The Magic Formula

by Karl Felyshano

The dating scene can be murder. Consider the plight of the male antechinus, a tiny shrewlike marsupial that inhabits the forests of Australia. During his one and only mating season, he must scamper around feverishly, desperately seeking a willing female who'll concede him his single chance to propagate.

So overwhelmed is he by the urge to merge that this sad little rodent may go bald, lose his teeth, develop ulcers and drop one-third of his body weight to find a date. By the end of the first week of mating season, the forest floor is strewn with scrawny, hairless, toothless corpses.

Not all of these marsupials end up in such a pathetic state. Some actually do find mates, settle down, have a family, invest in slow-growth mutual funds. But these are the lucky ones, the chosen ones, the ones who have what it takes to strike a female antechinus's fancy. Which makes us wonder: What is it, exactly, that makes one tiny hairless rodent more appealing than the next?

Better yet, what makes a normal, red-blooded man more appealing than the next? After all, we're animals too - not tiny, no, but increasingly hairless - and we're driven by the same instincts and participate in our own elaborate mating rituals. And when it comes to mating, some of us have our virtual pick of the litter while others struggle endlessly to find a partner. Why is that?

The answer lies in the nature of attraction. In humans, as in shrews, females are biologically programmed to desire certain things in males, and vice versa. "We don't attract women by chance, but rather women act on cues to certain desirable characteristics," says David M. Buss, Ph.D., University of Michigan professor of psychology and author of the book "The Evolution Of Desire."

And that's not because of what society tells women; it's because of what evolution tells them. "The rules of attraction cut across all cultures," says Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D., Rutgers University anthropologist and author of the book "Anatomy of Love." "Women find certain traits more desirable than others, frankly, because these traits enhance their survival."

What all females, forest-dwelling or condo-owning, seek on a purely instinctive level is status, that one factor that signals that this is the guy they want. In the wild kingdom, status can take any number of forms: the amount of food in a male red-winged blackbird's territory, the protein-rich secretions offered by a male insect or the fullness of some male deer's antlers.

For humans, it's no different. "It's the hallmark of the human animal - that women pick good providers - and status is a cue to power, protection and resources," says Fisher. Volumes of research clearly show that high-status men get more women than low-status men.

But what is status, and what marks one man as having it and another as falling short? It's money and power, yes, but it's a lot of other things, too. While having piles of cash and sleek wheels can be impressive, they cannot explain why Joe Schlump in accounting has such a drop-dead beauty queen for a wife when his paltry paycheck and 1975 Pacer aren't exactly big turn-ons.

His status may not lie in his looks or trapping but rather in his dependability, his trustworthiness or his potential to be a good father. These are also signs of status - and they mean a lot more to some women than Maseratis and indoor swimming pools.

So perhaps you're a little jealous and you'd like to know what she sees in him. Or perhaps you're happy as a clam and you're still trying to figure out what she sees in you. Simple qualities, some of which you already possess, and some of which, if you don't now, you can. By making subtle, deliberate changes, you can increase your "mate value," the biological measure by which women subconsciously judge your attractiveness.

AMBITION.  Ambition is a powerful magnet, not because it signifies status but because it signifies future status. Right now your bank account may be bulgin, but if you're not striving - or at least appearing to be striving - for something better than you have, your appeal wanes. That's because women are attracted not simply to the resources wealth offers but to the drive that pushes a man to seek wealth in the first place.

When women are asked to list the most desirable traits in a potential mate, ambition and industriousness are rated as indispensable. "Women developed desires for men who show a talent for gaining resources and a disdain for men who lack ambition," says Buss.

In prehistoric times, an ambitious, resourceful man was the one most likely to bring home an elk to feed the family and figure out a way to use the antlers to beat back intruders If you show the desire to expand your wealth and influence (even if you don't happen to have any right now), you send out the signal that you're desirable. So keep looking for new responsibilities, new challenges; a little button-down derring-do can do wonders for your appeal.

BALANCE.  While you're out there trying to change your little slice of the world, remember to take some time to relax and enjoy yourself. Women look for balance, and any kind of overindulgence, good or bad, makes them nervous. "If you meet a woman and you give evidence you're a workaholic, that tells her you may not be around to help with the kids and invest in the relationship," says Buss.

The same goes for your drinking, your exercising, your football watching: If you eat, drink and breathe sports, you're not going to score. All things in moderation.

MODESTY.  Like a peacock displaying his superior plumage to potential mates, a man who is sure of himself and shows it in his actions has higher success in finding a partner. But self-confidence must be legitimate to have any pull. "Women are quite good at distinguishing false bravado from real self-confidence," says Buss.

Exaggerating your power, sexual adeptness or athletic prowess, which are acts of an amateur, will only signify your lack of status. Even the peacock can run into trouble, as his ostentatious display often attracts predators as well as sex partners.

TALENT.  Boast not with words but with actions. Learn a unique talent that sets you apart from other men. By displaying that talent - whether it's playing the piano at a party, building a birdhouse or performing a magic trick (hell, David Copperfield used magic to snag Claudia Schiffer), you'll come off as supremely confident and a guy who's head and shoulders above the competition.

"And you garner attention, a potent status cue," says Buss. "Plus, showing off your competence signals a take-charge kind of leadership, which is a cue to status."

SENSITIVITY, NOT SIMPERING.   A little vulnerability every now and then may actually enhance you're desirability and status. In one study, women looked at sets of responses to questions answered either from a masculine point of view or an "androgynous" viewpoint - meaning a mix of both feminine and masculine traits. The women rated the androgynous male as more favorable in terms of intelligence, morality, dating and mating potential.

But here men have to walk a fine line. "As the feminine side grew, sexual attractiveness declined," says study author Robert Cramer, Ph.D., professor of psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. That's because, for all the talk of making men more sensitive, the truth is that "Women admire men who have firm beliefs, take control in financial or career decisions and protect them when they feel threatened," says Cramer. The key is to exhibit emotional sensitivity without exhibiting helplessness.

Do: Admit when you're wrong or ask for directions when you're lost; feel free to tear up a little during a Meg Ryan movie; express it when you're feeling hurt of sad; show some emotional fortitude when bad times hit.

Don't: Act helpless to get out of doing something you don't want to do; get defensive when you're in the wrong; chicken out after you've made a commitment; brood, sulk or play hurt to get what you want.

A COOL DEMEANOR.  While a quick temper can create an aura of dark sexuality, in the real world it suggests you're as stable as a trailer park. "Moodiness signals to women an inability to handle stress, and that you're undependable," says Buss. "Being emotionally stable, though, suggests resiliency, an ability to cope with stress and setbacks," says Buss.

Your best bet is to find a good stress-reduction technique - exercise, for example - that will keep you from blowing your lid at the slightest provocation.

A LITTLE JEALOUSY.  So you're out with a woman so unbelievably beautiful she's causing a parade of fender benders. You feel uncomfortable and a little overprotective. That's good. "Women interpret jealousy as a cue that you're invested in the relationship as they are," says Buss. But don't let your jealousy get the best of you.

"Too much jealousy signals lower mate value and status on your part," says Buss. Getting angry at the slightest glances from other men signals to the woman that you think she's out of your league and could find someone better. Chances are, she probably will.

SUBTLETY.  "Often men erroneously think that because they welcome overtly sexual advances, women do, too," says Buss. But research refutes this. One study found that while women might think it's just fine to seductively suck on a straw or blow kisses to attract men, they find similar come-ons by men repulsive.

"Even if a woman wants a one-night stand, suggesting you want the same is a big mistake," says Buss. That's because coming on like a satyr undermines your status and presents you as untrustworthy and unreliable. In fact, the criteria women use to judge men for a night of casual sex (being self-confident, funny, ambitious) aren't all that different from the standards they use when scoping a permanent mate. Even if all she has on her mind is a quick one, she'd like to think you're interested in much more.

By the way, in almost every scenario, the rule of thumb is, take it slow. Even if you're sure she's interested, let the game play out a little more. Your relaxed patience suggests higher status by convincing her you're neither desperate nor interested solely in a roll in the hay.

HUMOR.  Women love comedians. They love comedy clubs. They love Jerry Seinfield, and he's no looker by any means. But there's a good reason that a sense of humor is rated as a highly desirable trait in studies of attraction. "Beyond displaying a playful, easygoing attitude, a sense of humor conveys a social presence, which translates into high status," says Buss.

Being funny in front of others (as opposed to doing it alone in front of a mirror) shows the confidence to command the attention of a group. That confidence suggests you're on top of things without being uptight. And that relaxed self-assurance is usually a by-product of attaining high status.

Now some guys are funny and some guys aren't. If you're one of those men who just can't tell a joke to save their own life, fine. At least learn to laugh at yourself and see the humor in a variety of circumstances. Men who never smile are equated with social ineptitude and lower status.

A STRONG VOICE.  Here's an easy way to attain status: Concentrate on your speaking voice. Studies suggest a low, smooth, strong voice without a wide range of pitch (meaning a consistent tone) is strongly attractive to the opposite sex. "A low, resonant voice may serve as an indicator of virility or a good sexual partner," says Miron Zuckerman, Ph.D., of the department of psychology at the University of Rochester, New York.

A nasal-sounding, squeaky, high or shrill voice was found to be unappealing. But if you've ever watched Roseanne, you already know that.

A SMALL DEGREE OF FAME.   A sure way to attract women is to become famous. "Fame converts to status and status converts to resources," says Fisher. Since you may not ever get the chance to guest of Charlie Rose or save the earth from a crashing meteor, better to cultivate a little fame locally. "It's really in your neighborhood where fame counts," says Fisher. "It's there that you'll meet women and hope to impress them."

That means becoming involved in local charities and politics, and keeping a somewhat high profile in social circles. You'll meet more people and be seen by more people, which will add to your prestige. And don't worry if your fame-attained status never gets beyond the city limits. "Status doesn't travel very well, anyway," says Fisher. "You can be an extremely high-status Tongan, but go to New York and see where that'll get you."