Out & About: The ‘active’ in ‘attractive’? Dartmouth study asks how looks relate to athletic prowess


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-28-2023 11:21 PM

In the animal world, the bird with the best feathers usually gets a mate. But why?

“A lot of these animal studies, there is this general hypothesis that those showy traits will become correlated with some aspect of the individual’s (gene) quality,” said Ryan Calsbeek, a biology professor at Dartmouth College.

Now Calsbeek, along with undergraduate student Isaiah Menning, is studying how or if that also applies to humans. The two have launched an online survey for their project, “Honest Trait Signaling in Humans,” that asks participants to rate 50 photographs of professional athletes for attractiveness, likability and masculinity/femininity to see if that corresponds with their athletic prowess. “The question is, ‘Do athletes that are perceived as more attractive also tend to perform better?’ ”

Calsbeek is an evolutionary biologist who studies mate choice among animals in the wild. He has studied lizards in the Bahamas, and in New England he’s turned his attention to wood frogs.

“We hope to gather information that may help develop a greater understanding of human evolution,” the introduction to the survey — which can be found online — reads.

He was inspired, in part, by a 2014 study titled “A relationship between attractiveness and performance in professional cyclists.”

“Men that were deemed more attractive by survey participants were more likely to perform well in the Tour de France,” Calsbeek said.

Calsbeek and Menning’s study differs by including female athletes.

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“We actually predict that running performance should show the strongest correlation because of the natural selection on human endurance running,” Calsbeek said, adding that endurance running was important to humans’ survival when they were persistence hunters.

After participants take the survey, they will learn more about what Calsbeek and Menning are studying.

The survey takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete. As of last Thursday, around 250 people had taken it. It will be available until mid-March.

“We’d love to get that number up to 500,” Calsbeek said.

Editor’s note: For more information or to see the results once they’re published, email Calsbeek at Ryan.G.Calsbeek@Dartmouth.edu.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.