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Sexier science.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

A couple of University of Oregon professors hope to lure students to their classrooms this fall with the seemingly timeless college topics of sex and cars.

Car Cultures is on the fall schedule as a folklore class taught by professor Gordon Sayre. Human Attraction and Mating Strategies, an anthropology class, will be offered by associate professor Larry Sugiyama.

Students bored by science get interested when the subject is mating, Sugiyama said.

"It sparks lively discussions," he said. "It also sparks good questions in the sense that it's a real issue they're asking about."

The professors have each taught their respective courses as experimental classes for three terms. This spring, the UO Committee on Courses approved them as permanent offerings - and certified them worthy of satisfying requirements in science and arts and letters.

Returning students are enrolling in fall classes now.

Students may be surprised when they find out how heavy duty the courses are.

The mating strategies class takes them into evolutionary psychology, which rests on the idea that the cognitive structure of the brain has been shaped by natural selection - and a lot of human mating behaviors serve survival and reproduction.

In this class, Charles Darwin is a hotty.

Sugiyama is leaving this week for a remote region of Ecuador for a 2 1/2 -month study of the Shuar tribe. Since 1993, he's traveled there to study the cognitive and mental and emotional results of natural selection in humans. Sugiyama and his colleagues test their theories across indigenous cultures globally to determine what behaviors are essential adaptations apart from culture.

The science of sex appeal is a niche that Sugiyama entered in 1996, when he was asked to test another scientist's theories on a trip to study the Shuar.

He was a graduate student at the time. "I thought, I should do this. It'll get published. It's sexy."

The mating strategies class fills up each time Sugiyama puts it on the schedule - 63 out of 80 seats are filled for fall.

Sugiyama teaches students that attraction and mating tactics are subtle human activities; it takes a lot of study to begin to understand them. "Our psychology has been shaped by natural selection to make these very fine distinctions," he said.

Scientists once thought a ratio of the size of a woman's waist to her hips defined her attractiveness. But repeated studies called this simplified view into question. "Little changes in shoulder slope - constellations of features - that we don't have good descriptive words for, and would be hard to measure, have different attractiveness," Sugiyama said.

Attractiveness changes in the eyes of the beholder, he added.

"This is why you and a friend can say objectively: I see that's an attractive person, but (the person) doesn't really do it for me," he said. "There's no chemistry."

To complicate matters, a female human makes trade-offs when choosing a mate. She may pass up a good-looking guy - with hearty genes - for a guy who signals he's willing to make parental investment in her offspring. Her calculations take into account the alpha male's downsides, Sugiyama said.

Alpha males "are more likely also to engage in extramarital affairs," he said. "They're more likely to desert their wife, so if you're a woman you're saying, 'What I really want is security at this point in my life, right?' You balance the high genetic quality against these other potential costs," he said.

In the last part of the class, students apply what they know to the dating website OkCupid. Operators of the website collect data from the men and women who list their attributes and measure how many clicks and messages they receive.

Some women think they'll attract interest with a photo featuring a come-hither look and some cleavage. Those shots get a lot of initial interest, Sugiyama said.

"Guys are messaging to that girl, but it's never going anywhere," he said. "(Rather) if you are doing something interesting - man or woman - it leads to conversations." For men, a good strategy is to post a photo of them snuggling an infant or a puppy.

Although Sugiyama's mating class and Sayre's Car Cultures class are entirely separate, their subjects are not. Male humans, in particular, signal to mates through their choice of automobiles.

In his class, Sugiyama shows a slide of a man with a Porsche 911. "Why did he buy that?" he asks.

"A bunch of women in the classroom will roll their eyes because they know why - so that doesn't work for them," Sugiyama said. "The funny thing is: He's not signaling to them. He's signaling to the woman to whom that is important - and there are women to whom that is important because there's variation in female mating strategies. People are signaling to target audiences."

Sayre finds the students drawn to his Car Cultures class are heavily male. Two of three times he taught the class, only one woman signed up.

Sayre's students learn how the arrival of cars changed aboriginal cultures and how they're shaping modern life in China. "It's now the biggest car market in the world, and the car makers - including Ford and GM - have changed their offerings and their strategies because they want to sell more cars in China," he said.

The trend is reflected in the auto choices of some UO students.

"You can't help but notice it," Sayre said. "The (luxury) cars are all over the streets out there. A Maserati Quattroporte is not a car you would see every day."

The students, he said, buy new cars and immediately have them repainted. "They use this matte paint that doesn't have a glossy finish, in bright blue, pink, lime green," he said. "They buy a new Porsche and then repaint it this garish color, so you can't miss it."

Sayre teaches his students the history of cars and the environmental issues that arose in their wake.

Sayre teaches his students the basics of folklore or ethnographic fieldwork, and he sends them out to do original research at a car show or other vehicle-related place.

The Car Cultures class attracts a disproportionate number of international students. "I've had Swedes, Germans, Qataris - one guy from Burkina Faso in Africa," Sayre said. Sayre's Qatari students favored American muscle cars, such as Mustangs and Camaros, a BMW X5 and a Land Cruiser.

"I imagined (in class) that I might get these spirited debates between the bicycle enthusiasts and the car nuts, but it hasn't really happened," he said. "I don't think the bicyclists are going to sign up for the class after all."


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Title Annotation:University Of Oregon
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 10, 2014
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