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Do oral contraceptives alter women’s mate preferences?

Final Report Summary - OCMATE (Do oral contraceptives alter women’s mate preferences?)

Worldwide, ~100 million women use oral contraceptives (OCs). Many recent studies have reported that women using OCs and women not using OCs have different mate preferences, raising the possibility that OCs alter mate preferences. Although these findings have been widely reported in the popular press as evidence that OCs alter women’s mate preferences, the between-subjects designs used in these studies mean that it is not known whether OCs actually do alter mate preferences. My project used a within-subjects design to establish how both naturally occurring changes in hormone levels (endogenous hormones) and changes due to using OCs (exogenous hormones) influence their mate preferences and other aspects of their sexual strategies (e.g. their interest in uncommitted sexual relationships).
In the lab, we tested 750 young adult women attending or working at a UK university. Women completed specialized tests assessing aspects of their mate preferences that have been hypothesized to be particularly susceptible to hormonal influences. Additionally, each time they were tested, the women in our study provided a saliva (used to measure testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, and cortisol levels), provided information about their current use of oral contraceptives, and completed a battery of questionnaires assessing aspects of their sexual strategies. The scale and scope of our study in unprecedented in the literature on hormonal regulation of mate preferences. We tested more than ten times the number of women normally tested in such work and also tested these women much more frequently.
Analyses of these data showed no evidence that mate preferences were related to endogenous hormone levels or influenced by using oral contraceptives. For example, we found no evidence that women’s preferences for facial masculinity were related to hormone levels or altered when women started or stopped using oral contraceptives. Thus, our results do not support the popular, but until now poorly tested, claim that hormone levels influence women’s mate preferences. Similar analyses also showed no evidence that women’s sexual strategies were influenced by their hormone levels. While we found little evidence for hormonal regulation of women’s mate preferences and sexual strategies, we saw compelling evidence that changes in hormone levels influence women’s physical appearance. For example, we found that women’s faces become redder when levels of the hormone estradiol increase.So far, the project has produced twenty-six papers, including papers in leading Psychology (e.g. Psychological Science, Biological Psychology), Biology (e.g. Biology Letters, American Journal of Human Biology), Animal Behaviour (Animal Behaviour), Behavioral Ecology (Behavioal Ecolog), and Endocrinology journals (Hormones & Behavior, Psychoneuroendocrinology).

We have presented our work to the public at prestigious public science events (e.g. 2015 Royal Society of London’s Summer Science Exhibition) and in popular interactive exhibits at science centres, such as the Glasgow Science Centre.