual attraction and mate selection among humans focus on what is sometimes called pre-mating mate choice — the initial selection of a partner before mating occurs. But post-mating preferences can be just as important, says Pavol Prokop, the author of the study and a biologist at Trnava University in Slovakia, since the way we perceive the attractiveness of a mate, even after the birth of a child, can influence everything from whether we stay together, have an affair, or even how many future children we produce with that partner. In some ways, the “son is a mirror of a father’s genes,” Prokop explains to OZY, and if a man has sired an attractive offspring, then “he is perceived to be more attractive” (both to his partner and to other prospecting females). Remarkably, this appears to hold true even if a woman merely believes that the man is the father.

Prokop reached these conclusions by asking a set of 260 female volunteers to rate the attractiveness of a series of men — previously deemed either attractive or unattractive by a separate set of female volunteers — when photos of their faces were placed alongside photos of boys’ faces (both attractive and unattractive ones). The volunteers were informed either that the pair depicted was a real-life father and son, or a stepfather and son; in reality, none of the men and boys pictured were related.

On average, when a man was placed next to what participants believed was his handsome son, his own perceived attractiveness tended to rise, an effect even more pronounced among the unattractive men. The effect, however, disappeared when the man was identified as the stepfather of the boy, suggesting that the women may have been subconsciously adjusting their assessments based on a perceived genetic connection between the two individuals.

Still, it’s probably a bit early for mothers to take the study as justification for doubling down on a handsome son, or for divorced dads to start hitting the clubs with very young wingmen. The study’s findings have some important limitations: The volunteers were all young Slovakian undergraduates, and no middle-of-the-road men or boys were presented for assessment. Prokop also says more research is needed into issues like whether women are indeed more prone to conceive again with the same man if their first child is facially attractive, and also, importantly, whether that holds true for both sons and daughters. “I think that having a beautiful child, regardless of its gender,” Prokop observes, “may stimulate the woman to conceive again with the same man.”

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