Carnegie Mellon University
September 09, 2020

SURF Study Explores the Question: What Makes Someone Attractive?

By Heidi Opdyke

Jason Maderer
  • Marketing and Communications
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Stacy Kish
  • Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences
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Dominique Powell wants to broaden the understanding of what a person looks for in a mate, in particular when it comes to gender and sexual minorities.

"My research seeks to include the LGBTQIA+ community in conversation about how people pick partners," said Powell, who is a senior in biological sciences and biopsychology at Carnegie Mellon University. "Because while it's the same, it's different."

Powell said that as a minority she feels obligated to make sure that LGBTQIA+ people are heard and included in discussions of relationships related to evolutionary psychology.

"Science is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, and focusing exclusively on heterosexual people is not representative of reality," Powell said. "We're also missing out on important data by being myopic about LGBTQIA+ inclusion — and that does everyone — LGBTQIA+ and not, a disservice."

Powell earned a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) grant from CMU's Undergraduate Research Office to create and test a better way to understand how people select mates. Mate value refers to one's desirably as a romantic partner based on a series of self-reported survey questions based on a sliding scale. For example:

I value financial security.
0                1                2                3                4                5                6                7
Strongly Agree                                                                                                      Strongly Disagree

David Rakison, an associate professor of psychology, is advising Powell on her work.

A number of studies have established many commonalities that heterosexual men and women are looking for in a mate. Both want partners who are funny, healthy, kind and sympathetic, and want children. But, there are areas where they differ.

Rakison said that men value attractiveness and youth more than women do. Whereas women value financial resources, ambitiousness and stability because those things imply that men will provide resources for the couple's prospective children.

Powell said that one of the things she is trying to do is establish norms for individuals of different sexual orientations.

"Previous research has had mixed success in finding a way to measure this," she said. "These differences are important to catalog, because we don't want to erase the differences that people have."

Having undergraduate students involved in research is a boon for students, Rakison said. The experience sets them apart when applying to graduate programs or other opportunities.

"Reading papers gets students to a level of critical thinking," Rakison said. "But actually, being involved in research hands-on, through recruiting participants, designing studies, testing participants and such, and seeing the whole process from start to finish really gets them excited about research."

Rakison, who runs the Infant Cognition Lab, said that at least half a dozen of his student researchers have gone on to become faculty members at other institutions. Last year's three lead seniors went on to graduate and medical programs, as well.

"Getting that hands-on experience as an undergraduate in research was a massive stepping stone for them to accomplish that," he said. "Our undergraduates use their energy and drive to succeed in their professions. It continues to stun me how when I talk to students who left five or 10 years ago to see what they have accomplished in the world."

Powell will serve as the lead undergraduate researcher for the Infant Cognition Lab this academic year.

"She's a terrific student, incredibly smart and one of the sharpest minds I've seen in an undergraduate," Rakison said of Powell. "She's really great at organizing the other students and keeping them motivated. She brings a lot to the team."

The lab will be working with families remotely because of COVID-19. Researchers will work with babies to expand understanding of child development. By conducting the research virtually, and with the aid of the website Children Helping Science to find participants, the Infant Cognition Lab is more accessible than it was with in-person interviews.

"This has been a boon for us to realize the opportunities that technology is providing to expand our testing phase," Powell said. "Currently we have an issue where only a specific demographic are the only people able to come in because they're free during the day. It limits the data, and it doesn't become representative."

The research that Powell has been conducting on her SURF project to create a better survey instrument as well as her background in biology and psychology will serve her well in law school, where she plans to head after graduation.

"Often times with attorneys you'll do surveys with clients, and you learn the value of good sources," Powell said.