The Contrast Effect and Beautiful Girls: There is Harm in Only Looking!
July 20, 2012
Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder in Hot Topics, attractiveness, contrast effect, media effects, playboy

It’s summer again, and that means warm weather, beach vacations, and the dreaded bathing suit! Growing up on the coast, I figured I’d eventually get used to the summertime show-and-tell of swimsuit season. Unfortunately, I was wrong. 

Just recently, I was at the beach with my family and we were looking for a place to plant our chairs. One male member quickly picked the perfect spot.  It did not occur to me until I sat down that what made this such a prime location was its proximity to some college-aged, scantily-clad, bathing beauties. It would have been awesome if I had not noticed, or if I had just been happy for those young girls and resisted the urge to compare myself. Regrettably, that was not the case. 

In other posts, we’ve discussed the many benefits associated with being beautiful. However, being around beautiful people is another matter altogether. As you may have experienced in your own life, there is a psychological tendency, known as the contrast effect, to evaluate “normal” people as less desirable and unfairly plain when compared to “beautiful” people.1 That’s right, your level of attractiveness may be situation-specific. 

Similar to my experience on the beach, being around highly attractive individuals can make us more critical of ourselves. Interestingly, it doesn’t matter whether the comparison person exists in our real worlds or in movies, tv shows, or magazines. Being around beautiful people leaves us feeling less satisfied about our own attractiveness, and can even lead women to doubt their desirability as a marriage partner.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, the contrast effect influences our partners, as well. For example, research has shown that when males view pictures of especially attractive women, they rate their own partners less positively. In an even more disturbing study, men reported lower levels of LOVE and COMMITMENT to their current partners after viewing Playboy centerfolds!2 

Why might this be the case? Well, it is a matter of comparison to alternatives. In real life, my partner and I are likely to compare ourselves to others that we’re generally around – i.e., thirty-something academics. On the beach, however, we both compare ourselves to the chiseled bodies around us. As you can imagine, I tend to fare better in the previous as compared to the latter comparison. 

Writing this post made me think of one of my favorite movies, Beautiful Girls. Throughout the movie you see a group of guys just before their high school reunion. Most of the guys pine after the idea of a beautiful girl, while their actual romances receive little to no attention. I recommend watching the entire movie, but I particularly appreciate the scene below, where one of the female characters essentially explains the dangers of the contrast effect. Watching it with your partner may help to open up a discussion about this wacky phenomenon, as well as counteract its effects. Enjoy!

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1Kenrick, D. T., Montello, D. R., Gutierres, S. E., & Trost, M. R. (1993). Effects of physical attractiveness on affect and perceptual judgments: When social comparison overrides social reinforcement. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 19(2), 195-199.

2Kenrick, D. T., Gutierres, S. E., & Goldberg, L. L. (1989). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159-167.

Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.

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