Johns Hopkins Study: Our Ideas of Physical Attractiveness Are Constantly Changing to Align With the Views of Others

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New research co-authored by Johns Hopkins Carey Business School Assistant Haiyang Yang defies the notion that our ideas of physical attractiveness were set in stone. The paper argues that these ideas are constantly shifting to align with the aesthetic views of other people whenever we encounter such information.

The approach of Valentine’s Day reminds us that love can happen at first sight. In fact, our perception of physical attractiveness influences not only our romantic relationships but also all other social interactions.

Conventional wisdom says the standards of human beauty, the visual cues that spark attraction, have been hardwired into our genes over eons of natural selection. What we essentially seek is a healthy, good-looking mate who, in turn, will help produce offspring with these same advantageous traits.

But new research by a Johns Hopkins business professor defies the notion that our ideas of physical attractiveness were set in stone. The paper argues that these ideas are constantly shifting to align with the aesthetic views of other people whenever we encounter such information. Perhaps more surprisingly, the researchers found that our standards of beauty can shift automatically, with no social pressure whatsoever, and that this shift can alter our subsequent judgments of beauty.

Assistant Professor Haiyang Yang of the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School and co-author Leonard Lee (currently an associate professor at the National University of Singapore) began by looking at some 800,000 ratings by more than 60,000 visitors to an online dating website where visitors anonymously evaluate the attractiveness of random photos of people on a scale of one (least hot) to 10 (hottest).

After each evaluation, the average score for that photo from all prior evaluations by other people was displayed to the website visitor. The researchers observed that, as the visitors evaluated more photos over time, their ratings began to shift toward the average―this despite their not seeing the averages until after making their own evaluation of each photo, and even though visitors’ evaluations were anonymous and unobserved by others.

“Because of this effect, some people became ‘instantaneously hotter’ to the website visitors. Others, unfortunately, became worse off,” Yang says.

Then, in a lab experiment, the researchers altered how the average ratings were shown to the participants. In some cases, the average was shown before participants evaluated a photo. In others, the average was shown after. In yet others, the average was never shown.

As one might expect, those shown the averages in advance converged on the average ratings. Interestingly, those shown the averages afterward also converged, though they did not know the average rating of any of the photos before they rated. However, in the group not shown any information, the ratings did not converge towards the average as the participants evaluated more photos.

“This group of participants appeared to be refining their own individual standards over time. This adds to the evidence that others’ opinions of beauty can instantaneously impact our personal standards of beauty,” Yang says.

The final lab experiment went one step further to see if the standards could be altered arbitrarily. All participants in the experiment were shown the average rating after they themselves rated each photo, but with a twist: In some cases, the average was falsely lowered. As the researchers expected, those who were shown photos with reduced averages deviated more from the true average over time.

“Later, when we asked participants in the experiment about their evaluations,” Yang says, “most claimed that their judgments were not affected by seeing the average ratings after they provided their own ratings.”

Anticipating next steps for his research, Yang adds, “If the notion of beauty can be instantaneously constructed, as our findings suggest, it would be important to fully dissect the underlying processes and identify factors that can influence these processes. Future research in this direction is likely to have implications not just for business but for many other fields.”

Last fall, Yang and Lee’s paper was awarded the Franco Nicosia Best Competitive Paper Award by the Association for Consumer Research, the leading academic organization for behavioral research in marketing. The paper was selected from 545 competitive submissions to the 2014 conference of the ACR.

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Patrick Ercolano
The Johns Hopkins Carey Business School
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