Sexy enough to save the day? An overview of the psychological implications of attractiveness
"Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?"
-The wicked queen, Snowwhite and the seven dwarfs.
It is gross to think of murdering someone for their looks. But prosecution of people just because of their looks is not a remote theme. From stories like Othello and snow white to real life instances when an Arab model was arrested for looking good, attractiveness has always been intimidating to the human psyche. It is dangerous, tempting and powerful that we all have times when we stood before the mirror, trying to reassure ourselves that we are beautiful enough.
Before moving on to explore why and how the quality of being attractive is in itself attractive, we must understand what exactly is attractive. Like many other concepts that interfere with our psychological strata, attractiveness too possess global and culture specific elements to it.
Universally symmetry is deemed to be attractive. Symmetry is evolutionarily important as well. It is an indication of health as much as it works interestingly from a Gestalt perspective of perception.
Clinical literature on attractiveness has two landmark studies that tried to explore attractiveness. One study by Cunningham (1986) involved rating photos of women by male students in college based on attractiveness. The most attractive women, according to the study, fell into two groups, one with child-like features and another with more matured features. This hints at our basic instinct based inclination towards child-like features termed as neoteny which has been efficiently exploited by animation studios like Disney while creating likeable characters that rake in billions. Our inclination towards mature features roots back to reproductive success and maternal elements.
The other study by Langlois and Roggman (1990) superimposed computerized images of photographs of people and found that photos created by averaging was found to be rated most attractive. Both these studies imply the universal nature of attractiveness. This is the reason why people appear more attractive in group photos than in single pictures. These factors, when read along the principles of natural selection can be seen as favorable phenotypes giving a slight edge for people with these traits. Moreover, these are just few facts, there is more information regarding the same. Some situational factors also contribute to our appraisal of attractiveness. Comparison with others, psychological reactance and "beer goggles" in which people of opposite sex were found to be more attractive during the closing hours of bars are a few in the long list. Certain behaviors such as decoration and enhancement of our looks, from makeup, attire and jewelry to physical fitness and even plastic surgeries - in some cases are also less deterministic aspects concerning attractiveness.
Psychological factors such as modesty are considered to be a key to attractiveness (Ellis, H).
All these basic tenets of attractiveness gives a slight edge to the people who are considered to be "attractive". Numerous empirically grounded evidence backs this argument. For instance, height, a characteristic feature in attractiveness was found to play a role in political elections in which taller candidates had a higher chance to win (Zebrowitz et al., 2003). Similar findings were found with respect to walking styles, body type, as well as individual's attitudes about physical attractiveness irrespective of the accuracy of such attitudes. Another study by Mazzella and Feingold (1994) found that people accused of most major crimes were less likely to be found guilty if they are physically attractive, female and of high, rather than low socioeconomic status.
All of these data, inadvertently points to a very pessimistic, deterministic attribute regarding attractiveness. The fact that it has been proven empirically and that most of it is universal is unsettling as it can get depressive. The immediate consequences may range from appearance-rejection sensitivity or the worry that people will get rejected because they feel that they don't appear good enough and hence have body image issues and unhealthy conditions due to which they do excessive exercise lading to eating disorders and body dysmorphic disorder which are all effectively capitalized by the beauty products and plastic surgery industry.
As disappointing as this discourse can get, it comes with its own conclusion that bears hope and is a bit more cheerful. The highly deterministic paradigm of attractiveness has its foundations in instincts, thumb rules and prejudices in many cases. But there are certain other aspects that makes anyone attractive, instantly.
Being kind, being good with animals and children, and having moral integrity are not just virtues celebrated in story books, but also empirically proven qualities that make a person attractive. After all, beauty is created, not entitled.
As species evolved with parts that are capable of free will, it is possible to override these deterministic aspects, though it isn't very easy. But the accomplishment of this raises our consciousness as it involves a superior metacognitive function as well. So working on taming the influence of attractiveness in our own lives, though seems nearly impossible but can be seen as an opportunity to strive towards an overall enhancement of ourselves rather than merely improving our appearance.
At the end of the day it's always important to remember that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.