How did he get a girl like her?!
Picture this: You’re sitting at lunch with your friend, and then you see them. You lean over and ask in an excited hush, “How did he get a girl like her?” Then the two of you spend the rest of lunch trying to figure out how it’s possible the two of them are now a couple.
Admit it, you’ve asked that question before. Or maybe someone has asked that question about you and your significant other? Attractiveness is a slippery subject that is at once curious, exciting, and sometimes a little taboo to talk about. But what really makes someone attractive? Why do we find certain people more attractive than others? Why doesn’t everyone agree on what is an attractive trait?
Scientists can easily give a list of traits that make people attractive: Women tend to be attracted to men who have a relatively narrow waist, a v-shaped torso, broad shoulders, and a higher degree of facial symmetry. Women also tend to prefer men who are taller than they are. Men find a good waist-to-hip ratio, symmetrical faces and bodies, and higher voices attractive traits in women.
Biologically, we’re attracted to people who we’ll have the best chance of having healthy offspring. But we don’t describe our “type” as someone who’s “symmetrical” or who has a strong immune system. Instead, our “type” is someone who’s athletic, or artsy, or who has lots of ambition. Attraction seems to have less to do with biology and more with our own personality, style, and interests. Studies have shown that people tend to fall in love with those from their same socioeconomic background, similar levels of intelligence, and consistent values and principles.
So our “type” actually reflects a desire to date someone that’s similar to us, or maybe even an idealized and romanticized version of ourselves. This brings up a new angle to the attractiveness debate: do our own attractiveness biases affect our perceptions of those we date? A team led by Leonard Lee, from Columbia University, looked into this question.
Lee and his team used the used-to-be popular website HOTorNOT.com, which allows visitors to rate the attractiveness of random, anonymous photographs, to conduct their research on attractiveness and perceptions of attractiveness. For reasons not entirely clear, Lee and his team found that people tend to gravitate to their own level of attractiveness (along with socio-economic class, race, and social circles).
Since society places such a great deal on a certain ideas of physical attractiveness, “attractive” people are also more popular dates. And since beauty seems to be a universal constant between cultures, based on factors such as facial features and waist-to-hip ratios, it’s hard to get away from the influence of attractiveness in dating and mating. So why did “unattractive” people prefer other “unattractive” people, instead of all going for the “attractive” people?
A psychological theory called “cognitive dissonance” can explain this question.
“The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance by altering existing [perceptions] or … reducing the importance of any one of the dissonant elements. A key assumption is that people want their expectations to meet reality … [and] will avoid situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance.” (Thank you trusty Wikipedia)
What this means is that when a person *for example* chooses someone they believe to be more attractive than themselves, they must try and reduce the internal conflict regarding this choice. In order to reduce that conflict, they might persuade themselves that they didn’t really want to be with that person. Or they might persuade themselves that the person they chose is actually less physically appealing than they had initially thought.
Interestingly, while the researchers found that attractive people tended to prefer those who were also rated as attractive, they also found that a person’s own attractiveness did not influence how they rated others. People rated highly attractive by others were rated similarly by the participants in the study, regardless of how attractive or unattractive the participant was.
In summary: people go for people they believe are of equal attractiveness as they are, so they don’t risk feeling conflicted or hurt from possible rejection. But it also means that everyone has a different view of how attractive they are.
So that “nerd” sitting next to you in class, who’s dating the hot chick who lives in the dorm next to you? You might have very different opinions about how attractive he really is…