Womens preference for dominant male odour:
effects of menstrual cycle and relationship status
Jan Havlicek(1),*, S. Craig Roberts (2)
and Jaroslav Flegr (3)
(1) Department of Anthropology, Faculty of Humanities, Charles
University, Husnikova 2075, 155 00 Prague, Czech Republic
(2)Evolutionary Psychology and Behavioural Ecology Research Group,
School of Biological Sciences, University of Liverpool, Liverpool
L69 3BX, UK
(3)Department of Parasitology, Faculty of Science, Charles University,
Vinicna 7, 127 44 Prague, Czech Republic
*Author for correspondence ( email@example.com)
Body odour may provide significant cues about
a potential sexual partners genetic quality,
reproductive status and health. In animals, a
key trait in a females choice of sexual partner is
male dominance but, to date, this has not been
examined in humans. Here, we show that
women in the fertile phase of their cycle prefer
body odour of males who score high on a
questionnaire-based dominance scale (international
personality items pool). In accordance
with the theory of mixed mating strategies, this
preference varies with relationship status, being
much stronger in fertile women in stable
relationships than in fertile single women.
Keywords: attractiveness; scent; smell; good genes;
mate choice; sexual selection
In many systems, dominance-associated traits have
been suggested as honest signals of male genetic
quality. Several studies on rodent species have
reported preferences for the odour of dominant males
(e.g. Mossman & Drickamer 1996; Kruczek 1997;
Gosling & Roberts 2001). Odour cues may also play
a substantial role in human mate choice. For instance,
women prefer the smell of men with low fluctuating
asymmetry (Thornhill & Gangestad 1999), which is
considered to be a marker of genetic and developmental
stability and is an important factor influencing
visual attractiveness (Gangestad & Simpson 2000). In
addition, humans prefer the scent of opposite-sex
individuals with major histocompatibility complex
(MHC) genes that are dissimilar (Wedekind et al.
1995; Wedekind & Fu¨ ri 1997) or intermediately
dissimilar ( Jacob et al. 2002) to their own (see also
Thornhill et al. 2003). Such preferences might result
in more viable offspring (Penn 2002).
It has also been observed that preference for
mens scent depends on the menstrual cycle phase
of women. In controlled experiments, only the
women near peak fertility within their cycle preferred
scent of men with low fluctuating asymmetry
(Gangestad &Thornhill 1998; Rikowski & Grammer
1999; Thornhill & Gangestad 1999; Thornhill et al.
2003). Similarly, research on facial attractiveness
indicates that female preference for visual masculinity
(a trait putatively correlated with dominance)
varies across the cycle (Penton-Voak et al. 1999) and
with partnership status (Little et al. 2002). In this
study, we investigated whether womens preference
for odour of dominant males also varies cyclically
and between single women and those in stable
(a) Odour stimuli
Forty-eight male students aged between 19 and 27 were asked to
complete an 11-item questionnaire on dominance from the
international personality items pool (http://ipip.ori.org/ipip/; Goldberg
1999) and to wear cotton pads in their armpits for 24 h. Pads
(Premium cosmetic pads, Boots, www.boots.co.uk) were 100%
cotton, elliptical in shape, approximately 9!7 cm at their longest
axis and held in place using MicroporeTM surgical tape (Boots).
The questionnaire was used in its original form and corresponds to
the scale Narcissism in the widely used California psychological
inventory (CPI). Subjects were instructed to avoid spicy and smelly
food, alcohol, smoking or using any scented cosmetics on both the
evening before and during the day when they were wearing the pads.
(b) Subjects and experimental procedure
Freshly collected pads were presented to 30 female students (mean
age 20.6 years) in their follicular phase (days 9 to 15) and to 35
female students (mean age 20.2 years) in other phases of the cycle.
The range of days included as falling into the follicular phase (i.e.
fertile period) was based on results showing that probability of
conception is highest within this fertile window (Wilcox et al.
2000). None of the women were using hormonal contraception.
Each of them rated the odour of 10 pads for their intensity, sexiness
and masculinity using a 7-point scale. The ratings from each
woman were converted to z-scores to compute the correlation
between male odour and male dominance as measured by the
questionnaire. The obtained correlation coefficients showed a
normal distribution and, therefore, were compared with random
expectation (rZ0) using one-sample t-tests. Although our design is
between-subjects in nature, this should tend to make our results
conservative compared with a within-subjects design.
We found a positive correlation between male psychological
dominance assessed by the questionnaire and
odour sexiness when rated by women in their fertile
phase (t29Z3.1, pZ0.004, mean rZ0.20) but not in
other phases of their cycle. Subsequently, we tested
separately the women who reported to be single and
those who were in a heterosexual romantic relationship.
A strong association between male odour
sexiness and psychological dominance was only found
for non-single women in the fertile phase of their
menstrual cycle (t12Z4.4, pZ0.0008, rZ0.29;
figure 1). There was no significant correlation
between male psychological dominance and perceived
masculinity of their body odour when rated by single
women, regardless of phase of their cycle. In contrast,
we found a negative correlation between male
dominance and intensity of body odour for both
female subsamples (fertile phase of the cycle,
t29Z2.3, pZ0.03, rZK0.13; rest of cycle, t34Z3.0,
pZ0.005, rZK0.18; figure 2). As this effect was
observed irrespective of menstrual cycle phase, the
shifts in attractiveness of dominant males cannot be
explained by variation in odour sensitivity across the
cycle (Doty et al. 1981).
by women in the fertile phase but not other phases of
the cycle (Gangestad & Thornhill 1998; Rikowski &
Grammer 1999; Thornhill & Gangestad 1999;
Thornhill et al. 2003). Several studies also report that
women in the fertile phase of their cycle prefer
relatively more masculine faces (Penton-Voak et al.
1999; Penton-Voak & Perrett 2000; Johnston et al.
2001). The relative preference for more masculine
faces was found also when rated by single women or
in a short-term partnership context (Little et al.
2002). All of the above-mentioned studies are congruent
with our findings and support the hypothesis
about female mixed mating strategies dependent on
their cyclical and partnership states.
The proximate mechanism responsible for the
correlation between psychological dominance and
odour sexiness is unknown. Nevertheless, previous
studies have shown that emotional state (e.g. fear or
happiness) may influence perception of body odour
quality (Chen & Haviland-Jones 2000; Ackerl et al.
2002). The higher self-confidence of dominant males
may also have an impact on the perceived sexiness of
their body odour.
We thank all volunteers for their participation in the study,
two anonymous referees for their comments on the manuscript
and Jindra Jileckova for language corrections. This
study was supported in part by the NATO Science Fellowship
and the Owen F. Aldis Fund (J.H.) and grant no.
0021620828 awarded to J.F. by the Czech Ministry of
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