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Head shots of two men.

In a University of Minnesota study, women rated men for their attractiveness as either a short-term mate or a long-term mate.

When women fall for Mr. Right Now

University of Minnesota research finds that women are attracted to certain types of men depending on their cycle

By Rick Moore

From M, summer 2006

For years now, many men concerned with appropriate behavior have been training themselves to be better long-term mates--honing traits such as niceness, self-deprecation, acquiescence, and good parenting skills. After all, those are the qualities women purportedly prefer in a long-term partner.

Could that mean that women no longer have time for the alpha males of the world--the competitive, athletic, socially dominant, masculine men? Not exactly. According to recent research, women are still attracted to those types of men, but more strongly during the ovulation phase of their menstrual cycles.

University of Minnesota psychology professor Jeff Simpson, along with colleague and U grad Steve Gangestad of the University of New Mexico, conducted a detailed study in which 76 men were videotaped trying to "win" a date with an attractive woman. They then had trained raters code the various behaviors that each man exhibited. Behaviors were categorized as those more appealing in long-term mates (such as self-deprecation or claims of being a nice guy or a good conversationalist) or in short-term mates (such as mentioning athleticism, asserting superiority, or putting down another male who was also vying for the date). Women then watched the videotapes and rated the men for their attractiveness as either a short-term mate or a long-term mate.

The results? Women found men who displayed short-term mating behaviors more attractive, but only when they were ovulating and evaluating men as possible short-term (rather than long-term) mates. In a second study, another group of women evaluated the interviewed men in terms of their mate characteristics. Long-term traits included adjectives such as warm, faithful, and financially successful, and short-term traits were terms such as influential, arrogant, and sexy. Once again, women found men who displayed short-term traits more attractive, but mainly when they were ovulating and rating the men as possible short-term mates.

The bottom line? "Women's mating is more complex and context dependent than we ever imagined," says Simpson.

There are a number of caveats and implications related to Simpson's and Gangestad's research. Most women don't know exactly when they're ovulating, even though many women report greater physiological arousal and stronger sexual desire during ovulation. Women also have an enhanced ability to categorize men and access behavioral traits from memory during ovulation. And if women were seeking genes to produce more viable offspring--perhaps subconsciously--during ovulation, these mating preference changes would make sense, if those short-term traits were associated with better survival or more attractive appeal as future mates during evolutionary history.

The findings might also explain some other anomalies. When women fall for men who are not "right" for them, the problem may lie in the timing. In some cases, women may base their mate choices on traits that are "good for short-term relationships, but disastrous for long-term relationships," Simpson says. In other words, "some ovulating women could be evaluating men on attributes that they wouldn't use if they wanted to find a compatible long-term mate."

If some women are tempted to cheat, Simpson claims that "these findings indicate when it's most likely to happen and what kinds of male features women should find most appealing".

And for the sensitive New Age guys of the world, take heart. Women still do value men who have long-term mate traits, but they may have to take a back seat-at least for a short while--when women are most fertile.