By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Research in psychology, starting in the 1970s, showed that we regard attractive people as not just attractive, but as having all sorts of other positive characteristics as being kind, smart, likeable, funny, successful, and so on. This set of findings is commonly referred to as the ‘What is beautiful is also good’ principle. Why do physically attractive people receive all of these benefits?
Benefits Attractive People Receive
One possible explanation for all the benefits attractive people receive is that people who are more attractive actually have better social skills. Why? Well, it’s pretty clear. People like attractive people, and so naturally gravitate towards them. They also tend to elicit more positive responses from other people. This means attractive people get more practice developing social skills because they have more interactions and with people who are likely treating them well.
One study used a round-robin or speed-dating type of format. In the study, people filled out profiles about themselves, interacted for three-minutes, each, with a series of potential dating partners, and then described each of their interactions with those partners.
The study found that people who were more attractive were not only rated more positively; they were also viewed more accurately. It meant that other people’s descriptions were closer to the attractive person’s actual self-profile. What does this tell us? It indicates not just that people are judging a book by its cover; they are actually motivated to open and read an attractive book more closely.
Although a general preference for facial symmetry is universal, other preferences vary. Within Western cultures, for example, there is generally a view that thinness in women is seen as more attractive, whereas in other cultures, women with a somewhat heavier weight are deemed more attractive.
And yet, even within Western culture, these preferences have changed over time. Marilyn Monroe was once seen as the epitome of attractiveness, especially in the 1950s, although she was clearly substantially heavier than the female body type that later decades typically saw as most attractive.
Even if attractiveness, no matter how it’s defined, is generally valued in a dating partner, physical appearance tends to be more valued by men than by women. Curiously, this gender difference has been found across cultures.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
One remarkable study published in 1989 by David Buss, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Texas, examined what men and women prioritized in a mating partner. He studied 37 different cultures and observed a pretty substantial gender differences. This study found that in virtually all cultures, men placed a higher priority on physical features of a partner—younger age, good looks—than did women. Women, on the other hand, tended to place a higher priority on men’s wealth or the ability to acquire wealth—education, ambition, earning potential.
More controversially, the authors of this paper attributed such differences to basic biological differences in optimal reproductive strategies for passing on one’s genes.
Men were described as preferring women who are young as a proxy for finding women who are more likely to be fertile. Furthermore, they preferred women with attractive facial features because that is an indicator of youth and good health. Women, on the other hand, were described as more dependent on others for survival, especially during times in which they are pregnant and nursing. Thus, they were predictably seen as preferring to find men who can provide economic resources.
Influenced by Societal Norms, Not Just Biology
Needless to say, this 1989 paper generated considerable controversy. A lot of us are always offended at this talk about women’s preference for ‘men who can provide economic resources’, since gender differences might well be influenced by societal norms, not just the evolution of our biology.
Yet, it is worth remembering that evolution is really slow. Hence, according to this perspective, the very recent phenomena of women being able to provide their own resources has not had time to affect our biologically based preferences.
Other researchers have pointed out that there are also many similarities, which tend to get overlooked, in what men and women are looking for in a romantic partner. Even in the 1989 study that provoked controversy, both men and women across the 37 different cultures agreed on the single most desirable quality in a mate—someone who was nice.
Creating Physiological Arousal
There’s also pretty strong evidence that sometimes the environment can be more important than our preferences or even the characteristics of a person. One of the most consistent findings is that physiological arousal leads us to feel more attracted to people around us. Often when we are in a situation that creates arousal—heart beating fast, rapid breathing, and so on—we often ignore the environmental factors that cause that arousal and assume that our reaction is due to the person we are with, leading us to feel more attraction. So, theoretically, even drinking coffee together should create arousal that can lead to feelings of attraction.
Pursuing this line of thinking, producers of reality television dating shows, like The Bachelor and The Bachelorette, deliberately create physiological arousal by sending the contestants on exotic dates—bungee jumping, hot air balloon rides, scuba diving. These extreme dates serve very effectively to create physiological arousal, which the contestants interpret as intense attraction. This helps the producers create precisely what they are after—a strong appearance of people falling in love, which keeps the audience tuning in to watch the journey.
Common Questions about the Most Desirable Quality in a Mate
Physical appearance tends to be more valued by men than by women. Curiously, this gender difference has been found across cultures.
David Buss‘s study described men as preferring women who are young as a proxy for finding women who are more likely to be fertile. Furthermore, they preferred women with attractive facial features because that is an indicator of youth and good health.
Often when we are in a situation that creates arousal—heart beating fast, rapid breathing, and so on—we often ignore the environmental factors that cause that arousal and assume that our reaction is due to the person we are with, leading us to feel more attraction.