Measure of success?

Some researchers believe that body measurements and symmetry may be linked to athleticism, aggressive tendencies or even the likelihood that you'll find a mate

October 13, 2006|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,sun reporter

What does your body say about you?

A lot, it turns out.

For example, extend your hand and compare the length of your ring and index fingers. For most women they're about the same length, and for most men, the ring finger is a bit longer.

The longer your ring finger is compared with your index finger, the more likely you are to be aggressive, athletic and prone to depression, researchers say.

Now measure the smallest finger on each hand. If they match up, you may be close to symmetrical, which is good news if you're looking for a mate. If you're not symmetrical, you, may have trouble getting a date.

OK, this isn't an exact science. But some researchers believe that body symmetry and the relative lengths of our ring and index fingers are influenced by our exposure to testosterone in the womb.

That exposure, they say, also influences a variety of personal traits. So for the past decade scientists have been measuring and comparing hands, feet, ears, limbs, joints and other body parts to see whether they provide clues to personality and behavior.

"They're an amazing kind of subtle, yet salient, cue in our development," said Randy J. Nelson, a psychology professor at Ohio State University.

Over the years, the field has generated more than 170 scientific papers identifying links, in one form or another, to athletic ability, aggressive behavior and proclivities for early heart attacks, depression and even sexual preference.

"Those with symmetrical attributes are more likely to be athletic, have lower metabolic rates, be more competitive and have higher IQs," said Gordon Gallup, a psychology professor and researcher at the State University of New York, Albany.

Some critics dismiss the field as something close to junk science. "I've always distrusted all of this, from the beginning," said Richard Palmer, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Alberta. "I don't think it's a reliable indicator of anything."

Finger length

Research into finger length was initiated in the late 1990s by John T. Manning, a British researcher who was intrigued by the finding that finger length ratios are one of the few differences between the sexes that develop in the womb and are unaffected by puberty. In fact, finger length ratios remain constant throughout our lives.

"Lots of things show our sex differences, but most of them become larger or more obvious with the onset of puberty," said Manning, a researcher at the University of Central Lancashire in England. "This is one thing that doesn't."

There is no way to know the exact percentage of men or women with equally sized ring and index fingers, Manning said.

But in a 1999 report on a survey of 102 men and women, he found men with longer ring fingers scored highest in tests used to detect symptoms of depression. There was no such pattern for women.

In another survey of male heart attack victims, he found those with longer ring fingers had their heart attacks later in life.

"There are pluses and minuses to these things," he said.

But among the most consistent results are studies that link finger length to athletic abilities, Manning said. In fact, a report last week by researchers at King's College in London, which linked running ability to longer ring finger ratios in women, was one of seven studies in recent years to make such a connection, he said.

In that study, researchers found that of 607 female twins ages 25 to 79, those with ring fingers longer than their index fingers were more likely to participate in sports and compete at higher levels - particularly in sports such as soccer that involve running. Previous studies have shown the same pattern in male athletes.

At Ohio State, researchers found a link between finger length and aggression by monitoring how hard 100 male and female college students slammed down the phone when they received rude comments during what they thought was a telephone charity solicitation.

The students were more likely to slam down the phone if they had either long ring fingers or some asymmetry in their finger lengths, palm sizes, wrist diameters, elbow widths, ankle circumferences, or ear and foot sizes, the researchers said.

"It's amazing how angry people got. In interviews it came out pretty clearly," said Nelson, a co-author of the 2004 study.

Researchers in San Francisco measured the fingers of more than 700 men and women, then asked them about their sexual preferences. They found that lesbians were more likely to have ring fingers that were longer than their index fingers. There was no similar pattern among gay men, said Marc Breedlove, the Michigan State University psychologist who conducted the survey.

"I have to say, I think it is strange," said Breedlove, who published the study in the journal Nature in 2000, while he was a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley.

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