A while back I was asked to write a chapter on how nonverbal cues make people appear more (or less) attractive. Static cues, such as the shape of the face, or the shape of the body, make a person appear more or less sexually attractive. (See the links for summaries of these lines of research). It is also clear that attractiveness goes beyond static, physical qualities. Beauty is indeed more than skin deep, and dynamic nonverbal cues — body language — also contribute to sexual attractiveness (as Beatle George Harrison noted, “something in the way she moves attracts me like no other lover…”) But here is another factor: A man’s nonverbal behavior toward a woman might actually trigger her to behave in a more sexually attractive manner!
In a clever study by social psychologists Mark Snyder, Beth Tanke, and Ellen Berscheid men were led to believe that they were talking on the telephone with either an attractive or an unattractive woman (they were shown photographs). The nonverbal behavior of the women was measured during the phone conversation. If the men believed they were talking to an attractive woman, their belief was conveyed through tone of voice to the woman, who then began behaving in a more sexually attractive manner.
Women in the physically attractive condition were rated by others as more sociable, sexually warm, and poised than were women whose callers thought they were unattractive. Essentially, the men were able to convey to the women their beliefs about the women’s attractiveness entirely through nonverbal vocal cues. The women then responded accordingly with their own nonverbal behavior.
This research is consistent with the well-known Pygmalion Effect, which states that our expectations about others can be subtly conveyed through nonverbal cues. In the classic Pygmalion study, school children whose teachers thought they were smarter than the others (they were actually randomly assigned) actually performed better academically due to the teacher’s expectations. In the same way, the male callers’ impressions were subtly conveyed to the women via nonverbal cues.
What are the implications? If a person is treated as if they are sexually attractive (or smart, or funny, or whatever) they will behave in a manner consistent with how they are treated. Beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder — and that beholder’s eye can affect our sexual attractiveness.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. New York: Crown.
Snyder, M., Tanke, E.D., & Berscheid, E. (1977). Social perception and interpersonal behavior: On the self-fulfilling nature of social stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 656-666.
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