There is more to being physically attractive than just good looks. Many believe that people are born beautiful or handsome—that static qualities, such as a pretty face, nice hair, or a shapely body are inherited. You either have it or you don't. Our research, however, suggests there is another type of attractiveness: what we call dynamic physical attractiveness.
What is dynamic attractiveness? Perhaps the Beatles song says it best... "Something in the way she [or he] moves attracts me like no other lover..." In this research we focused on how the expression of a person's personality, physical grace, and body language impacted perceptions of who was attractive and who was not.
The idea that people have an expressive style goes back to the 1930s when early social/personality psychologist, Gordon Allport, claimed that people have a consistency in how they express elements of themselves in how they walk, talk, and even in their handwriting. We also knew from our research, that people who were emotionally expressive—people who spontaneously express emotions (particularly positive emotions) were more attractive to others. So, we set out to examine how expressive style contributed to impressions that someone is physically attractive.
In order to look at different types of attractiveness we brought college students into a lab where they were photographed and videotaped while meeting people or while giving a short speech. We then took the photos and videos, and by masking them, we showed only the faces, or only the bodies, and had different groups of judges rate attractiveness from only still photos of faces, bodies, and another group focused only on the attractiveness of how they were dressed. Other groups of judges rated different degrees of attractiveness, including how much they liked each individual, would want to be friends with them, and how attractive they were as a dating partner.
We were then able to statistically control for the different types of attractiveness. What we found was that in the videotaped interactions, dynamic expressive style (measured by the person's emotional expressiveness and social skills) predicted who was rated as physically attractive over and beyond the effects of static qualities of beauty (face, body, and dress attractiveness). We have found that dynamic expressive style is a major component of what makes a person charismatic.
So, what are the implications of this research?
First, personality, and the expression of personality, matters. As we all know, a person can be beautiful on the outside, but not so nice on the inside, and vice versa. Moreover, our research suggests that dynamic expressive style might compensate for lack of static physical attractiveness. In other words, there are plenty of people who are not classically beautiful or handsome, but are still very attractive to others.
Second, attractiveness can be "manipulated" to some extent. Dress, use of makeup, and keeping physically fit can affect perceptions of attractiveness. In one of our "charisma training" studies, we found that women who were trained to be better at expressing emotions and positive affect started to give greater concern to how they dressed and when they wore makeup, even though our training had not focused on that.
As they say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but attractiveness is complex, made up of both static and dynamic qualities, and both affect perceptions of attractiveness.
Allport, G.W. & Vernon, P.E. (1933). Studies in expressive movement. New York: Macmillan.
Riggio, R.E., Widaman, K.F., Tucker, J.S., & Salinas, C. (1991). Beauty is more than skin deep: Components of attractiveness. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 12(4), 423-439.
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