♪ When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman (or Handsome Man)… ♫

New research shows that we keep a closer eye on our love rivals if our partner is hotter than us.

Beauty and the beast? Michael Coghlan/Flickr

They say that when you’re in love with a beautiful woman, you watch your friends. And by they, I mean Dr. Hook.

Dr. Hook (quelle surprise) was not a real doctor. He wasn’t even a real hook. But there’s no doubting he was a keen amateur psychologist. True, he shunned the normal scientific route of publishing his theory as a peer-reviewed academic paper and instead chose to disseminate his hypothesis in the form of a 1970s disco smash, but that doesn’t make him any less insightful.

Dr. Hook’s seminal theory was recently put to the test by bona fide psychologist, Joshua Oltmanns, a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. Oltmanns, who is well on his way to bagging himself a proper PhD, also has a BA in Music Business and therefore makes Dr. Hook look like an absolute nobody.

Anyway, Oltmanns teamed up with colleagues at Villanova University and Florida State University (unlike Hook, Oltmanns doesn’t “go it alone”), and together they recruited 73 male-female couples and had them complete the Mate Retention Inventory.

I’ve already written about the Mate Retention Inventory approximately 98 times but, to briefly summarize, it’s a questionnaire that measures how frequently a person performs various behaviors that might keep their relationship stable. Some of the behaviors aim to prevent the partner from losing interest and rushing off to find someone new (e.g. giving them jewelry or, if you’re a cad, phoning them to make sure they are where they said they would be). Other behaviors are geared toward heading off potential love rivals (e.g. telling same-sex friends that you and your partner are in love, or giving a rival a slap across the chops).

Oltmanns also had 12 independent volunteers rate the physical attractiveness of his couples. Then he tested whether the attractiveness of the men and women had an impact on their mate retention behavior.

Just as Dr. Hook predicted all those years ago, Oltmanns found that people who have more attractive partners perform more mate retention behaviors, both behaviors directed at the partner and at potential rivals.

A figure from Oltmanns’ paper. Note how it’s when a person is low in attractiveness but has a partner high in attractiveness that intrasexual (same-sex) mate retention is highest.

But it was when Oltmanns looked more closely at the difference between the attractiveness of the partners in his study that he uncovered the most interesting results. It was when a person was lower in attractiveness than their partner that they mate-guarded most fervently.

And do men and women who are outshone by their stunning partners keep a closer eye on “fair weather friends” or their “faint hearted lovers”, as Hook MD might have put it? In other words, does a difference in attractiveness inspire more frequent intrasexual or intersexual mate retention behavior?

Well, unlike Dr. Hook, I’m not going to keep you hanging around for 38 years in hopes of an answer. It’s intrasexual. Men keep a closer eye on other men; women keep their sights firmly fixed on other women. Oltmanns and his team suggest that this is because intersexual tactics (in same-sex couples, those are tactics aimed at the partner) are too risky: a supermodel who has found themselves shackled to a troll doesn’t need reminding that their partner is a paranoid control freak. Much safer to prevent any more alluring competitors from muscling in.

So, it turns out Hook was right: when you’re in love with a beautiful woman, “everybody wants to take your baby home”, or at least that’s what you’ll be most worried about. Give that man an honorary doctorate!

PS. I just Wikipedia’d Dr Hook and found out that, unlike Captain Hook of pirate fame, Dr Hook isn’t a real person. He is, in fact, a collective of 19 separate people. Looks like Hook kept a closer eye on his friends by inviting them all to join his band.

PPS. Just after posting this blog, I read about another study that was published this past week that looked at virtually the same question. Yael Sela of Oakland University had couples complete the Mate Retention Inventory but, instead of having their photos rated by independent volunteers, he asked the couples to rate their own attractiveness. Partners who thought they were hot but that their partner was not tended to perform fewer “benefit-provisioning” behaviors (i.e. giving gifts and being nice).

Oltmanns, J. R., Markey, P. M., & French, J. E. (in press). Dissimilarity in physical attractiveness within romantic dyads and mate retention behaviors. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. View summary

Sela, Y., Mogilski, J. K., Shackelford, T. K., Zeigler-Hill, V., & Fink, B. (in press). Mate value discrepancy and mate retention behaviors of self and partner. Journal of Personality. View summary

For an audio version of this story, see the 30 July 2016 episode of The Psychology of Attractiveness Podcast.

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Dr. Robert Burriss’s story.