Alcohol often gets blamed for sexual assignations that, in the bright light of the next morning, seem unwise. It's called beer-goggling, but does it really exist? Does drinking actually affect how your brain evaluates the attractiveness of other faces, or do we just use alcohol as an excuse to hook up with the first willing target?
There's no better place to ask such questions than in Britain, where the culture of alcohol and inappropriate sex is so ingrained that it is subjected to rigorous academic inquiry. Recently, a pair of research psychologists Vincent Egan of the University of Leicester and Giray Cordan of the University of Exeter completed a survey of 240 subjects, half of whom had been drinking, to find out how drinkers and nondrinkers experience attraction. What they found was interesting, if a bit creepy. (Learn about addiction and the brain.)
The creepy part has to do with how all people, not just drinkers, rate the attractiveness of minors. Researchers have known for years that adults have a deep appreciation for neoteny, the retention of juvenile features like large eyes and baby-smooth skin in adults. Our fondness for neoteny is both obvious most people find other people with youthful features to be attractive and unsettling. Appreciating neotenic features isn't the same as being sexually attracted to children, but at least one study has found that average, college-age heterosexual males and child molesters share remarkably similar (and deeply neotenic) attractions: high cheekbones, unwrinkled eyes, glabrous skin.
Evolution, in short, favors nubile females who still look as though they have a great many years of fertility ahead of them. Evolutionary impulses are more complicated for women, who tend to seek men who are powerful and can provide maximum care for their offspring, and such men aren't always young-looking. Gay men have two equally enthusiastic subcultures favoring twinks or bears guys who look as if they are in their teens, and guys who look as if they could be your dad.
The new study, set to be published in June in the 100th issue of the British Journal of Psychology, examined how alcohol plays into all these murky attractions to youth. The vast majority of men don't act on their potentially inappropriate, or criminal, impulses, but can those who do so blame the booze?
The study's authors asked their 120 drinking and 120 sober participants to rate the attractiveness of 15-year-old girls vs. 19-year-old girls shown in photographs. The study participants were evenly divided between men and women. For ethical and legal reasons, the photos were actually altered images of 17-year-old students from McMaster University in Ontario who had given permission for their likenesses to be used. Researchers digitally manipulated the pictures to make the students' craniofacial features look like those of typical 15-year-olds or those of 19-year-olds. The doctored pictures were then shown in random order to participants recruited in bars, airport lounges, cafés and other natural settings. (See pictures of the best Bond girls.)
On average, the participants found the "15-year-olds" slightly more attractive than the "19-year-olds," which reconfirms our inclination toward neoteny. Both men and women found the more youthful images of girls to be a bit more attractive than the older ones.
Surprisingly, drinking had little impact on the results. Both drinkers and nondrinkers tended to favor the 15-year-old girls over the older ones, and when asked to estimate the younger girls' age, both groups of participants judged them to be just over 18 or, just over the legal age for sex in the U.S. (The one condition under which drinkers preferred the 19-year-old faces was when they were wearing makeup, which has the effect of smoothing out wrinkles and granting a younger appearance a finding that won't come as a great surprise to any woman who has ever worn rouge.)
The study suggests that guys who claim they were too drunk to notice that a girl was underage are probably lying, since drunkenness doesn't have much to do with one's ability to estimate age or attractiveness. But that raises a disturbing conclusion: you don't have to be drunk to think the girl next door looks better than your wife. It may be wired into your genes.