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Conquering Contrast Effects: The Strong Survive and the Weak Shall Perish 

Ever catch your partner checking out an attractive stranger on the street? Ever notice all of the good-looking opposite-sex friends your partner has accumulated on Facebook? Such things might seem harmless, but these “beautiful” people may actually make us less appealing to our partners, due to what researchers refer to as contrast effects. Contrast effects occur when something looks better or worse depending on what we compare to it. In this case, you could look less attractive to your partner when compared to someone else that is more attractive, whether that person is a sexy passerby, a good-looking co-worker, or even someone featured in erotic material. (Read more about contrast effects here.) 

Luckily, there is ample and growing evidence that people in stable relationships don't automatically succumb to the contrast effect.1,2,3 Instead, some people devalue attractive others or alternatives who could potentially threaten their bonds with their partners. Indeed, being in a healthy, committed relationship may actually distract you (or your partner) from even noticing attractive potential partners!

In one study of attention to attractive others, people were asked to judge the effectiveness of 16 advertisements taken from popular magazines like Cosmopolitan and Time.1 Of the 16 ads included in the study, 6 featured opposite-sex models (other ads only featured products). Among other things, participants assessed the models’ physical and sexual attractiveness. Some participants were in relationships while others were not. Those who were in ongoing dating relationships rated the models as significantly less physically and sexually attractive than did non-dating individuals. In other words, despite the attractiveness of the models (they’re models for a reason), people with dating partners were able to ignore the appeal of the models’ physical attributes. 

Researchers found similar results in another study in which people rated the attractiveness of singles who supposedly signed up to participate in a computer-based date-matching service on their campus.2 Researchers did not want participants who were in relationships to feel as if they could not respond honestly, so they asked all of their participants to think about how the average college student might respond when evaluating the singles’ profiles. All participants agreed that the moderately attractive and unattractive singles were not that appealing. Participants who were less committed to their relationship partners admitted to finding the highly attractive singles to be very appealing. Participants who were highly committed to their relationship partner, however, rated the highly attractive singles on par with their less attractive counterparts. In other words, despite the attractiveness of the people in the pictures, committed individuals downplayed the singles’ good looks.

Now you may be thinking that those in relationships purposefully rate others as less attractive because it might be inappropriate to admit that people outside their own relationships are physically desirable. To show that the tendency to ignore attractive others is not consciously controlled, one study measured how quickly people could complete a simple task (identifying a shape as a circle or a square) after seeing an image of an attractive opposite-sex person.3 Responding quickly to the task (faster reaction time) would indicate that the participant spent less time looking at the image of the attractive other, or otherwise reflect their ability to ignore the image and quickly categorize circles as circles and squares as squares (it’s not rocket science). But, before the task, some people were asked to think about a time they felt intense love for their romantic partner, whereas others were asked to think about a time they felt really happy (unrelated to their partner). The people who thought about their romantic partners before the task identified the shape much more quickly following the image of attractive opposite-sex people, but not same-sex or unattractive people. This indicates that thinking about your relationship leads you to spend significantly less time looking at attractive opposite-sex others. Although people cannot control their reaction time like they can their survey responses, the results were consistent with the self-reported findings described earlier. Highly attractive people can threaten individuals’ commitment to their relationships, so shifting attention away from those threats can minimize temptation and help maintain relationships.

Despite contrast effects, it may be comforting to know that those who are committed to their relationships are less interested in, ignore, and even derogate others. So if you want to avoid the potential threats of attractive strangers, friends, or coworkers, keep yourself (and your partner) from being distracted by them. How? Well, the research suggests that strengthening your relationships with your partner can help remove others from view.

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1Simpson, J. A., Gangestad, S. W., & Lerma, M. (1990). Perception of physical attractiveness: Mechanisms involved in the maintenance of romantic relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology59(6), 1192.

2Johnson, D. J., & Rusbult, C. E. (1989). Resisting temptation: Devaluation of alternative partners as a means of maintaining commitment in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology57(6), 967.

3Maner, J. K., Rouby, D. A., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2008). Automatic inattention to attractive alternatives: The evolved psychology of relationship maintenance.Evolution and Human Behavior29(5), 343-349.

Jennifer Shukusky - Science of Relationships articles | Website

Jennifer's interests include relationship initiation and maintenance behaviors. She is particularly interested in how strong relationships survive the threats of attractive others and inhibit sexual desire for extra-pair partners. Her research has also examined sexual behaviors and hookup culture.

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