Imagine that you and a friend are walking down the street and you see a beautiful stranger of the opposite sex coming your direction. Your friend leans in and whispers that this person is bad news: he/she is a known scam artist who cheats people out of money. Would this change your view of how hot the stranger is?
A new set of studies published in the International Journal of Psychology suggests that it would, but that you’re more likely to be affected by this information if you’re a woman rather than a man.
Two studies were conducted in which male and female college students from Spain viewed dozens of images of strangers of the opposite sex accompanied by one-sentence captions suggesting that they were either “good” or “bad” people.
“Good” people were described as having very positive traits, such as being an advocate for human rights at a non-profit agency, being a hero who had saved someone’s life, or being a leader in the fight against animal cruelty.
“Bad” people were described as having very negative traits, such as belonging to a terrorist organization, being a drug dealer, or swindling people out of money.
Participants only saw photos of the opposite sex and, for each one, they were simply asked to rate how physically attractive they found the target to be.
“Bad” targets were consistently rated as less physically attractive than “good” targets across studies. However, the moral information influenced women more strongly than men.
Put another way, while both men and women rated bad targets as less attractive than good targets, women drew a much larger distinction between the attractiveness of bad versus good people.
What this means is that a man’s moral character has a big effect on how attractive he is perceived to be by women: Good guys are seen as much more attractive than bad guys.
By contrast, a woman’s moral character doesn’t matter nearly as much in the eyes of men—the sex appeal of good women and bad women isn’t all that different.
What accounts for this pattern of results? The author of these studies argues that it may stem from differences in how men and women have evolved to approach mating. Evolutionary psychologists believe that because making babies is a much costlier activity for women than it is for men, women have evolved to be the “choosier” sex and place a greater value on having a reliable partner.
To the extent that this is true, it could explain why women are more sensitive to information about a potential partner’s moral character—knowing whether a guy is a good or bad person could be a sign of whether he’s likely to stick around and help care for any children he fathers.
One limitation of this research is that we don’t know whether people were rating the attractiveness of the targets as casual partners or as longer-term prospects. It could be that guys pay more attention to morality concerns when focusing on a woman’s romantic desirability compared to her sexual desirability.
Also, there wasn’t a control condition in which photos were presented in the absence of information about the target’s moral character. As a result, we can’t say whether the effects of positive and negative information were equally potent, or if one was more powerful than the other.
However, psychologists have identified something called the negativity bias, which refers to the idea that we tend to be more sensitive to negative compared to positive information. This is thought be an adaptive element of human psychology that helps to steer us away from people and situations that are dangerous or potentially fatal.
In light of this, I would venture to guess that bad information probably had a much bigger effect on attractiveness than good information did here.
Although further research is needed to verify this, the results of these studies reveal that judgments of attractiveness aren’t just based on another person’s looks—their moral character factors into the equation, too, particularly for women. While men’s judgments of attractiveness are relatively detached from morality concerns, women seem to think good guys are far more attractive than bad boys.