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updated 6/22/2011 11:17:45 AM ET 2011-06-22T15:17:45

Worried about catching the sniffles? There's a chance that cold may sway your mate preference, suggests a new study showing that women with disease on their minds were more interested in masculine-looking men.

The finding reveals the balancing act women must play in the mating game, choosing between devoted dads, who tend to have less masculine features, and guys with good genes, who tend to have manlier traits. And environment plays a role, it seems, in which way she's swayed.

"Women are able to perceive the environment around them and are able to shift their mate preferences accordingly," study researcher Anthony Lee, of the University of Queensland, told LiveScience. "It's not a conscious decision ... women have evolved these flexible preferences and they are able to pick up on these cues."

When faced with the idea of infectious disease, women are more willing to invest in traits related to good genetics in mates, presumably as a way to help ensure healthy offspring. When faced with the idea of scarce resources, she favors good-dad traits, signs a man will stick around and help provide for their family.

Genetic trade-off

Good-gene and good-dad traits aren't all mutually exclusive. But past research has shown that males with high testosterone are more likely than more feminine guys to have a healthy immune system and other good genetic qualities that tend to make them worse dads: They are more likely to have shorter, less committed relationships. "It is a trade-off," Lee said. "Men with higher testosterone levels have better immune functioning, indicative of genetic quality, but tend to make poor parents, poor dads." [ The Animal Kingdom's Most Devoted Dads ]

Signals like wide shoulders and a strong jaw line indicate these high levels of testosterone. These along with other traits, like intelligence and creativity, signal he has good genes.

"Previous research has shown that women in countries with higher pathogen prevalence show preference for masculine men, which is supposed to be indicative of genetic quality," Lee said. These traits will help his offspring survive in an area with high levels of disease. In other areas, where resources like food and land might be harder to come by, women prefer providers who will stick around.

Shopping for mates

The researchers gave 60 participants surveys that would prime their brain in three ways. The first asked them about disease-related issues, asking how much participants agree with statements like "In general, I am very susceptible to colds, flu and other infectious diseases." The second included statements about providing for a family, like "I worry about the rising cost of food," and the third was a control condition in which participants read a statement unrelated to disease or family life.

They were then asked to choose the qualities they would look for in a mate, from a list of 10 traits, including some indicating good genetics, like muscularity and intelligence, and some associated with good parenting, like high earning potential and a nurturing attitude. Each female had only 25 "mate dollars" to purchase traits that would make for their ideal mate.

The women's preferences changed based on which questionnaire they filled out. "Women primed with disease tended to go for these more masculine traits, including muscularity," Lee said. "Women primed with resource scarcity went for traits that would make a good parent."

The study was published yesterday (June 21) in the journal Biology Letters.

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter@livescienceand onFacebook.

© 2012 LiveScience.com. All rights reserved.

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