Stigma and Perception of Attractiveness: Strange Finding

Ever gone on a date only to find out that they’re secretly a shoplifter? Did you find them more or less physically attractive after that? Via NCBI ROFL (a great blog for quirky science), I found out that there was a study about negative information’s effect on how attractive undergrads found smiling and nonsmiling faces. If the person was described as bad for one reason or another, would they be less attractive?

I haven’t read the article, but the abstract is interesting. As expected, smiling faces were more attractive overall than non-smiles. The researchers were looking at the impact of the negative information, and gender differences appeared:

Analysis indicated that smiling faces were rated more attractive than nonsmiling faces, consistent with previous research. There was a significant interaction of participants’ sex and target description, in which women rated smiling faces less attractive after exposure to negative information about the target, but men rated smiling faces more attractive after exposure to negative information.

Well, that makes perfect evolutionary sense. After all, men would look for…

Just kidding. I’m not going to make up an evolutionary just-so story. If I had to make a guess with very low confidence, I’d say it’s more likely a socialized phenomenon anyway.

The different negative facts were one of these:

  • Convicted of insider trading on the stock market
  • Commits adultery on a regular basis
  • Alcoholic with anger management issues
  • Addicted to child’s Ritalin medication
  • Addicted to gambling after cashing paycheck
  • Convicted of petty theft of expensive jewelry

So apparently, if you want men to find you more attractive when you smile, just tell him you have serious problems.

4 Responses to Stigma and Perception of Attractiveness: Strange Finding

  1. Kevin says:

    I wonder if the men and women in the study were using the same concept of “attractive.” Stereotypically, the average man is looking for sex, and the average woman is looking for a relationship. Finding out about an immoral or otherwise negative trait might seem to increase the probability of the former, while decreasing the desirability of the latter. I agree that we should avoid “just-so stories,” but this seems like something that a followup study could actually test by using more specific terminology.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      That’s the sort of explanation I can get behind – one that offers direction for a new study. Steven Pinker talks about studies that claim to find differences in how one population’s brain works compared to another – only to show that the populations understood a word differently and were (in effect) answering different questions.

      I wonder if you’re right and that’s what’s happening here.

  2. Max says:

    “women rated smiling faces less attractive after exposure to negative information about the target”

    Less attractive than non-smiling faces, or less attractive than before exposure to negative information?
    I assumed the former, and I think Kevin’s explanation assumes the latter.

    • Kevin says:

      Yes, I did interpret it to mean the latter. I think that it’s implied by the sentence before the one you quoted: “Analysis indicated that smiling faces were rated more attractive than nonsmiling faces, consistent with previous research.”

      To clarify, this is the ordering that I used:
      Attractiveness (female, male):
      1. smiling, smiling + negative
      2. smiling + negative, smiling
      3. non-smiling, non-smiling

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