If you have a few minutes and three buckets try this experiment. Fill one bucket with ice-cold water, another bucket with room temperature water and the third bucket with hot water. Then, place one hand in the cold bucket and your other hand in the hot bucket. Give it a few minutes and then put both hands in the room temperature bucket. This is a harmless and fun way to confuse your brain. On one hand (pun intended) you’ll perceive the water as being cold and on the other hand (again, pun intended) you’ll perceive the water as being warm. The reason is obvious – we perceive the room temperature water relatively.
Turns out that the same is true when it comes to how we assess physical attractiveness. And that’s what I want to talk about here.
In a series of studies done back in the 1980s, Douglas Kenrick and Sara Gutierres asked participants to judge average-looking women after being exposed to pictures of other women. Here was the catch: for half of the participants the other women were unusually beautiful and for the other half the other women were average looking. They found that the participants who were exposed to unusually beautiful women judged the average-looking women “significantly uglier.” In other words, the knock-out stole the show.
They followed-up this experiment by testing the same principle for people we know or love. To do this, they created two groups: one that judged the artistic merit of abstract paintings and one that was exposed to Playboy and Penthouse centerfolds. Then, they asked the participants to rate their feelings about their current relationship partners. (There was a cover story. As Kenrick explains in his latest book, he and his colleagues told participants that they were running the experiment because, “psychologists were divided on whether being in a relationship opened people up to new aesthetic experiences or made them less open to novelty.”) After the participants viewed either the paintings or centerfolds, they were asked to report the extent to which they were in committed relationships. They found that, “their reported level of commitment depended on whether they had seen centerfolds…. men who had viewed the centerfolds rated themselves as less in love with their partners; women’s judgments of their partners were not so easily swayed.”
The moral of the story? Like the water bucket example, we (especially men) are easily influenced by the extremes and judge things relatively. These studies illustrate that highly attractive people make average looking people look just a bit below average.
Here’s another study that demonstrates this point from a different angle. Conducted in 2003, Arizona State University social psychologists Jon Maner, Vaughn Becker and Doug Kenrick showed crowds of either men or women – some of good-looking people and others of average looking people – to their subjects, who were separated into two groups: one that only saw the crowd for four seconds and the other that saw the crowd for a longer period, or one face at a time. They found that the crowd being strained out had a notable effect on how men and women perceived the good-looking people. In Kenrick’s words:
Men overestimated the number of beautiful women. Female subjects also overestimated the frequency of gorgeous women in the rapidly presented crowds, but they did not overestimate the frequency of handsome men. The whole body of findings points to a simple conclusion about beautiful women: They capture everyone’s attention and monopolize downstream cognitive processes. The conclusion about handsome men is different: They grab women’s eyes but do not hold their minds; good looking guys quickly get washed out of the stream of mental processing. This discrepancy is consistent with men’s and women’s different mating strategies; women are more selective and less interested in casual affairs with strangers.
This makes sense, and supports the “centerfold” studies. What do they teach us? Simple: if you are a guy, don’t expose yourself to too much beauty (aka don’t watch too much porn), it may undermine the feelings you have towards your partner (likewise if you are single, it may cause you to be especially picky, which has its obvious consequences). If you are a girl, don’t expose yourself to too many of the entrepreneur types, they may likewise harm your relationship.
What interests me most, though, is Kenrick’s last point – that men and women have different mating strategies. What is the evolutionary explanation behind this?
The short answer is that when we are looking to spread our genes we want to ensure that they make it to the next generation. The best way to do this is to give your genes (to put it bluntly) to someone who is attractive and powerful. But what’s interesting is that this evolutionary drive was created for our ancestors who lived in the hunter-gatherer society where there was no Hollywood, porn, or TV. In other words, there wasn’t an abundance of beautiful people who were being constantly displayed. Now there are, and our sexual drives are overwhelmed (and some of us are having an especially difficult time). I made this same point a few posts ago regarding food when I said that, “in the hunter-gatherer society where food was scarce, it would have been smart to load up on as many fatty and salty foods as possible. Now, it would be stupid, or at least bad for your health, to visit your local McDonalds every day, which relentlessly takes advantage of our primitive appetites.”
I hope you see the connection. It is the classic paradox of choice point. Consuming too much fatty food is similar to being exposed to too many beautiful and powerful people. Each case can be very detrimental to your dietary and romantic health. What should we do? I like Kenrick’s conclusion:
People who understand the dangers of overabundant fats and sugars can control their diets. People who understand the dangers of an overabundant diet of mass-media images can stop gorging on Playboy, People, Sex and the City, or Dancing with the Stars.
Perhaps easier said than done for some…