By Madeline A Fugere Ph.D.
Consider the characteristics that are often considered desirable in a mate—a sense of humor, intelligence, kindness, understanding, a family orientation, good looks. Which would you rank as most important in a romantic partner? Which is least important to you? Research consistently shows that we rank most or all of these traits as more important than good looks (Apostolou, 2011; Apostolou, 2015; Buss et al., 2001; Perilloux et al., 2011). However, consciously ranking traits as more or less important may not reflect the way we make our real-life dating and mating decisions.
A few months ago I sat down with my friend Louise* while she scanned online dating profiles. Louise told me that looks were not that important to her, but that a good sense of humor was a must. While Louise certainly values all of the characteristics I listed above, not once did we say, “This guy seems like he has a great sense of humor,” or, “This man has very kind features.” We only stopped to further investigate the profiles of men who seemed physically attractive.
Physical Attractiveness is More Important Than We Think
Physical attractiveness may serve as a gatekeeper directing us toward partners who are healthy, age appropriate, and able to reproduce (Weeden and Sabini, 2005). And when we make real-life dating and mating decisions, research indicates, physical appearance dominates: We choose to pursue relationships with those who are attractive to us (see Luo and Zhang, 2009; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Thao et al., 2010).
Men (both gay and straight) seem to consciously recognize the importance of physical attractiveness more than women (both straight and lesbian; see Lippa, 2007). However, experimental research, as well as evidence from online dating and speed dating, shows that physical attractiveness is equally important to men and women. Further, attractiveness tends to be a more important factor in our dating decisions than traits like personality, education, and intelligence (Eastwick et al., 2011; Eastwick and Finkel, 2008; Luo and Zhang, 2009; Kurzban and Weeden, 2005; Sprecher, 1989; Thao et al., 2010). Physical attractiveness may be so important to us because we associate other positive qualities with a pleasing appearance. For example, attractive individuals are expected to be happier and to have more rewarding life experiences than unattractive individuals (Dion et al., 1972; Griffin and Langlois, 2006). This tendency to associate attractiveness with positive qualities occurs crossculturally (Shaffer et al., 2000; Zebrowitz et al., 2012).
Physical Attractiveness is Less Important Than We Think
One reason we may not consciously realize the importance of physical attractiveness is that we don’t necessarily want partners who are extremely attractive—we just want partners who are attractive enough. In Dion et al.’s (1972) research, both attractive and moderately attractive individuals were viewed more positively than less attractive counterparts. Similarly, in Griffin and Langlois’ (2006) research, a lack of attractiveness was associated with negative qualities, but only a moderate level of attractiveness was necessary to make one’s associations positive. To interest us, then, potential mates do not need to be exceptionally attractive, only moderately so.
The distinction between necessities and luxuries (Li et al., 2011) can help us understand the importance of a moderate level of physical attractiveness. According to Li et al., “a necessity is something that is initially extremely desirable…but as more of it is acquired, it diminishes in value. A luxury, in contrast, is not important when necessities are lacking, but becomes more desirable once basic needs have been met” (p. 292).
The research reviewed above suggests that most of us, consciously or not, view a moderate level of physical attractiveness as a “necessity,” while a higher level of may be a “luxury.” When we say that physical attractiveness is not important to us, we are likely referring to the luxury of exceptional attractiveness and not the necessity of a minimum level of attractiveness.
But how attractive is “moderately” attractive? We don’t need to be supermodels to find a mate, but whom we consider to be “moderately attractive” varies from person to person. More attractive people tend to perceive fewer others as physically attractive while less attractive individuals may consider a broader range of others appealing (Montoya, 2008). And looking for someone who shares a similar level of physical attractiveness to your own can enhance your long-term relationship success (Feingold, 1998; Fugère et al., 2015; more on matching in physical attractiveness in this post ).
But no matter our personal level of attractiveness, or our partner’s, as we get to know, like, and respect each other more, our attraction naturally grows and deepens (Kniffin and Wilson, 2004). The longer we know each other, the less important physical attractiveness becomes to beginning and maintaining a long-term relationship.