He's ... not so easy on the eyes. Her name literally means "beautiful." It's one of the most classic love stories ever -- and it's not so far-fetched, according to new research. (OK, leaving aside the whole "enchanted rose" and turning-into-an-anthropomorphic-bison thing.)
Dr. Paul Eastwick and doctoral student Lucy Hunt of the University of Austin, who specialize in the psychology of human attraction, studied how 167 college-aged couples in long-term relationships got together. Seven other "trained," "reliable" students then "rated the extent to which each participant was physically attractive..."
Turns out, a close bond helps people see past the superficial stuff. "Couple members were less likely to be matched for attractiveness if they had been friends before they started dating," Hunt and Eastwick wrote, and "matched couples were no more likely to be satisfied with their relationships than mismatched couples." MTV News spoke with Hunt to learn more about the findings, and why beauty really is in the eye of the beholder.
MTV: How exactly did you determine the physical attractiveness of the couples, if that's subjective?
Lucy Hunt: For objective attractiveness, we showed videos of the couples interacting and had independent coders rate the attractiveness of these people. ... Then we thought, when one partner’s really attractive, you probably think the other partner’s attractive just by seeing them together. So we covered half the screen and showed another group of coders one partner at a time, and had them rate the attractiveness of each partner.
There were definitely some wide discrepancies in attractiveness. I remember seeing some couples in the videos and thinking, “Oh, they’re together? That’s interesting...” But when you really watch the videos and see the couples' dynamic, it’s kind of like what the study says. You think, “Ah, OK, that makes sense. They’re so compatible.”
MTV: How does friendship come into the relationship equation?
Hunt: We asked, “Were you platonic friends before dating?” specifically because it’s possible that you can know someone for many years, but really barely know them. People who said they were friends first, and people who said they were together for a long time, yielded very similar results.
I think the uplifting thing about this is that once you get to know somebody over time, easily observable characteristics like beauty -- well, the perceptions of those characteristics change. What maybe seemed not so attractive at first can become more attractive over time.
MTV: By that logic, could you avoid a potentially bad relationship by really getting to know the person first?
Hunt: Exactly. The data bears that out. In getting to know someone, you either realize there’s a spark or not.
MTV: Was this equally true for male and female students?
Hunt: You’re just as likely to see an unattractive male with an attractive female as you are to see an unattractive female with an attractive male. A lot of people are taking this in a gender direction, and I want to stay away from that, because really you see this in both men and women. But I think people like to hop onto the gender element, even though that’s not what we saw in the data.
MTV: So if you have a crush on a friend, is it best to just give it time and hope they feel the same way eventually?
Hunt: Getting to know someone better will increase the likelihood that they’ll either really like you eventually or just not like you as a partner. Investing time is good, but if you get the consistent signal that they don’t want to be with you, you should probably give up. This study suggests that the "Friend Zone" is a myth, but in some ways it still holds true.
The nice thing about this study is that it shows that the goal shouldn’t be to be the most attractive person possible; it should be to be as attractive as possible to one person. And we found that even if a lot of people don’t find you attractive, it’s still possible to find people who uniquely think you are highly attractive.
MTV: And it leads to just as much happiness?
Hunt: We found that you’re just as likely to be satisfied with your relationship if you were in a mismatched-attractiveness relationship as if you were in one that was matched. I thought that was interesting, because obviously the point is to find a compatible partner, and a lot of people think, “OK, similarity, that’s probably a good proxy for compatibility.”
But I would say that similarity might just represent one route to compatibility, and that there are more nuanced ways to finding a partner. Our data found that whether you’re similar in attractiveness might not matter much for your relationship satisfaction.