On Beauty and Biking

(Photo: Paul Wilkinson)

(Photo: Paul Wilkinson)

Our recent podcast “Reasons to Not Be Ugly” examined the beauty premium, as well as the “downside of ugly.”  A new paper by evolutionary biologist Erik Postma in Biology Letters highlights one more advantage of beauty: better endurance performance (in the form of faster cycling).  Bill Andrews of Discover‘s D-brief blog summarizes the study’s setup:

As the paper’s abstract explains, “Females often prefer to mate with high quality males, and one aspect of quality is physical performance.” So the more physically fit a human male is, the more human females might want to bang him. But how to test for this — and, specifically, how to test for this with the measure of physical performance being endurance, a trait not easily quantified?

Simple. Just get headshots of 80 male cyclists who finished the grueling Tour de France, put them up on www.fluidsurveys.com, and have people rate them on a scale of 1–5 (5 being the dreamiest). Then, compare the cyclists’ hot-or-not ratings with how they did in the race. Sole author Erik Postma also asked the participants to rate the man’s masculinity and likeability, and asked whether the rater, if female, was on hormonal contraception.

The results were clear. The most attractive men were also, unbeknownst to raters, the riders that performed best. This correlation was strongest in women not on the pill. (The effect was about the same for women on it and men, interestingly enough.) A rider’s perceived masculinity didn’t seem to have anything to do with his performance; there was a positive relationship between performance and likeability but it, too, was mostly dependent on the guy’s looks.

Postma speculates the correlation may be due to an unobserved variable that affects both performance and looks, or that facial attractiveness may actually signal endurance performance:

Facial attractiveness may signal endurance performance in particular. Indeed, high endurance performance is thought to have been the target of selection in early hominids, as being able to efficiently cover large distances allowed for more efficient hunting, gathering and scavenging, resulting in a number of uniquely human adaptations.

(HT: The Daily Dish)

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  1. Trevor says:

    So “the pill” is kinda like “beer goggles?”

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  2. Josh says:

    That last speculation seems like a stretch.
    Perhaps the best performing cyclists are the naturally the fittest and this increases their overall “dreaminess.” Or perhaps the most attractive cyclists were afforded more opportunities to become the best.

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    • Chris says:

      I think your second statement is closest to the reality.

      Also, the idea that endurance is being correlated here is not established. More likely being better looking makes it easier to get sponsorship (surely important for someone who wants to be paid for bike riding) and that also leads to being able to afford the top equipment, trainers, facilities, diet, and so on.

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  3. IE says:

    Even the last place cyclist at the Tour is at 99.999% percentile of the population by endurance. Highly doubtful that women “endurance radar” is so fine that it could tell the difference between 99.999% and 99.9999% percentiles.
    It’s more likely that the top cyclists had some sort of “winner glow” that made them more attractive.
    Or even better explanation. In every cycling team there is one leader and everybody else is there to help him. Being in a leader role makes men more attractive, being in a servant role – not so much.

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  4. Dave says:

    What a ridiculous premise. The guy who finishes last in the Tour de France is a better cyclist than 99.95% of all riders in the world, and more physically fit than 99.999% of all men on the planet. That’s like trying to find a correlation between wealth and attractiveness by comparing men worth >$20 billion to those worth “only” $4-5 billion.

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  5. Steve Nations says:

    Do steroids make a person more attractive?

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  6. Lancasterke says:

    it’s likely to be skinniness.

    the people who do badly at the tour are heavier (and were never actually trying to win the tour).

    the top ten will be noticeably skinnier in the face than the last ten and if you asked people to guess from facial photos who was the lightest, you’d get fairly close to who did well at the tour.

    skinny drawn look in the face may well relate via prominent bone structure to be attractive.

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  7. Bo Percival says:

    I have to disagree, as far as attractiveness goes any guy in lycra is a stretch ;)

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  8. mike says:

    Interesting study and even more interesting that all who question the analysis and results in the comments are male. Lets hear from women who might see things differently.

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