Tag Archives: physical attractiveness

Does SI make everyone look like swimsuit models?

William Easterly believes Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue externalises toward women with their ‘relentless marketing of a “swimsuit” young female body type as sex object’. He doesn’t explain how this would happen.

As far as I can tell, the presumed effect is that pictures of women acting as ‘sex objects’ causes men to increase their credence that all other women are ‘sex objects’. I’m a bit puzzled about the causal path toward badness after that, since men do not seem on the whole less friendly when hoping for sex.

I think the important bit here must be about ‘objects’. I have no idea how one films someone as if they are an object. The women in SI don’t look inanimate, if that’s what it’s about. It’s also hard to make robots that good. I will guess that ‘sex object’ means something like ‘low status person to have sex with’, as opposed to just being sexually alluring. It seems unlikely that the concern is that women are taken to be sexier than they really are, so I think the problem is that they are taken to be low status in this particular sexy way.

If I guessed right so far, I think it is true that men increase their expectation that all other women are sex objects when they view videos of women being sex objects. I doubt this is a big effect, since they have masses of much better information about the sexiness and status of women around them. Nonetheless, I agree it is probably an effect.

However as usual, we are focussing on the tiny gender related speck of a much larger issue. Whenever a person has more than one characteristic, they give others the impression that those characteristics tend to go together, externalising to everyone else with those characteristics. When we show male criminals on the news, it is an externality to all other men. When we show clowns with big red noses it is an externality to all other people with big red noses. When I go outside it gives all onlookers a minuscule increase in their expectation that a tallish person will tend to be brown haired, female, dressed foreignly and not in possession of a car.

Most characteristics don’t end up delineating much of an externality, because we mostly don’t bother keeping track of all the expectations we could have connected to tallish people. What makes something like this a stronger effect is the viewers deciding that tallishness is more or less of a worthwhile category to accrue stereotypes about. I expect gender is well and truly forever high on the list of characteristics popularly considered worth stereotyping about, but people who look at everything with the intent of finding and advertising any hint of gender differential implied by it can only make this worse.

Or better. As I pointed out before, while expecting groups to be the same causes externalities, they are smaller ones than if everyone expected everyone to have average human characteristics until they had perfect information about them. If people make more good inferences from other people’s characteristics, they end up sooner treating the sex objects as sex objects and the formidable intellectuals as formidable intellectuals and so forth. So accurately informing people about every way in which the experiences of men and women differ can help others stereotype more accurately. However there are so many other ways to improve accurate categorisation, why obsess over the gender tinged corner of the issue?

In sum, I agree that women who look like ‘sex objects’ increase the expectation by viewers of more women being ‘sex objects’. I think this is a rational and socially useful response on the part of viewers, relative to continuing to believe in a lower rate of sex objects amongst women. I also think it is virtually certain that in any given case the women in question should go on advertising themselves as sex objects, since they clearly produce a lot of benefit for themselves and viewers that way, and the externality is likely minuscule. There is just as much reason to think that any other person categorisable in any way should not do anything low status, since the sex object issue is a small part of a ubiquitous externality. Obsessing over the gender aspect of such externalities (and everything else) probably helps draw attention to gender as a useful categorisation, perhaps ultimately for the best. As is often the case though, if you care about the issue, only being able to see the gender related part of it is probably not useful.

What do you think? Is concern over some women being pictured as sex objects just an example of people looking at a ubiquitous issue and seeing nothing but the absurdly tiny way in which it might affect women more than men sometimes? Or is there some reason it stands apart from every other way that people with multiple characteristics help and harm those who are like them?

Update: Robin Hanson also just responded to Easterly, investigating in more detail the possible causal mechanisms people could be picturing for women in swimsuits causing harm. Easterly responded to him, saying that empirical facts are irrelevant to his claim.

Why not fake height?

Barking up the wrong tree:

to match the dating success of a man one inch taller, a 5’9″ man would have to make $30,000 a year more…

So why don’t men wear high heels? Obviously the immediate reason is to avoid looking like women, since women wear them. But there are all sorts of things that both men and women do without men becoming sullied by girliness (for instance wearing high heels at other times in history). And why didn’t men get in first and claim high heels for manliness, if they should benefit from it so much? We would be puzzled if in another culture men were the only ones with push up bras, because push up bras were too manly for women to wear.

Even with the danger of looking like a girl in proper high heels, isn’t there a temptation to get men’s shoes with a tiny bit higher heel than usual? Maybe just $10,00 worth of income’s heel? Presumably there is some heel increase that wouldn’t stand out as effeminate. And when that’s commonplace, wouldn’t it be tempting to add a tiny bit more? If height is such an advantage to men, and the danger of girliness shouldn’t stop a gradual increase, what’s the barrier?

Note: I removed the possibility of trackbacks to this post because it was receiving more filter evading spam than I could be bothered looking at.

Trust in the adoration of strangers

Attractive people are more trusting when they think they can be seen:

Here, we tested the effects of cues of observation on trusting behavior in a two-player Trust game and the extent to which these effects are qualified by participants’ own attractiveness. Although explicit cues of being observed (i.e., when participants were informed that the other player would see their face) tended to increase trusting behavior, this effect was qualified by the participants’ other-rated attractiveness (estimated from third-party ratings of face photographs). Participants’ own physical attractiveness was positively correlated with the extent to which they trusted others more when they believed they could be seen than when they believed they could not be seen. This interaction between cues of observation and own attractiveness suggests context dependence of trusting behavior that is sensitive to whether and how others react to one’s physical appearance.

Probably rightly so. It’s interesting that people do not get used to the average level of good treatment expected for their attractiveness, but are sensitive to the difference in treatment when visible and when not. Is it inbuilt that we should expect some difference there, or is it just very noticeable?

I wonder whether widespread beauty enhancement increases overall trust in society, and enhances productivity accordingly, or whether favorable treatment and returned trust both adapt to relative position. Does advertising suggesting that the world is chock full of model material decrease trust between real people?

Subconscious stalking?

Just seeing another person look at something can tend to make you like it a bit more than if you see them looking in another direction:

In this study, we found that objects that are looked at by other people are liked more than objects that do not receive the attention of other people (Experiment 1). This suggests that observing averted gaze can have an impact on the affective appraisals of objects in the environment. This liking effect was absent when an arrow was used to cue attention (Experiment 2). This underlines the importance of other people’s interactions with objects for generating our own impressions of such stimuli in the world.

The authors suggest this is because people really do tend to look at things more if they like them, and that another person likes something is information about its value. This makes sense, and even more if we assume that the ancestral environment contained fewer eye catching people paid to prominently give items their attention.

Is observing the eye movement of others an earlier version of facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Is observing the eye movement of others a precursor to facebook? (picture: xkcd.com)

Another possibility though is that people want to have coinciding tastes to those around them often, so we are not so much interested in clues to the item’s inherent value, but directly in the other person’s values. In that case if we evolved nicely we would react more to some people looking than to others.

Sure enough, this study found that such an effect seems to hold for attractive people, but not unattractive:

In a conditioning paradigm, novel objects were associated with either attractive or unattractive female faces, either displaying direct or averted gaze. An affective priming task showed more positive automatic evaluations of objects that were paired with attractive faces with direct gaze than attractive faces with averted gaze and unattractive faces, irrespective of gaze direction. Participants’ self-reported desire for the objects matched the affective priming data.

Added: These days we can discover (and adapt to) many people’s likes and dislikes prior to meeting them extensively, as long as they post them all over Facebook or the like. If the tendency to coordinate our values based on minor cues was good enough to evolve, does the possibility of doing so much more effectively via online stalking give a selective advantage to those who use it?

Do fetching models stave off shallowness?

Many complain that prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as inhumanly attractive causes people to think attractiveness is more important than it should be. This is unlikely.

Prevalent advertising portraying an inaccurate proportion of humanity as too attractive is blamed for misinforming people on the value of attractiveness.

Unattractive females, both self rated and judged externally, find features of male physical attractiveness, such as facial masculinity and voice, less appealing than attractive females do.

This study suggests such behavior is to avoid wasting effort on guys who won’t be interested. That hypothesis beats the others because women’s preferences adapt fast to circumstances. In the study women saw pictures of other women who were more or less attractive. As their own perceived attractiveness went down or up accordingly, their preferences for male facial masculinity did too.

Do physically unattractive people actually believe one another to be hot? This study suggests not:

When less attractive people accept less attractive
dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they
choose to date are more physically attractive than others
perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular
Web site HOTorNOT.com suggests that this is not the
case: Less attractive people do not delude themselves into
thinking that their dates are more physically attractive
than others perceive them to be.

When less attractive people accept less attractive dates, do they persuade themselves that the people they choose to date are more physically attractive than others perceive them to be? Our analysis of data from the popular Web site HOTorNOT.com suggests that this is not the case…

Instead, same study suggests that less attractive people claim to put greater weight on other characteristics than attractiveness in mate choice:

..participants’ own attractiveness was significantly correlated with their standardized weights for physical attractiveness (r 5 .60, prep 5 .98), but negatively correlated with their standardized weights for sense of humor (r 5 .44, prep 5 .91). Overall, these results suggest that more attractive people and less attractive people consider different criteria in date selection: Less attractive people tend to place less weight on physical attractiveness and greater weight on non-attractiveness-related attributes such as sense of humor.

Together these pieces of research suggests that encouraging everyone to feel less attractive should decrease the adoration people (at least claim to) direct at the best looking of us and bring about more appreciation of traits which we consider more virtuous to care about. One method for achieving this, similar to the one shown effective in an above study, would be to surround everyone with pictures of super-attractive models. The advertising industry is making steady progress on this front, yet is blamed for encouraging society to care about looks. Would we be even more shallow without this stream of superior gorgeousness?