Farouq Manji explores the role of pheromones in mating and attraction
In the 1870s, a French scientist named Jean-Henri Fabre studied moths and discovered that male moths travelled exceptionally large distances to visit a female. He theorised that female moths were sending out chemical signals to attract the male – in other words, a type of pheromone.
Since Fabre’s discovery, pheromones have been discovered almost everywhere. In the 1980s, human sex pheromones were discovered: it transpired that people emitted odourless chemicals with the sole goal of eliciting a carnal response from the opposite sex.
The role of pheromones in human mating behaviour may be stronger than you might expect. The human immune system is governed by a set of genes called the Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC), which are a set of blueprints for immune function. Animal studies in the 1990s indicate that an animal’s scent carries information about their MHC – and generally, animals are attracted to mates with a dissimilar MHC so as to make sure that their offspring have a diverse, stronger immune system.
Human studies have indicated that when women are fertile, they prefer the scent of men who have a more diverse set of MHC genes. Other studies have indicated that the scent of mates who are more dissimilar in their MHC profiles may influence the choice of partner. The question remains, however: does this actually change human behaviour in the real world?
According to the above studies, men were adjudged to prefer the scent of women who were either facially attractive or fertile. Scent obviously holds a lot of information – and whether or not we consciously perceive it, it may influence our behaviour in subtle ways.
Pheromones are believed to be governed by hormones, and are therefore open to manipulation from external sources. Several studies have shown women using birth control tend to favour men with more similar MHC profiles, than when they are off the Pill. Recently, British researchers from the University of Sheffield concluded that the use of birth control can genuinely change what type of men women are attracted to.
Those women whose hormonal cycle is controlled by oral contraception are, apparently, more likely to be attracted to effeminate men. They postulate that these women choose mates who are more genetically similar – and this may pose a problem with fertility. Women off the Pill, however, are more likely to seek out more competitive, rugged, muscular men who are genetically dissimilar to themselves.
Some scientists believe that because the Pill mimics the effects of pregnancy, women who are on contraceptives may be attracted to nurturing relatives, and therefore those with similar genes, rather than potential mates who would be genetically different. This theory fits neatly with the researched evidence thus far.
A study published in Psychological Science found that women paired with men with similar MCH profiles were less sexually satisfied, and more likely to cheat on their partners. Essentially, if a woman were to enter a relationship on the Pill, she might be more likely to be with someone with a similar MHC profile – and if she subsequently went off the Pill she would be more attracted to other, MHC-dissimilar males, greatly raising the chances of an affair.
Pheromones may also carry information about female fertility. Hormonal changes that take place over the course of the female fertility cycle may help give off chemical signals that are subtly alluring to men. The Pill, therefore, can also interfere with natural attraction, but this has not been conclusively proven.
Though it is interesting to note how pheromone signals could be altered by extrinsic hormonal regulation, it is not to say that the Pill is a problematic drug. The laws of attraction and mating are too vast and complex to be reduced to simple hormones and pheromones. In other words, don’t stop taking the Pill just because of this article. I don’t want you knocking on my door with your unplanned kids.
That said, it appears as though pheromones are a medium through which a potential mate can convey information about their genes and fertility status, and maybe more. It’s possible that in the future we could use complex genetic testing, compatibility surveys, and an abundance of other media – which, admittedly, would cost thousands – to find a suitable mate.
All of this information seems to be readily available in our scent, and the evidence thus far indicates that at some level, the receiving person can decode, and is influenced, by the information in our pheromones.