I love you because you love me

One of the most important determinants of attractiveness is physical appearance. The more physically appealing people are, the more attractive. Simple stuff.

But we don’t just use attractiveness cues to rule out potential partners who we feel aren’t up to our standards. We also use them to discount those we think are too attractive. People we don’t think we have a realistic chance with. That way, us average Joes don’t waste our time trying to snag a supermodel. If we did, our efforts would very likely end up unrewarded, and we’d have squandered precious time and effort that could have been spent in the pursuit of someone more obtainable.

This unconscious desire to seek out only those whom we have a realistic chance of wooing has likely been well honed by evolution, because those who perpetually pursue people out of their league are less likely to leave behind offspring. But how does the process fare when additional information is thrown into the mix? For example, if we discover that our chances with a desirable potential partner are greater than we would otherwise expect?

Tobias Greitemeyer of Innsbruck University decided to find out. He recently published the results of an elaborate study in which 25 women and 35 men were presented with photographs of four potential partners who varied in attractiveness. The participants were led to believe that these four people were present in the building right at that moment, and, if the participants found them attractive, and their attraction was reciprocated, a meeting would be arranged between them.

This speed-dating style design was integral in prompting participants to behave as they would in real-life, as if their actions might lead to a genuine relationship. To further cement the deception, the participants were asked to provide photographs of their own, and a lab assistant made a show of taking these photographs to the potential partners, who, of course, didn’t really exist.

The participants were asked to report their desire for each of the four potential partners based on their photographs. Soon after, they were informed that two of the four potential partners had expressed attraction to them. And here came the important measure: the participants again reported their desire for each of the potential partners.

As we’d expect, participants’ attraction to those who had reciprocated their desire increased. They liked people more if they knew those people liked them in return. This makes sense if attraction is based, in part, on whether our advances are likely to be successful. But even more interesting was the finding that this reciprocation effect was stronger if the potential partner was more attractive to begin with. The participants’ desire for people they previously thought were out of their league shot up when they thought they had a real chance with them.

Unfortunately for Greitemeyer’s participants, they were then informed that the experiment had been an illusion the whole time, and there weren’t really any stunners in the next room, desperate for their phone number. The same is likely true for you and me, but it’s nice to know that our brains have an inbuilt mechanism ready to spring into action if a Hollywood star ever does decide to wink at us across a crowded room.

Greitemeyer, T. (2010). Effects of reciprocity on attraction: The role of a partner’s physical attractiveness. Personal Relationships, 17(2), 317–330. Read summary

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

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