If you wish to be alluring, you might want to pair up with a hot partner. A good-looking significant other will cause other potential mates to find you more desirable, new research suggests.
The results held more for women than men, who tend to find attractive ladies desirable no matter who they are intimate with.
While the findings might be especially helpful to singles, the researchers are interested in learning about the mysterious rules of attraction that apply throughout the animal kingdom.
Animals often choose mates by imitating the choices of others. For instance, female guppies typically prefer brightly colored males, but will switch to favoring drab ones if they see other females mating with them. Copying others could prove beneficial, especially for inexperienced individuals that mimic more experienced ones. Still, little is known about what underlies this behavior in any species.
Human see, human do?
To see if humans copy others as well, scientists had 30 male and 30 female volunteers who all described themselves as straight rate how attractive they found photos of 36 men and 36 women. The volunteers were then shown 144 pictures of men and women paired together and asked how desirable they would find long-term relationships with members of the opposite sex in the pictures.
Both male and female volunteers rated people in the pictures as more desirable when they were paired next to attractive companions, the scientists found. By using cameras to track eye movements during the experiments, the researchers also saw that when volunteers spent more time looking at a potential mate's unattractive partner, they were less interested in that mate.
"Even though people were only asked to evaluate the potential mate in each photograph, they all spent a significant amount of time looking at the mate's partner," said researcher Jessica Yorzinski, an evolutionary biologist at the University of California, Davis. "Women spent more time looking at the partners that they found attractive, while men shifted their gaze back and forth more."
In addition, while male volunteers were interested in attractive women regardless of their partners, female volunteers were more skeptical of attractive men if they were paired with unappealing companions. This difference might perhaps be rooted in how women are often choosier about mates then men.
"The men might have just had a higher level of interest in all potential mates, and were less discriminating than females would be," Yorzinski said.
Playing the field
One perhaps unpleasant consequence might be that if you are attractive, would-be adulterers might find your spouse more desirable as well. Still, "we actually told subjects that the couples they were viewing were no longer together," Yorzinski said. "We didn't want to create a study about competition with someone already in a relationship, which would involve all kinds of issues."
As such, these findings could actually help singles.
"If the single person was previously seen with an attractive partner, this could still boost their chances," Yorzinski noted. "If you were a woman and a previous boyfriend was attractive and some other guy saw you with him, maybe that would increase your chances if you broke up and were available again. Or perhaps if women doing online dating Web sites are pictured with attractive boyfriends, that would help them get more responses with their ads."
The researchers noted they only focused on the physical attractiveness of the partner, and that future research could investigate whether other aspects, such as personality, might also influence desires. Scientists could also explore the underpinnings of this behavior in the brain to see how these decisions are made.
"Furthermore, we would like to track the gaze of people in a more naturalistic setting, not just in front of a computer screen, as they choose their mates, perhaps to see where people look when trying to pick up a date at a bar or when speed dating," Yorzinski added.
Yorzinski and her colleague Michael Platt detailed their findings online Feb. 9 in the journal PLoS ONE.