Do less attractive people think the people they date (who also tend to be less attractive) delude themselves into thinking their dates are more physically attractive? According to new research, the answer is “no.”
You remember that website that used to be popular, HOTorNOT.com, which allows visitors to rate the attractiveness of random, anonymous photographs, right? Well, researchers are using the site to conduct research into people’s attractiveness and perceptions of attractiveness, because now it includes a dating component too. A team led by Leonard Lee (2008) from Columbia University recently looked into the question of whether our own attractiveness biases affect our perceptions of those we date using the site.
There is an existing body of research, as the investigators note, that show that physically attractive people tend to date other physically attractive people. For reasons not entirely clear, we all tend to gravitate to our own level of attractiveness (as well as socio-economic class, race, and social circles). That’s why the beautiful people in Us Weekly and People all inter-date and marry. That’s also why rich people tend to marry other rich people (sorry to dash your hopes there!). Naturally, since our society places a great deal on a certain idea of physical attractiveness, such people are also more popular dates. And since beauty seems to be a universal constant no matter what the culture (based upon factors such as facial features and waist to hip ratios), it’s hard to get away from the influence of attractiveness in dating and mating.
Some theories that have been put forward about why these biases exist include evolutionary (helps to maximize the attractive, more “fit” genes), market forces (attractive people want other attractive people, so they’re not left choosing from the less attractive), and parental influence (we look for mates who resemble our parents! Yikes.).
The current study touches upon a psychological mumbo-jumbo theory called “cognitive dissonance.” When a person chooses someone they believe to be less attractive than themselves, they must try and reduce the internal conflict regarding this choice. “Hey, I’m pretty good looking, why did I choose someone obviously less so than myself? Is there something wrong with me?” In order to reduce that internal and unconscious conflict and resolve the discrepancy, so goes the theory, they might persuade themselves that the person they chose is actually more physically appealing than initially thought. And others would agree.
So the researcher set out to test this hypothesis using the HOTorNOT.com website and its dating component. (The researchers also ran a separate experiment to ensure that “hot” people on the website really were rated as being attractive by folks in the real-world, which they were, confirming the validity of the HOTorNOT data.) They examined two different sets of data — 2,386,267 rating decisions by 16,550 members looking for meeting requests (dating) and 447,082 rating decisions made by 5,467 members just randomly rating the attractiveness of others on the site (not looking for a date). These data were taken from a 10-day period in the summer of 2005.
The two data sets allowed the researchers to first determine whether individuals perceived as less attractive by others are more willing to date others who are also perceived as less attractive, and second to see whether people’s own attractiveness affects their ratings of others’ attractiveness. Would the less attractive rate potential dates are being more attractive than they really were?
Their findings should surprise no one — more attractive people tended to prefer potential dates who were also rated as more attractive.
The researchers also found that a person’s own attractiveness didn’t influence how they rated others. People rated highly attractive by others were rated similarly by the participants in the study, regardless of how attractive (or unattractive) the participant was. People don’t delude themselves into thinking that when they date someone as unattractive as themselves, that the person they date is more attractive than they really are.
The researchers also confirmed the well-worn finding that people sought out dates of similar attractiveness levels (or people who slightly more attractive).
In a small add-on study of 24 speed dating participants, the researchers also found that less attractive people tended to place less weight on physical attractiveness (no surprise) and greater weight on characteristics that had nothing to do with attractiveness, such as one’s sense of humor.
The upshot? People find others similarly attractive ala universal characteristics of beauty no matter their own physical attractiveness levels. And we tend to date people who are similar in attractiveness to ourselves.
Lee, L., Loewenstein, G., Ariely, D., Hong, J. & Young, J. (2008). If I’m not hot, are you hot or not? Physical-attractiveness evaluations and dating preferences as a function of one’s own attractiveness. Psychological Science, 19(7), 669-677.