Beauty really is in the eye of the beholder, according to a new study finding people rate their significant others as more attractive than objective strangers do.
This "positive illusion" about a partner's hotness may help keep relationships stable, the study researchers reported in August in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.
Earlier research had turned up evidence that people rate their boyfriends, girlfriends and spouses as especially kind and intelligent compared with other people. No one had established whether this rosy outlook extends to physical looks, so researchers from the University of Groningen in The Netherlands tested the idea with 70 heterosexual couples.
Hot or not?
Each of the men and women first had a headshot taken by a photographer. Then half of the couples filled out a questionnaire about their ratings of their own attractiveness and their partner's attractiveness. Next, they filled out some dummy questionnaires about other topics to throw them off the scent of the experimental question. After that, they got to look at the photo of themselves and their partners taken at the beginning of the session and were told to rate the attractiveness of both. The other couples completed the same process, but looked at the photos first.
To prevent any relationship-ending revelations, the researchers promised that the men and women's answers would be confidential. Later, strangers went through all of the photographs and rated the attractiveness of each person in the experiment. [Read: 8 Ways to Ruin Your Relationship]
The results showed that both men and women consistently rated both their own hotness and that of their partner higher than the strangers did. The researchers had thought that people might rate the photographs more objectively, since photos make awkward features hard to ignore, but that wasn't the case. Attractiveness ratings based on photos were only slightly lower than attractiveness ratings based on people's own memories.
The couples in the study were mostly young, ranging in age from 18 to 37, and the average length of the relationships was between two and three years, though they ranged from three months to almost nine years. Further study on older people and longer relationships is needed to understand how positive illusions change over time, the researchers wrote.
In many ways, the authors wrote, these positive illusions are a good thing. Other studies have found that people who hold such illusions are happier in their relationships, experience less conflict, and report more love and trust. On the other hand, they wrote, positive illusions can be troublesome if taken too far: In couples with rocky relationships, positive illusions are harbingers of trouble, because a too-rosy outlook allows real problems to fester.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.