22 thoughts on “Contraception: Makes women choose ‘wrong’ partner

  1. This story is in the Independent too (http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-wellbeing/health-news/why-women-cant-sniff-out-mr-right-when-they-take-the-pill-ndash-and-how-it-affects-us-all-892862.html), but the Guardian wins for this comment:

    “Finding particular men sexually attractive is not so important once a woman is expecting a child.”


    One things I don’t understand is why there is suddenly a big do about this. I thought the results they’re describing had been known for some time.

  2. I wonder how the story is supposed to go. Perhaps like this: In most human societies people sniff around until they find a partner who smells right???

    Sorry for you people with arranged marriages and so on, but maybe the sniffing is done by families?

  3. Yes – this story’s been heard before. I suppose it’s an “important” one for us women to understand.

    Are there any female academics out there who can have a peruse of the paper and challenge the findings? I used to be a press officer for a university and would be happy to help release it in the media if there was an important challenge to the results to be made and we could rustle something up in the next day or so – these things have a short shelf life so we’d need to do it possibly for the Sunday papers and tell them we’ve got a new hook today or tomorrow at the latest.
    Thanks, Alex

  4. Source material for the article is: MHC-correlated odour preferences in humans and the use of oral contraceptives. S. Craig Roberts, L. Morris Gosling, Vaughan Carter, & Marion Petrie

    S. Craig Roberts is a lecturer in Evolutionary Psychology at Liverpool University.

    Newcastle University provides this brief press release. It is more neutral in tone, at least. This is a very small sample group, would have to read the original to get any more perspective on it.

  5. Oh, that’s why I married the wrong guy! I was on the pill!

    I haven’t looked at the actual study but here are several potential questions they might have overlooked:
    (1) How many women are on the pill before they get into a relationship? I’d venture to say that most women get on the pill after they met someone…
    (2) Out of all the women who picked the wrong guy(s), how many did so actually because they were on the pill? In other words: how relevant is this finding anyway? They are just looking at the genetic issues, there are oodles of other reasons a guy can be “wrong” for a gal…
    (3) What were the men on when they picked the wrong gal? Obviously, relationships are a two-way thing, especially those that lead to pregnancy (and we know that can’t be an unplanned pregnancy because the woman was on the pill…). Again, the relevance of this finding is wanting…

  6. I’ve never been on the pill and have a bad track record for choosing boyfriends!

    Obviously that’s meaningless anecdotal evidence in the face of a Published Study…

  7. Truth be told, shortly after I got off the pill, I jumped the fence and started dating women. They smell better! I am infinitely happier, and happily married for 11 years now. How’s that for evolutionary psychology?

  8. Teresa, Thanks so much for the link. I think that one can see a basic flaw in the reasoning, which is behind so much of the “now that we have the molecules, we know the truth” approach. That is, it leaves out culture.

    Thus, the press release says, “Humans choose partners through their body odour and tend to be attracted to those with a dissimilar genetic make-up to themselves, maintaining genetic diversity. ” But the first part is false.

    Lots of human beings do not choose their partners at all. Also, there are and have been many, many pressures on people to get married that can pre-empt choice based on feeling. Finally, because the occurrence of pre-marital intimacy is or has been so risky for so many, a lot of people don’t get much of a whiff until its too late. And then there are perfumes… Other studies (done mostly on mice, I think, but not thereby invalidated) have suggested that the whiff that wins one’s heart is the smell of success – e.g., the dominant males smell different. So guess what? In creatures like us the causes of attractions may be very complex.

  9. Now I know why the right woman hasn’t found me: too much reproductive freedom. Now if that don’t beat all! Why can’t all of my deficits and difficulties be reduced to such simple explanations?

  10. Hi guys,

    On this occasion, looks like we don’t have quite enough to go on as I’d really need an academic who’s analysed the study and is willing (with credentials) to get up infront of the press. If there are any female scientists who’d like to do this in the future and have found a ridiculous study, please get in touch about press releasing. Thanks, Alex

  11. here’s what i don’t understand: if women are supposed to be so concerned with making babies, why are they on the pill in the first place? i mean, doesn’t the fact of being-on-the-pill already throw a wrench into this narrative?

    man, i love evolutionary psychology.

  12. sk- No one has said that “women are supposed to be so concerned with making babies.” The study’s only claim is that contraceptive drugs cause women’s preferences of men’s odors to shift, from men with complementary MHC genes to men with similar MHC genes.

    Many of the above posters seem to object to the study for no better reason than that it identifies a possible flaw in something they see as a vitally good thing, viz. contraceptive drugs. But that is obviously no evidence at all to doubt the study.

    Sure, the reproductive freedom enabled by contraceptive drugs is vital–no one is disputing that. It is not as though the scientists are arguing that contraceptive drugs should be abandoned as a result of their findings. All they’re saying is that the drugs in question may have a particular negative side effect. Why is that so hard to swallow?

  13. Maxa –

    The criticisms mentioned so far in this thread, as I count them, are:
    1. This isn’t a new result.
    2. The sample group is small.
    3. There are various methodological and philosophical questions about the significance and relevance of this study.
    4. The news article covering the study makes some blatantly false assertions and dubious assumptions about attraction and pairing.

    I think only one of these counts as a worse objection than `it identifies a possible flaw in something they [the critics] see as a vitally good thing, viz. contraceptive drugs’. And I don’t see anyone making that particular objection.

  14. I haven’t the energy to read the paper itself, but I note from the abstract:

    “However, single women preferred odours of MHC-similar men, while women in relationships preferred odours of MHC-dissimilar men, a result consistent with studies in other species, suggesting that paired females may seek to improve offspring quality through extra-pair partnerships. Across tests, we found a significant preference shift towards MHC similarity associated with pill use, which was not evident in the control group. If odour plays a role in human mate choice, our results suggest that contraceptive pill use could disrupt disassortative mate preferences.”

    Now not even going into why someone might think women choose sexual partners based on body odour, it seems that single women prefer MHC-similar odours anyway – so the only people whose ‘mate choice’ is being disrupted appears to be married women, and they’ve already got a long term ‘mate’, and they’re taking the pill so any new ‘mates’ are gonna have some difficulty mixing up those MHCs.

  15. noumena: cheers. i was perhaps more flippant than i should have been, and you separated out the claims quite nicely.

    pj: interesting, and a nice analysis over at your place. with most of these types of tales, i share this position with you:

    “but most of the time the EP evidence is piss poor and the willingness to speculate far from the evidence overwhelming.”

    what’s interesting to me is the strength of this willingness to speculate, and what it says about already familiar gender narratives and the use of science as a political rhetoric. i must admit that i try my best to analyze the willingness to speculate as separate from the studies themselves, but i am driven to wonder why these studies are funded and publicised and not others. i guess there is a little nietzsche in me that causes me to question these things. and occasionally to sneeze.

  16. jj: Cheers – looks like I couldn’t stay away from reading the paper after all.

    sk: I think EP is something of a special case in science, because most other scientists have quite some disdain for it, and it seems that those who go into it probably reflect a certain political perspective already.

    As to funding, I’m not sure that EP is massively well funded, but it does appear to get an inordinate amount of publicity – I think that is a combination of the authors willingness to go so far beyond the evidence to make sweeping claims, and the way that these claims fit so nicely into certain tabloid prejudices.

  17. I’m joining this one late, and am generally uninformed about EP, but have a (perhaps ill-formulated) wonder to share as follows:

    Over at Pyjamasinbananas (linked above at 15), PJ writes (of the article under discussion here and there):

    ‘The Mail does carry a contrary opinion from Professor Bill Ledger (Sheffield University) who wonders whether the smell of sweat is likely to overide the ‘intellectual and emotional feeling’ of a relationship’

    That’s the kind of problem I’d had with this kind of study – that it suggests (or at least is reported as suggesting) a false and horrible view of women’s choices of ‘mate’ as down to some biological function that operates below the level of consciousness, rather than acknowledging women’s sexual autonomy and the whole host of factors that might be relevant to such preferences for partners apart from (a physiologically driven search for) reproductive potential.

    My wonder is how to reconcile this kind of concern with some of the material under recent discussion, on this blog and elsewhere, about schemas. In that discussion, we are willing to accept that decisions and thought processes can be (sometimes significantly) affected by schemas operating below the level of consciousness, and despite reflective efforts to the contrary.

    If I’m willing to accept this phenomena – namely, that we can be strongly influenced in ways of which we are not aware and despite careful reflection – should I rethink my concern over here about ‘mate preference’ being influenced -perhaps strongly influenced by factors (physiological/ hormonal or whatever, rather than schema-related processes) – operating below the level of consciousness, and despite reflection and deliberation?

    Of course, this concern doesn’t address any of the other methodological concerns – but it does mean I might have to revise my views about problems with EP studies such as this.
    Or is my linking of these two issues inapt? If I need not be worried on this front, I’ll be pleased!

  18. Wonderful question, Stoat. I don’t know of the one true answer, but I think a promising approach comes from work by Daniel Kahneman. He talks about it in his Nobel Prize Lecture here http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/economics/laureates/2002/kahnemann-lecture.pdf

    For Kahneman there are two systems, one rapid and instinctive, the other more ponderous, slow and when successful, rational. The first system actually is very important in human life, where we often have to make decisions before we can think them out. Someone who comes close to celebrating the intuitive is Malcolm Gladwell in Blink. But our natural judgments are biased in ways that can leave us prey to unfortunately negative consequences.
    There’s tons of literature warning us against spending money based on our biases; I can’t think right now of any specifically addressing things like the dangers of sensory preferences, though the addiction literature has quite a bit about sensory cues.
    Perhaps there should be a book: He might smell fine, but can he cope with your success?

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