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Relationships & Love

People Tend to Downgrade the Looks of Those Who Could Threaten Romantic Relationships

What psychological factors might couples use to stay committed to their partners? According to a study published in June 2016 in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, people in relationships see tempting people outside of their partnership as less attractive than they really are. This perceptual bias could represent an unconscious method of self-control that assists in overcoming temptations in order to facilitate long term goals of staying with a romantic partner.

According to a release from the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, psychologists Dr. Shana Cole (Rutgers University), Dr. Yaacov Trope (New York University) and Dr. Emily Balcetis (New York University) found evidence that couples downgrade the appearance of people they perceive as threatening their relationships.

Most previous research in this area has focused on explicit biases, where participants know they are judging attractiveness and reporting their thoughts about another person. This study is the first to look for implicit, or non-conscious, visual biases that may aid partners in staying committed to a relationship.

The first experiment showed participants images of an opposite-sex lab partner with whom single and coupled college students would interact extensively. Each participant read the individual’s profile, which included relationship availability. Next, participants matched the individual’s photo with one of several other images. These other images had been manipulated, so that some were more attractive than the original photo and some less attractive.

Of the 131 heterosexual college participants, those in a relationship who learned the target was single and therefore a potential threat to their relationship viewed the individual as less attractive he or she actually was, while participants in a relationship who learned the individual was in a relationship and single participants viewed the individual as slightly more attractive than was really the case.

This downgrading bias occurred despite the fact that participants were offered entry into a raffle for $50 if they selected the correct face during the matching activity, suggesting participants in a relationship were actually perceiving the individual as less attractive.

The release quotes Dr. Shana Cole as saying, “Misperceiving attractive people who represent threats to the relationship as less, attractive may help people resist the inclination to pursue them. This is especially important since finding someone physically attractive is a primary reason why people choose to date or romantically pursue someone.”

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