FRIDAY, Dec. 17, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- The way to a man's heart really might be through his stomach.
According to a new study, men tend to desire slightly larger women when they are hungry, but their tastes turn to more svelte types when their tummies are full.
Economic woes may work to exert similar pressures on male desire, the researchers added. They found men's attraction for heftier women rising as their wallets got thinner.
While the psychology behind the phenomenon remains unclear, "it could be that when men are hungry they seek out signals of lushness or opulence -- and heaviness in the female might be such a signal," said study co-researcher Dr. Leif D. Nelson, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University's Stern School of Business.
The findings appear in the February issue of Psychological Science.
Associations between economic and/or dietary want and ideals of female beauty are not new. Nelson pointed out that, since the late 1970s, "experts have noticed consistent patterns: In wealthy cultures, thin women are preferred, and in poorer cultures, heavier women are preferred."
"In fact, even within the United States, in poorer subgroups, there's a heavier female ideal than in wealthier groups," he said.
However, up until now there has not been much research into the role of the individual male in this larger cultural phenomenon. Nelson and co-researcher Dr. Evan Morrison, a psychologist at Stanford University, hypothesized that the availability -- or scarcity -- of resources such as money or food in rich vs. poor countries might bias males toward either thinner or heavier women.
They devised a simple means of testing out that theory on a population of college students.
"We wanted to find samples of hungry and non-hungry men," Nelson said, "and the easiest way I could think of to do that was to stake out dining halls and sample men right before they entered -- when they were presumably most hungry -- or right after dinner, when presumably they are most full."
As hundreds of men and women entered or exited these campus cafeterias during the height of the lunch hour, Nelson's team had them fill out brief questionnaires as to their "ideal mate," with weight buried among other questions such as hair color or height.
Men who filled out the questionnaire just before they entered the hall described their ideal woman as three or four pounds heavier, on average, than men interviewed as they exited the cafeteria after a full meal.
"The effect -- a three- or four-pound difference -- is obviously much more modest than the size of these differences across cultures," Nelson said. "Nevertheless, it was consistent."
Similar trends emerged when it came to men's sense of their own financial security. In another experiment, the researchers subtly manipulated men so that they felt either relatively wealthy or poor, using a simple technique.
"First, we asked men to report how much money they had in their bank account right now," Nelson said. "With some of the men, we had them report using a scale that went from zero dollars up to $500; obviously most men placed near the top, so they felt relatively wealthy at that moment. When we asked other men, however, we used a scale going from zero to $500,000 -- most fell at the bottom end of this scale, so they ended up feeling poor."
Each of the men was then asked to describe the "perfect woman," including her ideal weight.
"Men who completed the scale that made them feel poorer preferred heavier women, compared to men who completed the other scale, that made them feel wealthy," Nelson said.
The difference between an ideal female weight between the two groups was about three or four pounds, similar to the results of the hunger study.
"Previous research falls right in line with what this study is suggesting," said Terry F. Pettijohn, an expert in the psychology of sexual attraction at Mercyhurst University, in Erie, Pa.
Pettijohn was co-author of a much-publicized 2003 study that found the body measurements of Playboy Playmates of the Year changed with ups and downs in the U.S. economy.
"It seems that, when we feel certain types of environmental trends -- whether it be lack of food or resources such as money -- it can change our perception of what we'd find attractive," he said.
Nelson said no one is quite sure why increased female body weight might be more desirable to men when they feel hungry or poor. In evolutionary terms, plumper bodies may simply signal abundance.
"It could mean stability, status," he said. "We just don't know."
But he stressed that, so far at least, no such findings have emerged in terms of women's preferences when it comes to men.
"There was a very slight tendency for hungry women to prefer taller men," he said, "but it was a very weak finding."
For more on the psychology of sexual attraction and behavior, visit the Kinsey Institute.