How to Be Hot: Women Should Smile More, Men Less


Women should look friendly and approachable to get the most favorable attraction response from the opposite sex, and men should look proud. That’s the clear finding of a new study: Happy Guys Finish Last: The Impact of Emotion Expressions on Sexual Attraction that takes a look at exactly which emotional expressions appeal to each sex. The study examined the relative sexual attractiveness of individuals showing pride, shame and happiness.

The researchers began by noting that showing a happy, smiling face is considered essential to social interaction. But no one had ever studied the impact of a smiling face on sexual attraction. In this study as in so many other recent research, women and men were proven to be profoundly different based on evolutionary adaptations. Women like men who look proud, and men like women who look happy. In addition, women dislike smiling men, and men dislike proud looking women.

All three emotions are universal across cultures, which indicates evolutionary origins. In general:


  • Conveys high status


  • Signals low status
  • Sign of appeasement for having violated a social norm


  • Communicates friendliness and approachability
  • Elicits trust and approach-oriented behaviors in onlookers


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What Women Find Sexually Attractive

  1. Pride

“The pride expression may convey heightened masculinity; its prototypical behavioral components of expanded chest and generally large appearance are notably male features, and similar features, such as upper-body strength, have been found to increase masculinity and male attractiveness.”

  1. Shame

“Given that gender norms cannot account for the attractiveness of male shame (the low-status/high social-sensitivity signal is gender atypical), shame’s communication of trustworthiness and group commitment may be what accounts for its relative attractiveness in men. The expression’s costliness (its low-status signal could endanger expressers) may simultaneously indicate its sincerity, leading women to place greater trust in men who show shame than, perhaps, those who show happiness.

Also, if either women or men interpreted shame displays as conveying sadness, and thus indicating an individual’s need for comfort and support, they may have found them attractive for this reason, given previous research suggesting that sympathy breeds attraction.”

Finally, young women actually preferred male expressions of shame to happiness, possibly because a shame expression often signals “troublemaker,” a type younger women are more susceptible to than women over 30.

  1. Happiness

Happiness appears to convey femininity and low dominance to both sexes. It also indicates sexual receptivity, something men should not need to communicate:

“The friendliness signal sent by happy displays may also be relevant; if this message is taken to indicate sexual receptivity, it would increase women’s mate value, but potentially decrease men’s. If male sexual receptivity is, to some extent, taken for granted, a social communication along these lines may indicate neediness or desperation.”

Most importantly, a high-status man is likely to be a better provider than a friendly and approachable man.

What Men Find Sexually Attractive

  1. Happiness

“A friendly woman is likely to be more sexually receptive than a high status woman. Men find appeasement in a woman more appealing than pride.

Indeed, perhaps because women are known to smile (the key behavioral component of the happy display) more frequently than men, happy displays have been associated with femininity.”

  1. Shame

“Shame’s low-status and submission connotations increase its apparent femininity, and thus the attractiveness of shame-displaying women. The positive impact of shame displays on female attractiveness also may be due to shame’s signaling of the expresser’s respect for social norms and her awareness that she has violated them. This appeasement message may indicate trustworthiness, a trait previously found to increase attractiveness when conveyed by facial expressions.

  1. Pride

“From an evolutionary perspective, the mate value of a high-status woman is more ambiguous. Though a woman high in status may be well equipped to attain resources for her partner and children, previous research suggests that men evolved to seek female partners who were best equipped to bear and raise children, but not necessarily to support them.”

Unsurprisingly, men were deemed less attractive overall than women were, in line with previous findings that women are harsher judges of the opposite sex.

Overall, the findings reinforce both evolutionary theories and gender norms. It won’t make the “gender as a social construct” folks happy, but then, they have very little reason to cheer these days. Virtually all recent academic studies confirm the evolutionary and genetic basis of gender differences.

“This…is also consistent with socio-cultural gender norms which, in many cultures, require that women appear submissive and vulnerable, and men dominant and confident. Individuals whose behavior and appearance is consistent with these gender norms tend to be considered most attractive, so a proud man and happy woman may be valued for reasons of gender-norm consistency, as well as for their potentially high mate value.”

I am not suggesting that women be submissive and vulnerable, only that it is strategically advantageous for them to appear so. Perhaps women need to learn to compartmentalize their behavior. What works at the office has no place in the bedroom, and vice versa.

The research was conducted using photographs, leading to the question of whether these findings might hold true in real life.

“Given the importance of first impressions, and the frequency with which potential partners meet via a single photo (e.g., on social networking/dating websites), these findings provide new insight to our understanding of why certain people successfully attract others, why others do not, and how individuals seeking a mate should regulate their emotions. Smiles tend to be socially appropriate across many situations, but there are contexts in which the appearance of sexual attractiveness is valued over social correctness. The present results suggest that men may need to choose between these competing social goals, but women do not.”

Again, I would not suggest that men find reasons to brood or behave in an anti-social manner. However, it may benefit a male to smile judiciously at first, perhaps using a smile to indicate that a woman is pleasing him once he has established dominance. Maybe this is the real reason for the curse of the nice guy – too much affability up front, as demonstrated by smiling, signals low status and too strong a desire to please.

Coincidentally, the LA Times recently ran an article featuring the finding of those whiz kids who write the OKCupid blog, and their analysis of user data confirms the study’s findings:

The advice: Women, flirt with the camera for your profile photo. Men, try giving it a cold shoulder.

The reasoning: Compared with women looking away from the camera, those who smiled or made what OkCupid analysts called a “flirty-face” tended to get about 1.5 additional new messages a month. But men who tried an aloof, no-eye-contact strategy got a better response to their emails — about 90% success compared with 60% if they made eye contact in their photos. From the blog: “Maybe women want a little mystery. What is he looking at?”

Our scientists say: “We and other researchers have documented that men interpret a woman’s smile as a signal of sexual interest,” Buss says. “So flirty smiles trigger what we call men’s ‘sexual over-perception bias.’” Or, as McCord puts it, “Flirting works. Duh.”

But only for women, not men. “There is good evidence that men high in status smile less and that smiling is sometimes interpreted as a sign of submissiveness. Also, some male smiles can look like leers, so it’s good to avoid those,” Buss says.

That doesn’t mean men should play aloof in person. McCord adds, “Looking into the distance draws the women in — but as the negotiation continues, kindness and generosity will begin to play a bigger role.”

Go forth and smile, or not, according to your evolutionary blueprint.