Mate-choice copying: do we find people attractive because they are attractive to others?

Have you ever heard of ‘mate choice copying’? It’s when our judgements of a person’s attractiveness are influenced by the choices of others.

For example, you might find a particular person attractive, but if you notice that someone else finds them attractive too, the strength of your own attraction could increase. And this effect would be stronger if the person whose choice you were copying was also attractive: because we preferentially copy the choices of attractive people.

The problem with a lot of research in this area is that it often uses as stimuli photographs of men and women, and the participant has to accept that these photographs depict real romantic couples. An advantage of this method is that it allows us to tightly control the appearance of the couples, so that we can properly interpret the behaviour of anyone who sees the photographs.

But it’s not a very realistic situation. It lacks what psychologists call ‘ecological validity’, because it doesn’t reflect how people interact in the real world.

Skyler Place and colleagues of Indiana University sought to remedy this in a study published this month in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior. She had men and women rate the attractiveness of a series of photographs of opposite-sex persons. These were the target individuals.

Next the participants watched videos in which those same targets were seen interacting with opposite-sex persons as part of a speed-dating session. For clarity, we’ll call these people the models. The participants saw two types of video: ones in which the target and model were interested in each other, and ones where they didn’t seem to get on.

After they saw the videos, the participants rated the photographs of the targets for a second time. If watching the videos affected how the participants perceived the targets, we’d expect their ratings of the photographs to change after they saw the videos.

Place found that after participants viewed couples who were interested in each other, their rating of the target’s attractiveness increased. After they saw couples who didn’t get on, their ratings of the target became lower. In other words, they copied the choices of the model.

An interesting difference between male and female participants was that men tended to be more strongly influenced by perceived interest between the target and the model, while women tended to be more strongly influenced by disinterest. If a man saw that the model was interested in the target, his rating of the target’s attractiveness shot up, whereas women’s ratings of the target fell through the floor if the target and model weren’t getting on.

This might mean that men copy the choices of others to inform who they find especially attractive, whereas women make use of social information to rule out men in whom they would otherwise be interested.

Place, S. S., Todd, P. M., Penke, L., & Asendorpf, J. B. (2010). Humans show mate copying after observing real mate choices. Evolution and Human Behavior, 31(5), 320–325. Read summary

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

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