Can Women Tell That a Man Is a Cheater Just From a Photo of Him?

Here’s an article either for the “Relationships” section of this website, or for the “Women’s Intuition” section, if there ever is one. If people of both sexes were asked to look at photos of the opposite sex and determine which of them were most likely to be faithful in relationships and who were most likely to be unfaithful, who do you think would be better at it – men, or women?

Well, according to research conducted at the University of Western Australia and published in the journal Biology Letters, women are significantly better at this than men. The researchers showed nearly 200 color photographs to 34 men and 34 women and asked them to rate the photos (all of people of the opposite sex, and all of people they had never met) according to their level of perceived “trustworthiness.” The scientists got to cheat a bit, because each of the people being photographed had given them a detailed history of their sexual and relationship histories, including whether they had ever been unfaithful to a spouse or significant other.

So how did each of the sexes do with this “trustworthiness” test?

To cut to the chase, the researchers found that there may be something to this “women’s intuition” thing after all. Women were correct in their assessments of the men in the photos 62% of the time, whereas men were correct in their assessments of the women only 23% of the time. As the study authors commented in their study, “Women’s ratings of men’s unfaithfulness showed small-moderate correlations with men’s past unfaithfulness (cheating, poaching).” Director of the university’s Center for Evolutionary Biology professor Leigh Simmons puts the findings into more everyday language: “What was really surprising was that women were able to do that above chance. They were able to look at a face and rate it for faithfulness or unfaithfulness. There was a correlation between their ratings for faithfulness and the actual behavior of the individuals they were rating. Now men couldn’t do that, or the relationship was much weaker.”

The study authors said that their findings provided the first evidence that impressions of unfaithfulness made from the faces of opposite-sex strangers can be accurate: “We conclude that impressions of sexual faithfulness from faces have a kernel of truth, at least for women, and that they may help people assess the quality of potential mates about whom they have minimal [behavioral] information.”

Why would women be better at this than men?

Well, on a pragmatic level, the researchers admitted that they found a high correlation between how attractive the men perceived to be “cheaters” were and how often they were rated as untrustworthy. Previous research has indicated that we humans have a tendency to perceive more attractive people as more trustworthy, and that “there might be some sort of attractiveness halo effect going on there.” Being attractive might also tend to make men more attractive to other women, and thus more prone to temptation, and being unfaithful.

On a more evolutionary biology level, the researchers pointed out that in most pair-bonding species – humans included – females often have “more to lose” if the male strays or is unfaithful, because they bear the responsibility of raising children. So over time females may very well have developed a keener eye for subtle traits or facial cues that might indicate a mate who will “stick around.”

On the other hand, even if women’s “first impressions” of a man (the dating counterpart of seeing a photo of them) are more accurate than men’s, statistics indicate that people don’t necessarily form long-term relationships based on those first impressions. An estimated 40-50% of all marriages end in divorce, and of those divorces 17-20% are caused by infidelity. So quite a few of the women in these marriages either ignored their first impressions, or were wrong in forming them. To be honest, however, since the divorce-infidelity statistics are pretty much evenly divided between male infidelity and female infidelity, quite a few of the men may have been equally incorrect in their initial assessments of the other person.

A more likely answer as to why women score more highly on tests such as this than men is that they are tests – nothing in “real life” is riding on the outcome. In our real lives there are many other factors that men and women use to make relationship decisions, factors that are considered more important than our first impressions, based on seeing a prospective mate’s face or photo for the first time.

So this research, as fascinating as it is, doesn’t seem to have real-world value…yet. But just wait. There is, after all, some documented truth in people’s ability to tell things about a person just by looking at their faces. Do you remember the short-lived U.S. TV series “Lie To Me,” based on the research of Dr. Paul Ekman? He and his associates have become so expert at reading “facial cues” that they can tell with an astounding degree of accuracy whether a person is lying or telling the truth, so much so that the Department of Homeland Security is trying to turn his research into scanners that could be used in airports to detect potential wrongdoers.

What I’m thinking is that if scientists can do this, software developers may be able to follow up on Professor Simmons’ work and come up with an algorithm that can scan a photo of a person and determine whether they would be more likely to cheat in a relationship or be faithful. They could then program this into an “app” that runs on mobile phones. All you do is point the phone’s camera at that interesting man or woman across the bar, push a button, and you have a readout that would blink green and say “Safe Bet,” or blink red and say “Cheater…beware!”

Such an app would sell like hotcakes. But my bet is that there are so many other factors at work in determining whether a relationship lasts that it might not affect divorce statistics all that much.

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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