People in happy relationships find good-looking singles less attractive
When you’re in a relationship, jealousy can be a little bitch. You’ll catch yourself suspiciously glaring at their flirty co-worker, shielding them from view on the city bus, and intervening in any conversation with the opposite sex that lasts longer than 30 seconds.
But emerging science suggests that maybe the jealous monsters inside us no longer need to worry (as much). New studies indicate that people in happy relationships are less susceptible to temptation because they see other potential partners as less attractive than they actually are.
For years, scientists have been claiming that monogamy isn’t necessarily hard-wired within us. But these new findings negate that argument, and imply that once we’re in a relationship, our brains work hard to keep us committed to our partner. Our brains essentially build up a defense mechanism, finding flaws in objectively attractive people to help us avoid temptation.
The experiment, conducted by researchers at Rutgers University and New York University, started with a basic understanding of what men and women find attractive in the opposite sex. In women, “sexy faces” share characteristics like higher cheek bones, a narrower face, longer eyelashes, and fuller lips. In men, “sexy faces” have common features like browner skin, darker eye brows, and a prominent lower jaw and chin.
Researchers tried out these “sexy formulas” on their participants, who were all heterosexual college students. They assigned each student a (fake) lab partner of the opposite sex, and gave them each a profile on their partner that included a photo of their face and revealed whether they were single or in a relationship. Later, each student was asked to match their lab partner’s face with one of 11 photos. Only one of the 11 photos was the original picture, while five were morphed to look more attractive and five were morphed to look less attractive.
The surprising finding: people in relationships significantly “downgraded” the face of their lab partners, matching their original photo with a much uglier version. Single people, on the other hand, had a tendency to “upgrade,” matching their partner’s photo with a better-looking version. The students made this choice without any explicit knowledge that the faces varied in attractiveness.
The students also judged different levels of attractiveness depending on whether the lab partners were single or in a relationship. When students who were in a relationship learned that their lab partner was also in a relationship, they viewed their partner as slightly more attractive. The likely reason is that a single lab partner poses more of a threat to a relationship than a taken one.
After discovering the phenomenon of “relationship goggles,” researchers wanted to determine if the deluded vision the “goggles” produced was more powerful in happier relationships. In a follow-up experiment, all the students were told that their lab partners were single, but only some partners were described as interested in dating, while other partners were not. Then, students with significant others were asked to report how satisfied they were in their relationships.
The results: Only the students in happy relationships viewed single-and-ready-to-mingle lab partners as less attractive. Students in unhappy relationships experienced the opposite — outside temptations became more attractive, similar to how single people perceived them.
Of course, relationship goggles aren’t foolproof. Some people prefer monogamy, while others want to sleep around. And in today’s world of constant connectivity through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, or Tinder, you may sometimes feel bombarded with attractive alternatives … being in a relationship certainly doesn’t make you immune to that. But, you can at least take some solace in knowing that your relationship has a natural defense mechanism. Whether it works or not probably has less to do with the attractiveness of other people and more to do with the strength of your own relationship.
People with a long-term goal in mind tend to devalue temptation. Chocolate bars are less appealing when you’re trying to maintain good health. Expensive dinners don’t tempt you when you’re trying to save money. And when you’re trying to maintain a great relationship, your brain will downplay the appeal of other options. And since the same goes for your partner, your natural jealousy can finally take a back seat. Of course, you’ll still keep an eye on their co-worker.