Hot or not?
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the saying goes. Recent research reveals a surprising reason we often don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to physical attractiveness.
You and your best friend are checking out a guy in class. It’s silly, but it’s more fun than paying attention to your prof, so you decide to rank him on a scale of one to 10. He’s clearly a nine for you, while your best friend gives him a six. You chalk it up to the fact that you have different tastes in men.
But there’s another crucial difference between you – your best friend has a boyfriend and you’re single. And it turns out that whether you’re in a relationship or not can actually change the way you perceive a person’s looks.
Rating sexy strangers
People in committed relationships see strangers as less attractive than singles do, research has shown. But is that because people with partners downplay the looks of others to help protect their relationship? Or is that singles see guys and girls they meet as more attractive to increase their appeal as potential partners?
Researcher Jennifer Shukusky wanted to find out. So she rounded up about 100 participants, some single, others in relationships.
First, she asked them to note down five members of the opposite sex they crossed paths with – this could be anyone from the person they sat next to in class to someone they chatted with at a bar. The participants rated how attractive and sexy each person was, and sent Shukusky links to the person’s Facebook profile picture.
Shukusky then asked a neutral group of over 500 people to rate how attractive the people in the pics were. That way she could compare the participants’ rankings to general opinion.
The result? The single guys and girls rated the strangers they met as hotter than the people with partners did. But who was ‘right’? Or at least… who came closer to the view of the 500 people in the neutral test group? It turns out it’s people in relationships who have the more realistic view of others’ looks, the results showed. The single participants tended to rate strangers as hotter. They felt the five guys or girls they crossed paths with were sexier and better looking than most people did. It’s like singles are wearing permanent ‘beer goggles’.
There’s a good reason this might be happening, Shukusky told Love Matters. ‘Single people have something at stake,’ she says. ‘They can get a relationship out of this; they can get a long-term partner out of this; they can even get a short-term partner out of this. So because they have something at stake, they’re the ones who are changing their ratings.’
Get into a relationship and you put your blinders on
Though Shukusky didn’t find evidence for people in relationships downplaying the looks of strangers in her research, she does believe it happens. She points out that the group of 500 neutral people in her study only saw small pics of the guys and girls they were rating. ‘A 2-D photo is very limited,’ she says. ‘It might be that a person is physically attractive because they have this deep voice or they’re really tall or they have some other element that just doesn’t get captured in a photo of their face.’
As for why happily partnered people see others as less attractive, it’s all about keeping their relationship going strong, Shukusky explains. ‘Get into a relationship and you put your blinders on – you only have eyes for your partner.’
- Shukusky, J. A., & Eastwick, P. (Under review.) Derogation or enhancement? Attractiveness evaluations of potential partners by single and coupled people.
- Interview with Jennifer Shukusky