If you happen to be single, you might find comfort in the old cliché. But if you’re in a relationship, thinking about the abundance of “fish” can be kind of scary. What if there’s someone out there, better for you — or worse, better for your partner? Good news: Science suggests the temptation may be less than you’d think. For those of us who are trying to maintain a satisfying relationship, just like people with other long-term goals, our brains have a strategy to minimize the appeal of other options.
People with a long-term goal in mind tend to devalue temptation. A juicy burger may not seem as delicious when you know full well that you’re trying to lose weight. And people in committed relationships may downplay the desirability of “attractive alternatives.” In a recent study, researchers at Rutgers University and New York University tried to measure this effect.
The researchers told participants — heterosexual undergraduate students — about a (fake) lab partner of the opposite sex with whom they would have to work closely. The participants exchanged personal details–hobbies, pet peeves, and relationship status–with their lab partner (called the “target”) via written surveys. Later, each participant was shown a picture of the target and had to match their face with one of 11 options. Of the 11 faces, one was cut directly from the target’s photo, five were morphed to look more attractive (based on research at the University of Regensburg), and five were morphed to look less attractive.
Even though the target’s full photo was right next to the array of faces, participants in relationships significantly “downgraded” faces of single targets by matching the target’s face to one that had been morphed to look less attractive. This happened despite the lack of any explicit knowledge that the faces varied in attractiveness and a potential monetary reward for choosing the correct face. Basically, being in a relationship gave people the opposite of beer goggles when looking at single people — making them perceive good-looking singles as less attractive than they actually were. Importantly, however, this “perceptual downgrading” effect did not happen when the same target was described as in a relationship or when the judging participant was single, which is to say that it didn’t occur in scenarios where the attractive single could not have been seen as a relationship threat.
In a follow-up study, all of the targets were described as single, but some were described as being interested in dating while others were not, and participants in relationships had to report how satisfied they were in their relationships. The researchers found that participants in highly satisfactory relationships viewed single-and-ready-to-mingle targets as less attractive than happily single targets. Participants who were not as satisfied in their relationships, however, viewed all targets as equally attractive. Their relationships were apparently not strong enough to induce a change in vision.
The researchers suggest that the same downgrading might occur outside of relationships, as well. For example, our perception of “the icy condensation on a cold bottle of beer, the plushness of the cushions on the beckoning couch after a long day of work, or the blueness of the sky from the inside of an office cubicle” may also be affected by our long-term goals.
While it’s unclear how perceptual downgrading occurs, it’s possible that people in relationships direct their attention toward the unattractive features of “threatening” singles — while the opposite is true for single people. The study also found that, as you might imagine, single participants perceived single targets as more attractive.
Science confirms it: The thirst is real.
Kerin Higa is a Ph.D. candidate in neuroscience at UC San Diego, where she happily indulges her passions for free food, coffee, mice, and of course, science. She can be found on Twitter and at NeuWriteSD.