Sex, Murder, and the Meaning of Life

Exploring the simple selfish biases that make us caring, creative, and complex

Mental Disjunctions: Why Do Women Find Handsome Men So Forgettable?

Here’s looking at you, kid (but not remembering you).

Imagine you’re in an experiment, and staring at an array of women’s faces—half are beautiful models, half are average looking women. You are wearing a magnetic headband that allows the researchers to carefully track the position of your head. There is a tiny robotic device under the screen that bounces a minute laser beam off your pupil, enabling the computer to carefully track every one of your eye movements. 

A little while later, you are shown the same photographs, and asked a very simple question: Did you see this person before? Some of the findings are unsurprising—men spend more time staring at the beauties than at the average-looking women, and men better remember those beauties later. Women are also inclined to stare at beautiful women, and consequently to remember those beautiful women later. In fact, even if the researchers correct for the amount of time spent looking at beautiful women, they are still remembered better than you’d otherwise expect. In other words, there is an extra “memory bang for the attentional buck” for beautiful women—more memory per second of glancing.

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Something strange happens with handsome men, though. Women are more likely to stare at guys who look like George Clooney or Robert Pattison, whilst visually ignoring those everyday Joe Schmoes like most of the rest of us (well, maybe not you or your husband, but I’ll speak for myself—when I walk through a shopping mall with my much handsomer son, women peer right past me to look at him [he also does a blog for Psych Today, you can click here to compare our photos and verify that I’m not demonstrating either parental bias or unjustified humility]). Again, no particular surprise there—women are like men in spending more time looking at attractive members of the opposite sex. We didn’t need a government grant and an expensive eye-tracker to “discover” that. The surprise comes a few minutes later, when my colleagues and I try to assess memory for the handsome men. Despite the substantial amount of visual attention that women bestow on handsome men, the women are now unable to distinguish the handsome guys they saw from those they’d never seen (for more detailed information on this research, see Maner et al., 2003, and Kenrick, et al., 2007, below).

Approaching the problem from another direction, my colleague Vaughn Becker and his colleagues ask people to play a version of the old Concentration Game (sometimes called the Memory Game). Becker had students play the game with arrays of facial photographs. In one version of the game, people see an array of faces for 4 seconds. Then the photos are all turned over, and the students’ task is to match those that contained the same face. On the very first trial, women do well at matching handsome men—suggesting that those men were noticed in the crowd. Over trials, though, any advantage for handsome men completely disappears, suggesting that those men did not make it into long-term memory. It is as if women process handsome men very briefly, and then promptly erase those handsome faces from downstream processing. 

In other words, handsome men get a negative memory bang for the attentional buck. When men look at arrays of men, incidentally, they do not look at handsome men any more than average looking men (nor do they remember them especially well).

What do handsome faces and disfigured faces have in common?

There’s another case of a negative memory bang for the attentional buck, recently reported in a series of studies by MIT’s Josh Ackerman (along with ASU’s Chad Mortensen, Taka Sasaki, Vaughn Becker, Steve Neuberg and I). We found the same disjunction for another category of people—those with facial disfigurements. When people are concerned about disease, they stare at disfigured faces, but do not remember them later.

Why are handsome men and people with disfigured facial markings looked at, but not remembered?  This is still something of a mystery. We suspect that the motivations are somewhat different.  Justin Park (now at the University of Bristol) and UBC’s Jason Faulkner and Mark Schaller have demonstrated that facial disfigurements are heuristically associated with disease, so when people concerned about disease stare at disfigured faces it probably reflects an avoidance motive.  As I’ve discussed in an earlier posting, disease-concerned people are not motivated to approach others (especially others who might carry diseases). Since the facial disfigurements will still be there later, there is no need to devote cognitive resources to remembering the disfigured individual.

It’s probably a different story for handsome men. Given that handsome men are preferred as mates, particularly for short-term relationships, women staring at handsome men might simply be sending a flirtation message. If the man doesn’t follow up by introducing himself, though, no further mental resources need be wasted. Stay tuned and I’ll tell you about a more recent study that examines what happens to women’s attention and memory for handsome men when they are ovulating (the women, not the men—the latter group may be, from a functional perspective, always ovulating).

Are there times when we look away from certain people and later remember them better?  Yes, and maybe you can guess when and for whom there is a positive memory bang for the attentional buck.  Again, stay tuned for more findings on these curious mental disjunctions.

References and earlier post:

Ackerman, J. M., Becker, D.V., Mortensen, C.R., Sasaki, T., Neuberg, S.L., & Kenrick, D.T. (2009). A pox on the mind: Disjunction of attention and memory in the processing of physical disfigurement. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 478-485.

Becker, D.V., Kenrick, D.T., Guerin, S., & Maner, J.K. (2005). Concentrating on beauty: Sexual selection and sociospatial memory. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 1643-1652.

Kenrick, D.T., Delton, A.W., Robertson, T., Becker, D.V. & Neuberg, S.L. (2007). How the mind warps: A social evolutionary perspective on cognitive processing disjunctions. Pp. 49-68 in J. P. Forgas, M. G. Haselton & W. Von Hippel (Eds.). Evolution and the Social Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and Social Cognition. New York: Psychology Press.

Kenrick, D.T. The psychological immune system: When it’s healthy to be antisocialPsychology Today Blog, April 7, 2010.

Maner, J. K., Kenrick, D. T., & Becker, D. V., Delton, A. W., Hofer, B., Wilbur, C. J., & Neuberg, S. L. (2003). Sexually selective cognition: Beauty captures the mind of the beholder. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 6, 1107-1120.

Park, J. H., Faulkner, J., & Schaller, M. (2003). Evolved disease-avoidance processes and contemporary anti-social behavior: Prejudicial attitudes and avoidance of people with physical disabilities. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 27, 65–87.

Douglas T. Kenrick, Ph.D., is professor of social psychology at Arizona State University.

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