Why Physical Attraction Matters, and When It Might Not
Research into why our actions don't match our words when it's time to pair up.
Posted Jan 05, 2017
Consider the characteristics that are often considered desirable in a mate—a sense of humor, intelligence, kindness, understanding, a family orientation, good looks. Which would you rank as most important in a romantic partner? Which is least important to you? Research consistently shows that we rank most or all of these traits as more important than good looks (Apostolou, 2011; Apostolou, 2015; Buss et al., 2001; Perilloux et al., 2011). However, consciously ranking traits as more or less important may not reflect the way we make our real-life dating and mating decisions.
A few months ago I sat down with my friend Louise* while she scanned online dating profiles. Louise told me that looks were not that important to her, but that a good sense of humor was a must. While Louise certainly values all of the characteristics I listed above, not once did we say, “This guy seems like he has a great sense of humor,” or, “This man has very kind features.” We only stopped to further investigate the profiles of men who seemed physically attractive.
Physical Attractiveness Is More Important Than We Think
Physical attractiveness may serve as a gatekeeper directing us toward partners who are healthy, age appropriate, and able to reproduce (Weeden and Sabini, 2005). And when we make real-life dating and mating decisions, research indicates, physical appearance dominates: We choose to pursue relationships with those who are attractive to us (see Luo and Zhang, 2009; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Thao et al., 2010).
Men (both gay and straight) seem to consciously recognize the importance of physical attractiveness more than women (both straight and lesbian; see Lippa, 2007). However, experimental research, as well as evidence from online dating and speed dating, shows that physical attractiveness is equally important to men and women. Further, attractiveness tends to be a more important factor in our dating decisions than traits like personality, education, and intelligence (Eastwick et al., 2011; Eastwick and Finkel, 2008; Luo and Zhang, 2009; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Sprecher, 1989; Thao et al., 2010). Physical attractiveness may be so important to us because we associate other positive qualities with a pleasing appearance. For example, attractive individuals are expected to be happier and to have more rewarding life experiences than unattractive individuals (Dion et al., 1972; Griffin and Langlois, 2006). This tendency to associate attractiveness with positive qualities occurs crossculturally (Shaffer et al., 2000; Zebrowitz et al., 2012).
Physical Attractiveness Is Less Important Than We Think
One reason we may not consciously realize the importance of physical attractiveness is that we don’t necessarily want partners who are extremely attractive—we just want partners who are attractive enough. In Dion et al.’s (1972) research, both attractive and moderately attractive individuals were viewed more positively than less attractive counterparts. Similarly, in Griffin and Langlois’ (2006) research, a lack of attractiveness was associated with negative qualities, but only a moderate level of attractiveness was necessary to make one's associations positive. To interest us, then, potential mates do not need to be exceptionally attractive, only moderately so.
The distinction between necessities and luxuries (Li et al., 2011) can help us understand the importance of a moderate level of physical attractiveness. According to Li et al., “a necessity is something that is initially extremely desirable…but as more of it is acquired, it diminishes in value. A luxury, in contrast, is not important when necessities are lacking, but becomes more desirable once basic needs have been met” (p. 292).
The research reviewed above suggests that most of us, consciously or not, view a moderate level of physical attractiveness as a “necessity,” while a higher level of may be a “luxury.” When we say that physical attractiveness is not important to us, we are likely referring to the luxury of exceptional attractiveness and not the necessity of a minimum level of attractiveness.
But how attractive is "moderately" attractive? We don’t need to be supermodels to find a mate, but whom we consider to be “moderately attractive” varies from person to person. More attractive people tend to perceive fewer others as physically attractive while less attractive individuals may consider a broader range of others appealing (Montoya, 2008). And looking for someone who shares a similar level of physical attractiveness to your own can enhance your long-term relationship success (Feingold, 1998; Fugère et al., 2015; more on matching in physical attractiveness in this post).
But no matter our personal level of attractiveness, or our partner's, as we get to know, like, and respect each other more, our attraction naturally grows and deepens (Kniffin and Wilson, 2004). The longer we know each other, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship (Hunt et al., 2015).
*All names have been changed.
Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère.
Apostolou, M. (2015). Parent–offspring conflict over mating: Domains of agreement and disagreement. Evolutionary Psychology, 13(3), 1-12. doi:10.1177/1474704915604561 Apostolou, M. (2011). Parent-offspring conflict over mating: Testing the tradeoffs hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology, 9,470–495. Buss, D., Shackelford, T., Kirkpatrick, L., & Larsen, R. (2001). A half century of mate preferences: The cultural evolution of values. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(2), 491–503. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00491.x
Dion, K., Berscheid, E., & Walster, E. (1972). What is beautiful is good. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24(3), 285–290. doi:10.1037/h0033731
Eastwick, P. W., Eagly, A. H., Finkel, E. J., & Johnson, S. E. (2011). Implicit and explicit preferences for physical attractiveness in a romantic partner: A double dissociation in predictive validity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(5), 993–1011. doi:10.1037/a0024061
Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2008). Sex differences in mate preferences revisited: Do people know what they initially desire in a romantic partner? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 94(2), 245–264. doi:10.1037/0022-3522.214.171.124 Feingold, A. (1988). Matching for attractiveness in romantic partners and same-sex friends: A meta-analysis and theoretical critique. Psychological Bulletin, 104(2), 226–235. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.104.2.226. Fugère, M. A., Cousins, A. J., & MacLaren, S. (2015). (Mis)matching in physical attractiveness and women's resistance to mate guarding. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 190-195.
Griffin, A. M., & Langlois, J. H. (2006). Stereotype directionality and attractiveness stereotyping: Is beauty good or is ugly bad? Social Cognition, 24(2), 187–206. doi:10.1521/soco.2006.24.2.187
Kurzban, R., & Weeden, J. (2005). HurryDate: Mate preferences in action. Evolution and Human Behavior, 26(3), 227–244. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2004.08.012
Li, N. P., Valentine, K. A., & Patel, L. (2011). Mate preferences in the US and Singapore: A cross-cultural test of the mate preference priority model. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 291-294. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.10.005
Lippa, R. A. (2007). The preferred traits of mates in a cross-national study of heterosexual and homosexual men and women: An examination of biological and cultural influences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36(2), 193–208. doi:10.1007/s10508-006-9151-2
Luo, S., & Zhang, G. (2009). What leads to romantic attraction: Similarity, reciprocity, security, or beauty? Evidence from a speed-dating study. Journal of Personality, 77(4), 933–964. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.2009.00570.x
Montoya, R. (2008). I’m hot, so I’d say you’re not: The influence of objective physical attractiveness on mate selection. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34(10), 1315–1331. doi:10.1177/0146167208320387
Perilloux, C., Fleischman, D. S., & Buss, D. M. (2011). Meet the parents: Parent-offspring convergence and divergence in mate preferences. Personality and Individual Differences, 50(2), 253-258. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2010.09.039
Shaffer, D. R., Crepaz, N., & Sun, C. (2000). Physical attractiveness stereotyping in cross-cultural perspective: Similarities and differences between Americans and Taiwanese. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 31(5), 557–582. doi:10.1177/0022022100031005002
Sprecher, S. (1989). The importance to males and females of physical attractiveness, earning potential, and expressiveness in initial attraction. Sex Roles, 21(9–10), 591–607. doi:10.1007/BF00289173
Thao, H., Overbeek, G., & Engels, R. E. (2010). Effects of attractiveness and social status on dating desire in heterosexual adolescents: An experimental study. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 39(5), 1063–1071. doi:10.1007/s10508-009-9561-z
Weeden, J., & Sabini, J. (2005). Physical attractiveness and health in Western societies: A review. Psychological Bulletin, 131(5), 635–653. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.131.5.635
Zebrowitz, L. A., Wang, R., Bronstad, P., Eisenberg, D., Undurraga, E., Reyes-García, V., & Godoy, R. (2012). First impressions from faces among U.S. and culturally isolated Tsimane’ people in the Bolivian rainforest. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43(1), 119–134. doi:10.1177/0022022111411386