Do fetching models stave off shallowness?

Many complain that prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as inhumanly attractive causes people to think attractiveness is more important than it should be. This is unlikely.

Prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as too attractive is blamed for misinforming people on the value of attractiveness.

Unattractive females, both self rated and judged externally, find features of male physical attractiveness, such as facial masculinity and voice, less appealing than attractive females do.

This study suggests such behavior is to avoid wasting effort on guys who won’t be interested. That hypothesis beats the others because women’s preferences adapt fast to circumstances. In the study women saw pictures of other women who were more or less attractive. As their own perceived attractiveness went down or up accordingly, their preferences for male facial masculinity did too.

Do physically unattractive people actually believe one another to be hot? This study suggests not:

When less attractive people accept less attractive
dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they
choose to date are more physically attractive than others
perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular
Web site suggests that this is not the
case: Less attractive people do not delude themselves into
thinking that their dates are more physically attractive
than others perceive them to be.

When less attractive people accept less attractive dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they choose to date are more physically attractive than others perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular Web site suggests that this is not the case…

Instead, same study suggests that less attractive people claim to put greater weight on other characteristics than attractiveness in mate choice:

..participants’ own attractiveness was significantly correlated with their standardized weights for physical attractiveness (r 5 .60, prep 5 .98), but negatively correlated with their standardized weights for sense of humor (r 5 .44, prep 5 .91). Overall, these results suggest that more attractive people and less attractive people consider different criteria in date selection: Less attractive people tend to place less weight on physical attractiveness and greater weight on non-attractiveness-related attributes such as sense of humor.

Together these pieces of research suggests that encouraging everyone to feel less attractive should decrease the adoration people (at least claim to) direct at the best looking of us and bring about more appreciation of traits which we consider more virtuous to care about. One method for achieving this, similar to the one shown effective in an above study, would be to surround everyone with pictures of super-attractive models. The advertising industry is making steady progress on this front, yet is blamed for encouraging society to care about looks. Would we be even more shallow without this stream of superior gorgeousness?

16 responses to “Do fetching models stave off shallowness?

  1. Could this also explain why men are generally perceived to be shallower than women? There is a huge disparity in the number of attractive female models on display compared to male models. Consequently women tend to be more insecure about their looks – and potentially less shallow. Or maybe that is to confuse the causation.

  2. Good point in defense of ads today.

  3. Any data on whether this advertising actually changes people’s perception of their relative attractiveness?

    Seems doubtful given their ability to act as though they accurately know their attractiveness in groups.

    • I don’t have any about advertising in particular, one of the studies above did change people’s perception of their own attractiveness by showing them pictures. Wouldn’t one just think one’s whole group is further down the attractiveness scale?

      • I guess it depends on whether one takes on these advertisements as people you are competing against or not. I don’t think I do, but I guess it’s hard to tell and I’ve flushed most advertising from my life.

        I don’t know whether being in a low group overall would make one so unhappy – evolution has not much point making people unhappy about broad characteristics that they can’t change. Evolution thinks on the margin! :)

        • I might have to revise that remembering Hanson’s stuff on healthcare and status. I wonder if it’s possible to concoct a situation in which everyone (physiologically) acts as if they are low status? How rapidly do we revise our competition groups and our relative statuses?

  4. Although being exposed to gorgeousness day-in-day-out might make people put less weight on physical attractiveness, the research you cite suggests that it also causes us not just to see others but even ourselves as less attractive. Overall, it seems unclear whether seeing pictures of attractive people increases utility.

    • I agree. My suggestion relies upon that – seeing attractive others doesn’t directly reduce our valuing of attractiveness as far as I know, but it reduces our own perceived attractiveness, which in turn makes us value attractiveness less (in the same way that being bad at football makes you value football less I guess).

      Yes, it’s not clear whether it increases utility. But anti advertising proponents can’t complain that it both makes people feel bad about themselves and makes people care more about looks. To the extent that it does the former it probably undoes the latter.

      • “anti advertising proponents can’t complain that it both makes people feel bad about themselves and makes people care more about looks.”

        Yes they can. Laboratory experiments are artificial situations which are fundamentally unlike life in the wild. For example, the experiment always ends, but advertising never goes away. The psychology of the latter situation may be quite different.

        I say this not to advocate that particular argument, but to do the annoying skeptical thing and point out the huge gaping abyss of ignorance actually at work here. How do people actually respond to the media situation? Why do they respond in that way? Are they aware of how they respond, or why? How would things be if conditions were different? These studies represent only the barest beginning of an answer to those questions. There’s nothing about different types of people responding in fundamentally different ways, no data about what happens at street level, not much is said about cause and effect. It provides only a very weak basis for challenging the attitude you describe.

        One more annoying observation – annoying because it is generically applicable to discussions like this. Everyone who has commented here so far would probably learn something by seriously asking themselves why they posted what they did, what basis they had for any factual or interpretive claims they advanced, and why they thought it was important to voice those particular ideas. Our little subculture here of cognitive-bias-detectors loves to learn about psychology indirectly, through scientific studies of other people; but we do all also have the old-fashioned faculty of introspection, memory, and thought about our own actions. Experimental psychology may only be giving you new myths to believe; but if you proceed cautiously, introspection will reveal to you things that are far more certain. It’s just that they won’t have the same sweeping character, because they’ll mostly be about yourself.

  5. I doubt that the “super-attractive model” idea would work – what I’d imagine is more important is how attractive you feel relative to your immediate peer group, not some global maximum of attractiveness.

    Plus, I’m concerned that there’s a loaded definition of “shallowness” being brought in if it’s being implied that being attracted to “sense of humor” is better than being attracted to physical traits.

  6. The hypothesis you make, Katja, predicts that heterosexual men in Saudia Arabia and other countries where it is prohibited for advertisers to depict signs of female attractiveness would care more for female attractiveness and less for other human qualities like humor than men in the West.

    Parenthetically, women’s flaunting their physical attractiveness through their choice of clothes, etc, is almost certainly a more important influence on the male psyche than advertisers, movies, etc, IMHO, but even when it is modified to incorporate that fact, your hypothesis continues to predict that Saudi men will have the preferences I indicated.

    • I think this more directly predicts that women should feel more attractive in Saudi Arabia, and thus value attractive men there.

  7. I stand corrected by Katja.

    I’ve been making a lot of mistakes lately. It is sad. Not long for the glue factory, I am, at this rate.)

  8. Hello Katja, and thank you for this interesting piece. While I can follow your train of thought, and I enjoyed your conclusion, I think there is an extra dimension to this question that we are not addressing yet. That is, I think that attractiveness is a fundamentally dynamic (so un-static) characteristic – a person can gradually become more or less attractive over time. This can happen in at three levels, objective, individual-subjective and cultural-subjective. (1) Objective attractiveness can increase substantially – have you witnessed how plain-looking great performers in American Idol or similar programs become really quite attractive as their career advances? (2) With individual-subjective I mean that a person may find some other person attractive not only because of photo-looks because that person acts in a friendly and self-confident manner, making natural and engaging eye-contact, smiling, and attuning to the right physical proximity. (3) with cultural-subjective I mean that a culture way value positively or negatively racial or lifestyle-indicating traits in someone’s looks: tanned skin, quality of hair, weight/height ratio, structure of facial bones etc.

  9. What about the magnitude of attractiveness. Are women who are more exposed to pictures of more attractive women less intersted in men all together. I wonder if you could tie divorce rates and levels of monogomy into this study.


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