The short wingman - do humans use visual illusions to attract a mate?


Jason Collins


September 23, 2010

An ABC news article last week reported a study by Professor John Endler on the use of visual tricks by male bower birds to make themselves look larger to females. By placing small objects at the front and larger objects at the back of their bower, the court in which the male bower bird is viewed appears smaller, which makes the male look larger. Endler noted, however, that it was not clear whether the male had any empathy for the females perspective or if the male simply arranged the objects based on his own preferences.

It seems certain that humans use illusions to attract mates. I have some difficulty in coming up with many examples off the top of my head. There is evidence that being the tallest amongst a group of short people is advantageous, but this may be more a question of opportunity than visual trickery. We also use a vast array of visual techniques (dress, ornamentation, dancing etc). But how many of these are for the purpose of creating an illusion? I would expect that some body paint patterns would make individuals appear taller and wider. But generally when we do make illusions in art etc, those illusions are not for the purpose of making the male appear more attractive (although they may be a way of appearing clever to attract a mate).

One possible example (although a selected, not conscious illusion) might be narrow waists on females - making the hips appear wider. But even that may have a simpler explanation - evolving to to separate the genuinely wide hipped from cheaters who have a bit of extra fat all over.

Some extra research on my part is going to be required on this one.