You probably won’t be reaching for your violin too quickly but a series of new studies provide compelling evidence that beauty is a kind of “relationship liability”. While more physically attractive people have a clear advantage when it comes to finding partners, the results suggest that their relationships are more likely to breakdown, at least in part because they take greater interest in alternative partners, especially when dissatisfied in their current relationship.
The results add further nuance to our understanding of how physical beauty impacts people’s lives. While good-looking folk seem to enjoy many advantages in life, on average, such as higher pay, more happiness and others assuming they are friendly and intelligent, it seems there are complicating factors: jealousy is one, and this new research, published in Personal Relationships, suggests that less stability in their romantic relationships is another.
Christine Ma-Kellams at Harvard University and her colleagues began by asking two women to judge the attractiveness of 238 men as pictured in their high school yearbooks aged 17 to 18. The researchers then accessed Ancestry.com to find the men’s marriage and divorce data for the 30 years since their high school photos were taken. The men who were rated as more facially attractive were more likely to be divorced and to have had marriages of shorter length.
Next the researchers accessed the divorce and marriage data for the top 20 actors and actresses listed on IMDB.com and the world’s 100 most powerful celebrities according to Forbes (removing duplicates resulted in a list of 130 celebs). The same female raters who judged the men’s attractiveness in the first study also rated the attractiveness of the celebrities. The more attractive celebrities were more likely to be divorced and they tended to be married for shorter lengths of time.
Why does being more attractive seem to go together with an increased chance of relationship breakup? Of course there could be many reasons, but Ma-Kellams and her team wanted to test one factor in particular: whether more attractive people are more interested in alternative partners. Relevant here is the established finding that once we are in a committed relationship most of us begin to show certain biases that help to sustain that relationship, including seeing other people as less attractive than we would do if we were single. The researchers tested whether attractive people lack this protective bias.
Over one hundred and thirty participants, just under half of them currently in an exclusive romantic relationship, rated how attracted they were to a good-looking person of the opposite sex, as depicted in a photo. Meanwhile, the researchers discreetly assessed the participants’ own physical attractiveness. The results revealed an intriguing interaction between participants’ own attractiveness, their relationship status, and the ratings they gave to the person in the photo. More attractive participants tended to rate the person in the photo as more physically appealing than did the less attractive participants, but only if they (themselves) were already in a committed relationship. In other words, rather than having a bias to downplay the appeal of a potential alternative partner, attractive participants in a relationship actually seemed to show heightened interest.
A final study conducted on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk survey website was similar but added a couple of twists: some participants were first made to feel attractive by looking at pictures of unattractive people before rating their own attractiveness; also participants in this study rated their satisfaction with their current relationship. All participants then went on to rate the physical appeal of several images of good-looking people of the opposite sex. The results showed that participants made to feel physically attractive tended to rate the good-looking people in the photos as more appealing, but only if they were currently in a relationship with which they were dissatisfied.
Common sense suggests beautiful people are more likely to attract interest from would-be alternative partners. These new findings suggest that they are also more inclined than average to take an interest in them, especially if feeling discontented. This might help explain the pattern to emerge from the archival and celebrity data suggesting that being attractive tends to correlate with having shorter relationships and more divorces.
But it’s important not to over interpret these results: perhaps other factors related to physical attractiveness were the true cause of the apparent effects on relationship outcomes. That said, the researchers did factor out the influence of wealth in the celebrity data, and the data based on the college book photos was from two schools in very different areas, one working class, the other more privileged. Another caveat is that the survey research asked participants to rate the physical appeal of attractive people, but didn’t measure any actual cheating.
When weighing up potential partners, we usually think of beauty as a definite plus point. But if you’ve recently been snubbed by a good-looker, console yourself this way: if you’d successfully hooked up with them, the chances are it wouldn’t have lasted anyway!
Image via Gettyimages.co.uk