Though they meet thousands of new people in their lifetime, what underlying psychological factors might couples use to stay committed to their partners? According to a recent study, people in relationships actually see tempting people outside of their partnership as less attractive. This perceptual bias could represent a non-conscious method of self-control that assists in overcoming temptations in order to facilitate long term goals of staying with a romantic partner.
In a recent set of experiments, psychologists Dr. Shana Cole (Rutgers University), Dr. Yaacov Trope (New York University) and Dr. Emily Balcetis (New York University) found evidence that couples downgrade the appearance of people they perceive as threatening their relationships. The results are published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
Most previous research in this area has focused on explicit biases, where participants know they are judging attractiveness and reporting their thoughts about another person. This study is the first to look for implicit, or non-conscious, visual biases that may aid partners in staying committed to a relationship.
The first experiment showed participants images of an opposite-sex lab partner with whom single and coupled college students would interact extensively. Each participant read the individual's profile, which included relationship availability. Next, participants matched the individual's photo with one of several other images. These other images had been manipulated, so that some were more attractive than the original photo and some less attractive.
Of the 131 heterosexual college participants, those in a relationship who learned the target was single and therefore a potential threat to their relationship viewed the individual as less attractive he or she actually was, while participants in a relationship who learned the individual was in a relationship and single participants viewed the individual as slightly more attractive than was really the case.
This downgrading bias occurred despite the fact that participants were offered entry into a raffle for $50 if they selected the correct face during the matching activity, suggesting participants in a relationship were actually perceiving the individual as less attractive.
"Misperceiving attractive people who represent threats to the relationship as less attractive may help people resist the inclination to pursue them," says Dr. Shana Cole. "This is especially important since finding someone physically attractive is a primary reason why people choose to date or romantically pursue someone."
The team replicated their study with 114 students, this time also asking participants to report how satisfied they were in their relationships. This second study also included an extra detail about the availability of the individual. Some participants saw that the individual selected "Sure, I'm interested in dating" while other participants saw that the individual selected "Nah, not interested right now."
In study two, participants who were satisfied with their own relationship partners showed the same results as those in relationships in study one. They saw the individual as less attractive than he or she actually was. However, among those in less satisfying relationships, the results appeared similar to those of single people. Unsatisfied participants more accurately matched the attractive faces to the provided photo.
"In today's world, it can be difficult to stick it out with one long-term partner," says coauthor Emily Balcetis. "This work suggests that there are processes that may take place outside of conscious awareness to make it easier to stay committed to one's own partner."
When it comes to real world behavior, "There are still several questions that are left open," says Cole. "Future research could see whether perceiving intriguing and available individuals as less attractive affects behavior toward the individual. It's possible that if we see tempting others as unattractive, we will flirt less with them or be more reluctant to give out our phone number."