Berscheid, E., & Walster, E., Physical Attractiveness. In L. Berkowitz (ed., ) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Vol. 7, 1974. Exerpts

This paper explores how our physical appearance influences our relationships with others.

The authors feel that research into physical attractiveness has been lacking because sociilogists have disregarded is as an important variable or have been uneasy in exploring the deterministic consequences of beauty. However, the authors feel that attractiveness is an influential variable in understanding social phenomena.

Physical Attractiveness and Heterosexual Attraction

Matching Hypothesis

One hypothesis is that people will select for romantic liasons those who are of their own social desirability level. A person's romantic aspirations are influenced by their overall goal aspirations. However, it also depends on the probability of relations -- a person of lower social desirability may expect a rejection if they approach someone much higher than they are.

One study in the 60's paired up people at a dance. They found that the only determinant that predicted the degree of "liking" of their date and desire for subsequent dates was physical attractivness. Another study found a 0.89 correlation, another a 0.69 correlation. Perception of physical attractiveness was better correlated than "similar interests" or "character".

Another study by the author found support of the "matching principle". Physically attractive dates were preferred by everyone, though people of less attractiveness tended to choose less attractive dates than highly attractive individuals.

Another study confirmed that people make dating choices partly based on the probability of rejection. Men asked to choose between women chose the most physically attractive girl more often when assured they would not be rejected. Men who rated themselves as highly attractive percieved their chances greater than less attractive men.

The converse of the matching principle also seems true. Studies showed that couples seem to have similar levels of physical attractiveness. People of similar attractiveness levels showed more outward affection to each other too. However, in this study is't difficult to determine if a similar result would occur by chance, or if they was a "halo effect" from the partner.

Still another study which eliminated interaction effects did see evidence of this matching principle.

Sex Differences and Physical Attractiveness
It also seems that physical attractiveness is more important for men than women. Women who were more physically attractive got more dates.

Why are Physically Attractive Preferred?
Interestingly, while physical attractiveness appears to be the biggest correlator and predictor, it rarely appears as most important when directly asked of subjects. Attributes like personality and character usually rank higher. Either people are not aware of how important physical attractiveness is in their selection criteria, or they are not fully honest.

Why is attractiveness so important. Some theories are:

Social Learning
Cultural norms and the media often demonstrate that we are supposed to exhibit responses of sexual attraction only to physically attractive people.

Rating and Dating Complex
There is a great deal of prestige factor to be gained in dating a physically attractive person. One study found that people had a better impression of a man if he was shown to have a physically attractive girlfriend than without one.

Physical Attractivness Stereotype
Folklore indicates that physical beauty is a sign of inner beauty. Studies have confirmed that the two attributes are highly correlated (for both sexes). People also felt physically attractive people would become more successful and happier. Interestingly, they only future performance where physically attractive people would not be expected to be better was as parents.

Other data suggest that the physically attractiveness stereotype is most prevelant with high attractiveness levels.

Other Determinants of Interpersonal Attraction

1. Similarity

Studies have shown that both attitude similarity and physical attractiveness both have correlational effects with attraction. Males in particular place more value on physical attractiveness than attitude similarity, especially when the physical attraction is high.

Another studied found situational influences. Similarity had a greater effect on marrying than working, liking than dating. Physical attractiveness had a greater effect on dating than marrying, and dating than liking. However, in real situations the attitudinal similarities are usually discovered over time. Either way, their appears to be mutual influences between similarity and physical attractiveness.

2. Esteem
People like those who like them. One study found that people paired with attractive future dates felt that they liked time more than those with unattractive dates.

Impact of Physical Attractiveness on the Individual

1. Popularity

Studies have found even kindergarteners can distinguish between body types and have aversion to certain types (chubbiness). Direct evidence that physical attractiveness impacts on social acceptance has even been shown in nursery schools. Other evidence shows a correlation between quality of early social behavior and adult social adjustment.

Studies show that the social value of attractivness for females increases with age as children begin to absorb cultural stereotypes. For young pre-school males agressiveness was associated with unattractivness. Attractiveness and independence were also correlated. Thus, a persons early self-concept may be partly determined by their physical attractiveness.

2. Socialization
One study found that in attributing alleged bad behavior of a described child, adults were more likely to attribute the behavior as an unique event for attractive children, and evidence of a bad social trend for unattractive children. Thus children may receive different socialization based on their attractiveness

One study where 400 teachers analyzed the same school records of a child (with different pictures of attractive/unattractive children) found that teachers gave higher ratings of educational potential to attractive children and unattactive children. Another study by college men of writings by a college woman found the same effect of attractiveness on rating.

Concluding Comments
One interesting hypothesis is that people who request psychotherapy may be less attractive than those who do not. Maybe plastic surgery could help unattractive people in these situations?