Are people more attractive once they’re off the market?

Finally this month, have you ever thought someone was attractive despite the fact that they were unavailable?

Well, some researchers have shown that a person can be more attractive because they’re unavailable. The reasoning goes like this: if someone has a partner, that partner must find them attractive. And if the partner finds them attractive, well, perhaps you should too.

This is a pattern that we can see all over the animal kingdom, and it’s normally used to save time and effort. For example, a female can spare herself the effort of individually evaluating every male by observing which male is getting the most attention from other females. If he’s receiving more attention, he must be better. The effect is stronger if the females being copied are in some way reliable. If they’re older and more experienced at picking out attractive males, their choices are therefore more trustworthy.

Jessica Yorzinski and Michael Platt of the University of California looked for this same effect in humans. They photographed men and women and then stitched photographs together to create fake couples. Sometimes the couples were similar in attractiveness, and sometimes one member was more attractive than the other. These images were then shown to a new group of participants, who were told that the couples were genuine. They were asked to rate the other-sex person, or the ‘target’, for attractiveness.

The researchers found that regardless of the actual attractiveness of the target individual, the participants found them more attractive if they were paired with an attractive partner. So, a man who saw a woman paired with an attractive man would think the she was more attractive than if he had seen her paired with an unattractive man. She was more attractive purely because of her attractive partner.

So the moral of the story is that if you want to snag yourself an attractive partner then you should first snag yourself an attractive partner.

That makes sense, right?


Yorzinski, J. L., & Platt, M. L. (2010). Same-sex gaze attraction influences mate-choice copying in humans. PLoS One, 5(2), e9115. Read paper

The content of this post first appeared in the April 2010 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

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