Living in a Social World
Psy 324: Advanced Social Psychology
Spring, 1998

Physical Attraction
Chris Hendricks, Dawn Olson
Seth Hall & Jonathan Batt


attract1.gif (4916 bytes)    Levels of physical attractiveness have the potential to influence others in powerful ways. Attributions based on perceptions of physical attractiveness can either add to one’s status or stigmatize them. Males and females have different cognitive schemas about the attractiveness of the opposite sex. One’s gender determines the type of attributions he/she will make about another person, and how the person will view their own attractiveness. The focus of this tutorial will be on American culture and its population; however there are an infinite number of schemas about attractiveness existing in other cultures, and a few will be contrasted and compared with our own culture. [photo courtesy of AMG Advanced Media Group]

    Before investigating the sub-topics of this tutorial, it is useful to review a variety of theories and studies on physical attraction that have been produced during the last few decades. First, three "facts" about attraction that most introductory psychology texts cite are proximity, similarity, and physical attraction. Since physical attraction is an important piece of the puzzle in the attraction game, much time has been devoted to studying its impact and implications.

    Robert B Cialdini, an influential psychologist, has named physical attractiveness anattraction2.gif (8019 bytes) important component in his weapons of influence. He noted that physically attractive people have an enormous social advantage in our culture; they are better liked, more persuasive, more frequently helped, and seen as possessing better personality traits and intellectual capabilities (Cialdini 1984). This advantage is earned due to the halo effect. This effect occurs when one positive characteristic of a person, such as attractiveness, dominates the way a person is viewed by others. [photo courtesy of AMG Advanced Media Group]

    Cialdini also mentioned that good-looking people are likely to receive highly favorable treatment in the legal system. Kurtzberg (1968) conducted a study where he had plastic surgery performed on inmates and found that once released, they were less likely to return to jail than those without the surgery. They were even less likely to return than those inmates who received rehabilitation services. A follow-up study done by Stewart (1980) found that the surgery did not decrease the chances of the inmate committing another crime, but it did decrease the probability of being sent to jail for the crime.

    Two other principles Cialdini related to physical attractiveness were the association principle and the contrast principle. First, advertisers use the association principle when trying to sell their product. Attractive models are used to link their desirability and beauty to the product being sold. The contrast principle can hinder attraction to certain individuals in a couple of ways. For example, if you were talking to a beautiful person at a party, and a less attractive person joined the conversation, the second individual will strike you as less attractive than he/she really is. Also, unrealistically attractive people, like models and actors, may cause you to be less satisfied with the looks of genuinely romantic possibilities available, as you may contrast them with the untouchable examples portrayed in the media. The heuristic operating in this situation is the availability heuristic. The ease of remembering examples in the media causes one to recall the extremely attractive people working in television and movies.

    Stanley Schachter devised the two-factor theory of emotion that Dutton and Aron (1974) were studying when performing their naturalistic study of interpersonal attraction. They found that when individuals were confronted by a confederate in an arousing situation (a high and unstable suspension bridge), the confederate was found to be more attractive than when in a non threatening situation (stable low bridge). This implies that external factors can influence our perceptions of attractiveness. The arousal experienced while on the high bridge could have been mislabeled as romantic love for the confederate, leading the individual to assume attractiveness.

    Another interesting theory that applies to physical attraction is the reinforcement theory. With this conditioning paradigm, when a person is paired with a stimulus that elicits a positive affect or reward, the result is increased liking of that person. You may begin to like a person that is physically attractive because it is pleasing to look at that person- your own personal reward. The attractive person may also reap the benefits of being attractive, such as assumed intelligence. Attractive people experience a halo effect; one perceived positive quality favorably influences other attributions . Once a positive reward is associated with an individual, your liking of them will increase.

    With respect to our cross cultural comparison, the Social Norms Approach discussed by Clark and Mills (1979) may be helpful in understanding the rules of giving and receiving in different relationships. Communal relationships are characterized by feelings of responsibility to others and not by repaying favors. An exchange relationship on the other hand is characterized by giving for the sole purpose of repaying debts, such as with strangers or business acquaintances. These relationships may be applicable further when discussing individualistic versus collectivist societies. For example, when relating to others in your in-group, you may have communal relationships with everyone if you live as a part of a collectivist society. In an individualistic society, some people in your in-group will have an exchange relationship with you.

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Social Psychology / Miami University (Ohio USA). Last revised: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 16:32:07. This document has been accessed 1times since April 15, 2002. Comments & Questions to R. Sherman