Attractiveness and rivalry in female-female friendships

Because some people are more attractive than others, and attractiveness is valued, competition over the best partners is inevitable. And if there’s competition, we shouldn’t be surprised to find that the most attractive people tend to pair up with each other, likewise the next most attractive, and the next, and so on until everyone has found a partner to whom they’re similarly attractive.

What’s less obvious is why friends should appear similar. Every-day observations would seem to suggest that this is the case, but why should we care whether we and our friends are equally attractive?

April Bleske-Rechek and Melissa Lighthall of the University of Wisconsin tackled this very question in their recent paper, published in the journal Human Nature.

They took facial photographs of 46 pairs of young female friends, then had each rate whether they were better looking than their friends, less good looking, or roughly similar. The faces were also rated by external judges, who didn’t know the women.

The researchers found that the friends were indeed similar in attractiveness. Better looking women tended to have better looking friends.

Next the women completed a questionnaire about their friendship, and some of the questions related to how much they competed with their friends over men. They expressed their agreement or disagreement with statements such as “It is harder to meet guys when my friend is around” and “I feel in competition with her for attention from members of the opposite sex”.

The researchers found that women who were less attractive than their friend tended to report that they competed more strongly with her for access to desirable men. The bigger the difference in attractiveness between the friends, the stronger the competition for male attention.

The researchers suggest that women may benefit from selecting friends who are about as attractive as they are themselves, because that attracts men both friends would find appealing. A woman who chooses a friend who is less attractive than she is might dissuade desirable men from approaching her. And if she chooses a friend who is more attractive than she is, she may find that all the good-looking men favour her friend.

Interestingly, the researchers didn’t find a connection between rivalry ratings and apparent differences in intelligence. Friends who looked like they were dissimilar in intelligence didn’t report more rivalry for men.

This may betray the fact that men tend to be more interested in good looking women than clever women, so a woman who’s more intelligent than her best friend probably doesn’t outcompete her for men.

Yep, that’s right. It all comes down to men being idiots. Again.

Bleske-Rechek, A. L., & Lighthall, M. (2010). Attractiveness and rivalry in women’s friendships with women. Human Nature, 21(1), 82–97. Read summary

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

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