In Romance, Looks Matters Most to the Beautiful
Young married couple.
Credit: dreamstime.com

In the world of romance, we seek out partners who are just as "hot" or "not hot" as we are.

A new study supports the idea that super models flock together while individuals lacking the perfect face and body also stick together.

"Beautiful people marry beautiful people and less beautiful people marry less beautiful people," said Dan Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at MIT's Program in Media Arts and Sciences and Sloan School of Management.

But that doesn't mean less-attractive people are destined to lives of unrequited love and feelings of just settling for the mediocre. The study results, which will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science, suggest people who lack looks place more stock in non-physical features, such as sense of humor, than in physical beauty.

Guys, however, are less concerned with their own looks when deciding whom to date, the findings suggest. So while a man might have no qualms about going after someone much better looking than he is, a woman will tend more to choose partners with compatible looks.

Another recent study suggests that, in general, for both men and women physical attractiveness guides cupid's arrow. This research did not account for each individual's own looks.

Hot or not

What makes for a "hot" appearance? Research has shown that people have essentially universal standards of beauty, including large eyes, "baby face" features, symmetric faces, so-called average faces, and specific waist-hip ratios in men versus women.

Ariely, Leonard Lee of Columbia University's Business School in New York, and their colleagues looked at information from an online dating Web site called HOTorNOT.com, which allows members to rate others on their physical attractiveness.

They focused on a 10-day period in August 2005 to figure out how an individual's attractiveness rating affected how that person rated others' physical attractiveness on a scale from 1 to the hottest value of 10. Then, the researchers compared the average hot-or-not ratings for each person with the number of dating requests.

On average, participants paired up with others having compatible attractiveness. Compared with the ladies, guys were most influenced by physical attractiveness when requesting dates, but their own appearance ratings had less effect on their date choices.

"Males are less affected by how attractive they themselves are than females," Lee said in a telephone interview. Guys were more likely than ladies to request dates out of their league.

Individuals who slid furthest down the hot-or-not scale seemed more desperate, as they were the most likely to respond "yes" to any date requests. For every unit decrease on the 10-point scale of the member's own attractiveness the member was 25 percent more likely to say "yes" to a potential date.

The hot-rated members were choosier, tending to accept only dates from others in their attractiveness neighborhood.

Beauty in the eye of the beholder?

The researchers wondered whether beauty standards varied depending on a person's own outward appearance.

"If I'm less attractive, which I am, and I hang out with less attractive people, you can imagine I start appreciating different things," Ariely told LiveScience. "I [might] start caring less about symmetry and I start thinking more that big ears could be cute. But that doesn't seem to happen."

Regardless of their hot rating, individuals came to the same consensus regarding the hotness of other members.

"Whereas less attractive people are willing to accept less attractive others as dating partners, they do not delude themselves into thinking that these less attractive others are, in fact, physically attractive," they write in the journal article.

Looks can be overrated

To understand how the physically-lacking individuals cope with the cards they were dealt, the researchers conducted a speed-dating study.

At the event sponsored by a Boston-based online dating company, 24 participants indicated how high they rated the relative importance of six criteria — physical attractiveness, intelligence, sense of humor, kindness, confidence and extroversion — for selecting dates. The participants then chatted for four minutes with each potential date, after which they rated each other on physical attractiveness and decided whether to meet up again with that person.

Turned out, more attractive people placed more importance on physical attractiveness above other features in selecting their dates. Less attractive people placed more weight on other qualities, such as sense of humor.

"The people who are less attractive basically switch what they care about and they start caring less about beauty and more about sense of humor," Ariely said.

Another recent speed-dating study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, revealed that the attractiveness of a potential partner is critical, followed by ambition and earnings.

“In other words good looks was the primary stimulus of attraction for both men and women, and a person with good earning prospects or ambition tended to be liked as well,” said study researcher Eli Finkel, an assistant professor of psychology at Northwestern University in Illinois.