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The Magic Spell of a Pretty Face

Physical attraction, pretty faces, and wandering eyes.

We love to look at good-looking people.

Hardly an earthshattering conclusion, I know. But it's a well-documented one: Attractive people grab our attention. Even babies spend more time gazing at attractive faces, suggesting to some that hardwiring in our brains automatically diverts attention to the good-looking others around us, much in the way moths are helplessly drawn to light. Or George Costanza to cleavage:

But interestingly, new research demonstrates that this gravitational pull to attractive others is controllable in certain circumstances. As I explore in my new book, Situations Matter, much of human nature is surprisingly context-dependent, and the allure of the attractive turns out to be little different.

In a paper to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology next month, researchers in Germany examined the attentional bias we usually pay toward attractive members of the opposite sex. They did so via a task in which adult respondents were shown a series of faces on a computer screen.

Earlier, half of the faces had been rated by other respondents as particularly attractive. The other half had been rated as average-looking. The computer program varied the precise location of each face on the screen, such that every photo popped up for the same half-second duration, but randomly appeared in one of the four corners of the computer monitor.

Immediately after each photo disappeared, a geometrical shape was presented, once again randomly in one of the four quadrants of the screen. Respondents' task was to identify as quickly as possible whether this shape was a circle or a square. When the shape showed up in the same location as the previous photo, the task was easy: participants were already looking in that vicinity and they quickly indicated what shape they saw.

When the shape appeared in a different quadrant of the screen, however, the task became harder. With their eyesight still fixated on the spot where the face had just appeared, participants now had to shift their visual attention to find the shape. This shift proved to be particularly challenging when the previous face was an attractive one–the tendency to linger and look longer at good-looking faces slowed down their shape identification.

But not all the respondents showed this bias to stare a bit longer at attractive faces. Who was more easily able to break the spell of the pretty face? Participants who had previously been asked to visualize that they had just learned that someone they had a crush on also had feelings for them.

Reciprocated romantic interest, as the researchers refer to it. It has a powerful influence on us, this finding out that someone out there has a thing for you. Many of you have had the experience: you find out that someone is interested in you, and it changes the way you think about him or her. Suddenly, that person seems just a bit more attractive. Becoming aware of someone else's feelings opens the door to new relationship possibilities, prompting you to see the admirer in a new light. I mean, at the very least, you've now discovered that this is a person of refined taste, right?

And it makes sense that this type of interest from someone else would disrupt our otherwise chronic focus on all the attractive alternatives out there. Think about it: if our attention were repeatedly interrupted and hijacked by every pretty face that passed by, then we'd never get the chance to turn initial interactions into more meaningful, sustained romantic relationships. We'd devolve into some sort of relationship version of ADD–you know, along the lines of this:

The results of the German research weren't limited to just imagining reciprocated romantic interest either. In a second study, the researchers created a heterosexual internet dating site. Each participant uploaded a photo, created a profile, and browsed through the profiles of other participants. They were asked to identify three opposite-sex students whom they'd be interested in dating.

One week later, participants were brought back to the lab. First, they completed the face/shape computer task described above; as expected, they were slower to identify shapes when those shapes were preceded by attractive faces. Next, each participant was given the name and photo of one opposite-sex participant who had reciprocated their dating interest. When they were then run through the exact same face/shape task a second time? Suddenly, there was no attentional bias. Basking in the glow of reciprocated interest from a fellow dating site member, participants' attention was no longer drawn to the faces of attractive others.

No doubt about it: we love to look at the good-looking. In fact, many a significant other has been chastised for being too easily distracted by the other pretty fish in the sea. But we aren't hopelessly and perpetually at the mercy of our wandering eye. In fact, in some situations we don't even notice that there are other fish swimming by.


Like this post? Interested in the book? Then check out the website for Situations Matter: Understanding How Context Transforms Your World (available now for pre-order). You can also follow Sam on Facebook here and on Twitter here. Book trailer video below: