Kristina Durante doesn't flinch when the media describes her research as an examination of "The Lipstick Effect."
She is a UTSA assistant professor and the co-author of a series of thought-provoking studies on how women's hormones affect everything from the way they dress to the men they choose.
Durante, who joined the faculty in 2011, draws on evolutionary psychology to examine women's behavior and the hormonal mechanisms that guide their decision-making.
The change in a woman's behavior during ovulation—when she is most fertile—can be a dramatic departure from the way she normally walks, talks, dresses and makes decisions, Durante's studies found. It has more to do with science than with a woman's stereotyped fickle nature, she said, noting that it comes down to hormones.
At a time of the month when a woman is most likely to become pregnant, the estrogen flooding her body can profoundly impact her physically, emotionally and intellectually, triggering unconscious shifts in her behavior. Durante is particularly focused on how these behavioral shifts alter women's spending patterns.
It is that fundamental shift leading up to and including the five days a woman is ovulating that is of keen interest to marketers of the multibillion-dollar beauty care industry.
Durante and her fellow researchers also discovered that a similar shift in women's behavior happens during tough economic times.
Looking at how social and biological factors influence consumer behavior, they found that with a sluggish economy, women tend to, as she puts it, "nonconsciously do their clothes and cosmetics shopping at Macy's instead of Wal-Mart," while also spending more on clothing, jewelry and beauty enhancers.
Durante said the studies' implications have the potential to significantly alter how marketers tailor and refine their pitch to buyers of beauty products.
The reasoning is as basic as it is Darwinian.
"When economic times are tough, there is greater competition for a well-off mate, and since there are fewer of the well-to-do potential mates, women justify—in response to the recession cues—spending on that Chanel lipstick that we'd not ordinarily get," she explained.
Durante and fellow researchers focused their studies on 2007, when massive layoffs and widespread home foreclosures battered the economy during what has been termed the nation's toughest economic period since the Great Depression of 1929.
Results from an examination of the behavior patterns of more than two dozen unmarried undergraduate students between the ages of 18 and 24 confirmed that women's consumer preferences change during economic recession, Durante said.
It's all to find a well-off mate, but finding that perfect mate is also impacted by hormones.
In separate studies, Durante and researchers from the University of Minnesota and Singapore Management University found that when women ovulate, they "nonconsciously" gravitate toward men who tend to be womanizers and rogues, even while seeking a stable, long-term relationship.
Ovulating women are most receptive and more attracted to the prototypical "cad," who "is likely to be unfaithful and who often is not looking for the long-term, stable relationship" that women say they prefer, Durante said.
To determine that, the researchers chose as study participants 318 women, aged 18 to 39, with an income range from $15,000 a year to more than $150,000, and included college students as well as successful businesswomen. Most of the women did not have children; some were married or in relationships while others were not. Most importantly, all were normally ovulating at the time they were tested, but only women who were not taking either hormonal contraceptives or prescription medication were chosen to participate.
Their job was simple: interact through an online video chat with men who were introducing themselves as potential dating partners and determine which they found more appealing.
To get the right contrast, the researchers hired an actor to play both a typical cad and a dad. With the help of a Hollywood screenwriter, Durante crafted the cad scripts to portray "a man who was charismatic, confident, charming but who came across as somewhat unreliable [likely to be someone who would not make a reliable long-term partner]," she said. "We crafted the dad script to portray a man who was reliable, dependable, less confident and charming but who was explicitly seeking a serious relationship and [wanted to] have kids one day."
One clip shows a confident, raffish man in a black pullover who looks straight into the camera and boldly suggests that the female on the other end join him for what he promises will be a good time.
The next shows a man wearing a white polo shirt, who, while never looking directly at the camera, acts low-key and in an unassuming voice says that while he has "never been good at the dating thing," he is nonetheless looking for a committed relationship.
The women viewing the videos were led to believe the two men were twins, although Durante noted that the roles were played by the same actor.
Participants consistently showed significantly more interest in the cad than the potential dad. And they wrongly predicted that the rake would be a better partner and future father.
Durante acknowledged the cad versus dad conundrum.
"It is a paradox, especially with younger women," Durante said. "We want the 'nice' guy who wants stability and a long-term relationship. But we still pursue, and get our hearts broken by, the guy who is not so nice but is attractive and charismatic."
How does she explain this behavior?
"When we are our most fertile, we are attracted to the highly masculine, socially dominant man with the symmetric face who is exuding confidence because those are the desirable genes we want to pass on to our children, even when we 'know' that the jerk is not likely to stick around."
Durante is quick to note that women are not consciously aware that they are interested in a cad to snag his good genes; they are only aware of the strong attraction to this type of man.
There's also the erroneous belief that women can change their partners, she said.
"Women tend to over-perceive their ability to 'change' the sexy cad and turn him into what would be a good dad—a stable, dependable mate who will be a good father to their children and be there to help change the diapers at least half of the time," Durante said.
For decades, scientific research—often used by marketers hoping to boost sales of clothing, beauty products and jewelry—has shown that leading up to the time women begin ovulating, they become more attracted to men with chiseled, symmetrical faces and deeper voices, whom Durante laughingly referred to as "the George Clooney type."
Durante noted that "the big-picture overview [for the attraction to the cad] provides an answer to why some women keep pursuing the 'wrong' guy. The hormones associated with ovulation may be leading women to deceive themselves about this type of man."
Durante's research also found that "very often, the friends of the woman have much sharper insight about the cad than the woman herself. Perhaps we should start to listen more closely when our friends think our boyfriend is the jerk we don't see."
There may be significant variance in women's attraction to the cad, depending on the level of circulating estrogen, but that point remains far from clear, she said.
The professor's provocative findings have been covered by such media outlets as Business Week, Cosmopolitan, USA Today, Fox News and CNN, and has garnered both praise and criticism.
Even though Durante acknowledges that her research has the capacity to stir up controversy, she nonetheless points out that much of her scientific research examines behavior that operates at the nonconscious level, noting: "we are not always aware of the real reasons behind our choices."
But she defends both her research topics and the methods she uses to arrive at her conclusions.
"My research is based on a solid theoretical framework," she said. "It's been embraced by marketers for its insight into some of the nonconscious and often overlooked motivators behind our conscious decisions. Hormones are hormones and we have the ability to override them. They are very subtle motivators. These are not absolutes."
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