The Spice Girls were on to something — if you wanna be someone's lover, you gotta get with their friends. According to a new study published in Advances in Consumer Research, our social groups may have the power to stamp "hot" or "not" on a passing stranger. In fact, the research suggests that our view of physical attractiveness is under constant construction, and constantly updates itself to align with the tastes of our friends.
"Our work shows what people find beautiful is not set in stone," coauthor Haiyang Yang, a marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University, told Mic. "People can instantly alter their beauty standards when exposed to others' aesthetic views. I think this is a remarkable ability."
The study challenges one of the biggest notions in evolutionary science: that everyone is on the hunt to combine the strongest (and most attractive) genes on the market with their own. It also knocks at the idea that we might find someone to be "hot" because he or she vibes well with our preferences in food or movies. Instead, they may just fit the bill of what a friend likes.
The study: Visitors of an online dating site were presented with a random photo of an individual and asked to rate that person's "hotness" on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 = not, 10 = hot). After rating an individual, the visitor was given the chance to see how the same person was rated by others on the site. The more a visitor saw other ratings, the more likely their own rating shifted toward them. The researchers analyzed roughly 800,000 ratings completed by nearly 60,000 members on the site and found that the more times a person saw the rating of others, the closer their own rating shifted toward the average rating.
The researchers didn't stop there. Next, they recruited 300 participants and investigated exactly how a person's rating might be affected if they didn't know the opinion of others at all, were given that information directly after they made a choice or were provided with information at the same time as they made their rating. At the end of this experiment, the researchers discovered that participants consistently used the ratings of others as a reference point for their own choices. Those who didn't get any additional information were more likely to be independent and deviate away from the average rating.
The team wanted to dig in even more. This time, they manipulated the average ratings to see if that might sway the beauty standards of participants as well. They either made scores seem lower or higher than the average rating. For instance, if on average someone was rated as a seven, the researchers tweaked the information so that a participant might think that person was rated lower (perhaps as a five). As the researchers suspected, when participants were presented with the tweaked data, especially the reduced scores, they also scored the photo lower.
"Participants did not believe that their judgements were affected by prior exposures on altering beauty standards," the team wrote in their paper.
The final result? Beauty wins every time. The researchers haven't yet made a cross-cultural comparison, but Yang explained that even based on the preliminary findings, it's possible that in cultures where people are more interdependent, this effect might be stronger. Similarly, in cultures where people are more independent, the effect might be weaker. That could be an important understanding for several industries.
"Our research findings suggest a means to influence people's perception of physical attractiveness, which can have implications in arenas where beauty plays an important role. For example, marketing, fashion, entertainment and politics," Yang said. The study, which focuses on the judgement of beauty, might also be applicable to other contexts, such as products and brands, when people are exposed to others' views.
Look around. Do you really find that person attractive? Make sure to ask your friends.