You walk down a crowded street in a strange city.
Who do you look at?
Who do you later remember?
Does the answer depend on whether it was dark and you had just watched a scary movie, or whether you are in a romantic mood?
My research generally aims to integrate models from evolutionary biology and cognitive science to study the effects of fundamental social motivations (e.g., self-protection, status, mate search) on basic cognitive processes (e.g., attention to, encoding of, memory for different people in a rapidly presented crowd). See below for a few examples of the kinds of questions we ask:
Does exposure to highly attractive people, like those shown in magazines, on television, and in movies, influence how we respond to the regular looking people in our lives?
Our research suggests that exposure to good looking faces leads people judge average-looking peers as less attractive, and even to lower their commitment to their current partners. Men exposed to beautiful women, for example, rate themselves as less committed to their partners; women do likewise after being exposed to highly successful men. (e.g., Kenrick & Gutierres, 1980; Kenrick, Neuberg, Zierk, & Krones, 1994)
What accounts for the so-called trophy wife syndrome?
The pattern of sex differences found in the United States is found all around the world, and is in fact more pronounced in more traditional societies. Further, young men, who are typically highly committed to sex-role norms, are more attracted to women older than themselves. We explained the findings in terms of sex differences in life history – women peak in fertility in their late teens and early twenties, and go through menopause later, men are attracted to cues associated with fertility, not to youth, per so. Men contribute resources to their offspring and can father children well past the age of female menopause. Women do not seek age, per se, but seek men with status and resources, which is correlated with age (Kenrick & Keefe, 1992)
Are men and women the same or different when it comes to mating behaviors?
Early theorizing by evolutionary psychologists suggested that men were, compared with women, relatively nondiscriminating in mate choice. But research on mate choice sometimes found small sex differences, sometimes large differences. We found sex differences are small for long-term relationships, where both sexes make a high investment, but very large for short-term relationships, where the differences in minimum parental investment can be much greater (e.g., Kenrick, Sadalla, Groth, & Trost, 1990).
How does our mating budget influence our mate choices?
Sex differences are more pronounced when men and women are given a realistic budget, and not asked simply to list their ideal desires in a mate. Forced to prioritize, women treat status as a necessity, and downplay physical attractiveness; men do the reverse. (Li & Kenrick, 2006)
How do fundamental motivations warp our judgments?
People in a self-protective frame of mind are sensitized to potential threats from outgroup males, interpreting neutral facial expressions on such men as hiding anger, for example. In a mating frame of mind, on the other hand, men project sexual arousal onto the beautiful women with neutral facial expressions. People are also especially quick and accurate at noticing anger on a man’s face, happiness on a woman’s face (Becker et al., 2005; Maner et al., 2005)