I have almost finished writing a manuscript that will follow up on an earlier article published in 2006: "European hair and eye color - A case of frequency-dependent sexual selection?" Evolution and Human Behavior 27: 85-103. At this point, I should start planning my research sabbatical.
The research project itself is pretty much decided on. I wish to replicate a study I had published in 1994: "Preference for darker faces in photographs at different phases of the menstrual cycle: Preliminary assessment of evidence for a hormonal relationship", Perceptual and Motor Skills 79: 507-514. In this earlier study, I showed women several pairs of male facial photos, one of which had been made slightly darker than the other. Preference for the darker face was significantly higher among subjects in the estrogen-dominant phase of their menstrual cycle (i.e., the first two-thirds) than among those in the progesterone-dominant phase (i.e., the last third). This cyclic effect was absent in women on oral contraceptives and in women who were assessing pairs of female faces.
This study is poorly known, even among people who are interested in this sort of thing. It was pre-Internet (and is still unavailable online) and came out in a second-tier journal. Perhaps more importantly, I was working on my own with nobody to pitch my findings to a wider audience.
A team of psychologists at St. Andrews University (Scotland) replicated most of my findings in 2005 before learning about my earlier study (Jones, B.C., Perrett, D.I., Little, A.C., et al. 2005. "Menstrual cycle, pregnancy and oral contraceptive use alter attraction to apparent health in faces", Proc. R. Soc. B 272:347-354). As part of a broader research effort—the effects of “apparent health” on mate choice—they presented women with pairs of male faces that slightly differed in shape, color, and texture. Their subjects’ preferences showed the same variation with menstrual cycle that I had observed. Unfortunately, they did not try to identify which physical difference was driving this cyclic change in preference. It was probably the difference in skin color, but it might also have been the difference in skin texture or facial shape.
I hope to replicate my earlier study, but this time with a much larger pool of subjects and better photos (color and not B/W). I also hope to determine which skin pigment is driving this cyclic change. Is it male ruddiness (i.e., hemoglobin) or male brownness (i.e., melanin)? And just what component of ‘preference’ is being affected? Just what are the psychological effects of minor variation in skin color within the context of male-female interaction?
The obvious research location would be St. Andrews University. In fact, I had earlier applied to do research there and been accepted. But that was three years ago. A number of personal problems have since intervened, notably the settlement of my late mother’s estate. Now, with these problems out of the way, I have to reassess things.
Going to St. Andrews offers several advantages:
1. The investigators there are already familiar with this line of research.
2. Their research center has state-of-the-art equipment and is staffed with some of the best minds in cognitive psychology.
3. Language would not be a problem. I could easily find my way around after a short period of adaptation. The British are helpful people and make good research associates.
But there are disadvantages:
1. Academics at St. Andrews are busy people who are already overwhelmed with their own research work. I remember a piece of advice I was given during my doctoral studies: “It’s better to choose a supervisor who is less prestigious but who will spend time with you and be willing to go to bat for you, especially for things like grant proposals and job openings.”
2. The investigators there are working within a paradigm that differs somewhat from my own. They see skin color as an index of health (pale skin = bad health, dark skin = good health, cf. Hamilton and Zuk hypothesis). My feeling is that other mental algorithms are involved. This is something of a fault-line between “adaptationist” and “non-adaptationist” views of mate choice and sexual selection. If I’m not careful, I could be stigmatized as a “non-adaptationist.”
3. The offer from St. Andrews did not come with a scholarship. I would have to pay my own expenses in a country that has one of the highest costs of living in the world.
4. The word “skin color” automatically calls to mind issues of race and ethnicity. This is especially so in Great Britain. I could easily be caricatured as a “race scientist” or some such animal.