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Did you know that prosociality and physical attractiveness can reinforce each other?

February, 2018

Often people soon know if (and how much) they are romantically or sexually attracted to another person. However, they are by no means aware of the outstanding cognitive effort required to integrate the many different characteristics of possible mates into a holistic judgment, which may also differ across different contexts of mating – such as a one night stand or a lifelong relationship. Previous studies have mainly tested the attractiveness of individual physical or personality traits, while it largely remained unexplored how such different characteristics interact in specific contexts.

ISS researchers Daniel Ehlebracht and Detlef Fetchenhauer together with Olga Stavrova from the University of Tilburg and Daniel Farrelly from the University of Worcester addressed to this question. In particular, it was investigated whether prosociality and physical attractiveness can under certain circumstances reinforce each other's effects on overall desirability. In two studies Cologne students were shown short videos of Dutch students, whose attractiveness they should either evaluate for a short-term or long-term relationship. For each of the individuals shown, the judges received randomized information on how the person behaved in an economic game in which they could prove their altruism or their trustworthiness. As expected, physical attractiveness had a greater impact on the overall evaluation in the short-term context than in the long-term context, while prosocial behavior played a greater role in the long-term context than in the short-term context. In addition, men’s preferences turned out to be more specific regarding the temporal context of mate choice than women’s preferences. In other words, the relative impact of physical attractiveness and trustworthiness on the overall evaluation differed more strongly between the two contexts with male than was the case with female judges. In addition, in both studies physical attractiveness and prosociality mutually reinforced each other in their impact on the overall judgment when they occurred together, albeit only in the long-term mate choice context. This suggests that a good character can actually increase the attractiveness as a long-term partner significantly – but especially in people who are already physically attractive anyway.