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October 2013 Archives

Why We Flaunt Our Sexy Partners

Plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests that women are attracted to men who are already in a relationship. Psychologist Valerie Golden believes this is a real phenomenon, citing research which showed that women were far more interested in a man if they thought he was taken rather than single.

The prevailing explanation for this is that women trust the decisions made by other women. A woman may subconsciously say to herself, "If he's good enough for her, then he's good enough for me." If she then acts on this adulterous impulse, she is officially a "mate poacher."

Men, it seems, are well aware of how women think on this matter. If women are drawn to men who are in relationships, then maybe men will choose to flaunt their partners, particularly if they are attractive. Indeed, new research shows exactly that: Men (and women) like to flaunt their sexy partners to their peers. flaunting.jpg

In a recent study, psychologists assigned random photographs of men and women to college-aged participants, and asked the participants to imagine the person in the photograph as their romantic partner. Subjects were then given a choice of two locations where they could meet their supposed partner. One meeting place was full of undergraduates, and the other was full of administrators.

Where the participants chose to meet with their partner depended on how attractive that partner was. If the partner was attractive, the participants chose to meet where the undergraduates were, "flaunting" their sexy partners. If the participant thought that their partner was unattractive, they chose to hang out with the administrators. (The control group was given a similar story, but wasn't shown photographs of partners.)

So, why did the subjects who received attractive partners "flaunt" them? Judging from survey responses, the researchers concluded that participants who had attractive partners believed that their social status and desirability would be improved among their peers. Perhaps flaunting an attractive partner serves as a "signal" that you're a hot commodity, advertising just how wealthy, superior and perhaps even how genetically gifted you are.

And, since relationships often aren't permanent, it's good to maintain your status and sexual desirability among your peers -- just in case you find yourself single and ready to mingle. (Perhaps this explains why celebrities insist on dragging around arm candy everywhere they go?)

This study, like many psychology studies, is limited by its use of American undergraduates, who likely don't have characteristics that are generalizable to all of humanity. Also, it might have been more informative to use a study design in which a participant gets to flaunt his attractive partner in front of members of the same or opposite sex. For example, if a man believes his female partner is attractive, would he choose to flaunt her in front of other men or in front of women? If the former, then flaunting is probably about increasing social status; if the latter, then flaunting is probably about increasing desirability.

The study was published in PLoS ONE.

Source: Winegard BM, Winegard B, Geary DC (2013). "If You've Got It, Flaunt It: Humans Flaunt Attractive Partners to Enhance Their Status and Desirability." PLoS ONE 8(8): e72000. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0072000

October 2013 Archives

Why Good Wine Tastes Like Buttery Popcorn

My wife and I regularly travel to Eastern Europe. Last time we were there, we went to Bonyhad, Hungary, a small town about two hours outside of Budapest. The nominal purpose of our trip was to visit her aunt and uncle; in reality, there was a winery nearby that my father-in-law was dying to show me, which was perfect, because as it so happened, we were running low on booze.

winebread.jpgHungarian wine, specifically Tokaji, is known all over the world. Adventurous sojourners who enjoy vodka would appreciate a shot of Hungarian palinka, as well. My adult beverage of choice is almost any variety of red wine, and my father-in-law and I were in the market for several liters. (No, we're not winos, in case you're wondering. We stock up on red wine when given the opportunity since my in-laws live 13 hours away on Poland's Baltic coast. We fill up whatever we can get our hands on, usually empty water and soda bottles. Yes, we're classy like that.)

When we get our first chance to knock back a glass or two of that wine, I can't help but notice the ever-present, but extremely subtle, flavor of butter. And it's not just me: My wife can taste it, too. Why?

I must first point out that I'm not a wine snob. If given a blind taste test, I couldn't tell the difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot -- or probably even a white wine with red food coloring added to it. I've eaten rattlesnake before, which to me tastes just like chicken, and I find Big Macs and filet mignon equally irresistible. So, this isn't about my refined palate and superior sense of taste. That butter flavor is real.

There are multiple biochemical reactions occurring when grape juice is fermented into wine. The most famous, of course, is the production of ethanol (alcohol) by yeast. But some wines have a secondary fermentation involving a sour* compound called malic acid. Lactic acid bacteria (one of which, called Lactobacillus, is also used to ferment yogurt) can convert malic acid into diacetyl (more properly known as butane-2,3-dione).

And where is diacetyl found? You guessed it: Butter.

Diacetyl was also widely used as a flavoring agent in microwaveable popcorn, but it isn't anymore. That's because diacetyl has been linked to respiratory disease (colloquially referred to as "popcorn lung") in factory workers who make food products like popcorn. A few workers actually died. Still, there is almost no risk to consumers who eat moderate amounts of popcorn, but moderate is the key word.

A genius by the name of Wayne Watson, who ate two bags of microwaveable popcorn every day for 10 years, also came down with "popcorn lung." He admitted to sticking his face over each freshly popped bag and inhaling like a cocaine addict. He then developed problems breathing and, like any patriotic American, filed a lawsuit against the popcorn manufacturer and the grocery store he bought it from. The jury awarded him $7 million. Yeah, really.

This man's case, along with those of all the factory workers, prompted manufacturers to remove diacetyl from microwaveable popcorn.

But, it's still found naturally in all kinds of food, including buttery wine. And that's just how I like it.

*Note: Malic acid was originally referred to as "bitter," but "sour" is a more appropriate description.

Source: Brock Biology of Microorganisms (13th ed). MT Madigan, JM Martinko, D Stahl, and DP Clark. Benjamin Cummings. 2010.

(Image: Wine via Shutterstock)
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