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Physical Attractiveness

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Physical Attractiveness

Walster et al. (1966) discovered that when on a blind date, physical attractiveness is the most important factor affecting people’s attraction. In the sexual selection explanation, we looked at how physical features can be signs of evolutionarily desirable characteristics. However, in the modern world, where one doesn’t need to look healthy and strong to prove they can survive, why does physical attractiveness influence attraction?

According to the halo effect, we are more likely to view attractive people in a positive light. The phrase ‘they have kind eyes’ is an example of this as it suggests that someone with nice eyes must also have a kind personality.

The matching hypothesis states that people choose partners who are a similar level of physical attractiveness to themselves as this means they won’t experience rejection. The phrase ‘she’s way out of my league’ shows this as it suggests that people match with those who have a similar level of attractiveness to them.

Physical attractiveness Women holding hands StudySmarterTwo women holding hands - StudySmarter Originals.

The halo effect

The halo effect describes the phenomenon where we perceive physically attractive people as having positive personality traits.

Dion et al. (1972) conducted a study with 30 male and 30 female American students. The students were told they were taking part in a ‘people perception’ experiment alongside graduates trained in the field.

Each participant was given a randomly chosen selection of three envelopes containing photos: one with an ‘attractive’ person, one with an ‘average-looking person’, and another with an ‘unattractive’ person.

The participants then had to rate the people in the photos on 27 different personality traits on a scale from 1-6. They were then asked which they thought was most likely to achieve marital, parental, and general happiness. Additionally, participants were asked what profession they would assign to each person divided into low, medium, and high-status occupations.

Here are the results:


Unattractive photo

Average photo

Attractive photo

Positive personality traits (composite score)




Occupational status




Marital happiness




Parental happiness




Overall happiness




Clearly, the results show that participants perceived attractive people as having more positive personality traits, higher status jobs, and greater happiness. These results support the halo effect theory, as they suggest that people do link physical attractiveness to positive personality traits.

Evaluation of the halo effect as a factor affecting physical attractiveness

Let’s study some strengths and limitations of the halo effect theory.


Palmer and Peterson (2012) found that people rated attractive people as more politically competent and knowledgeable in contrast to unattractive people. These results show that physical attractiveness is perceived as a sign of positive personality traits, leading to further attraction.


The halo effect theory has three main weaknesses.

Subjective: what people do and don’t find attractive is subjective, so although Dion et al. (1972) had categorised the photos as ‘attractive’, ‘average’ or ‘unattractive’ it remains that for some people the ‘attractive’ people might have been ‘average’ or even ‘unattractive’.

Deception: Dion et al. (1972) were not truthful about the real aims of the study and deceived the participants, which is ethically questionable. On the other hand, this helped them avoid demand characteristics, wherein participants attempt to fulfill the hypothesis of the study.

Low ecological validity and reductionist: other factors such as voice, mannerisms, and clothing might influence someone’s attractiveness. However, Dion et al’s (1972) study reduced attraction to only physical characteristics. It failed to consider what may also influence attraction in real-life situations.

The matching hypothesis

When looking for a potential partner, we may not instantly go for the most attractive person around. Instead, we look for someone who we think fits our level of attractiveness. This is also known as the matching hypothesis.

Physical attractiveness  matching hypothesis StudySmarterPhone showing a match - StudySmarter Originals.

According to this theory, proposed by Elaine Walster and colleagues in 1966, a person’s choice of partner is a balance between someone who is of a similar level of attractiveness to them and who is the most attractive person possible within their ‘league’. This is because people aim to get the best outcome (the most attractive partner) without the negative experience of being rejected.

Evaluation of the matching hypothesis as a factor affecting physical attractiveness

Let’s review some strengths and limitations of the matching hypothesis.


Feingold (1988) conducted a meta-analysis of 17 couples, where he found that there was a strong correlation between the partners’ ratings of attractiveness of themselves and their partner. This study supports the matching hypothesis.


Walster et al. (1966) invited 752 students to a dance at the University of Minnesota. They were matched with another student at the party and attended a ‘blind date’ at the dance. Secretly, they were judged on their attractiveness by a panel of judges.

During intervals at the dance and a few months after (four to six months), they were asked if they found their partner attractive and if they would go on a second date with them. Regardless of their own level of attractiveness, students expressed a desire to go on a second date even if their partner was more attractive than them. This contradicts the matching hypothesis as it states people will go for those more attractive of them regardless of their own appearance.

Taylor et al. (2011) found that on dating sites people are more likely to try to arrange a meeting with people who are more attractive than them. This contradicts the matching hypothesis as according to it people should seek out those with a similar level of attractiveness to them to avoid rejection.

General evaluation of physical attractiveness as a factor affecting attraction

Let’s now explore some strengths and limitations of the idea that physical attractiveness is a factor that affects attraction.

Physical attractiveness  attraction StudySmarterMagnets attracted to each other, StudySmarter Originals.


  • Cross-cultural: Cunningham et al. (1995) studied Asian, white, and Hispanic men’s attitudes towards women. They found that high cheekbones, small noses, and large eyes were rated as attractive across all cultures. This suggests that there are physical features that are attractive across cultures. This would mean that physical attractiveness is a reliable measure of attraction.


  • Mainly applies to short-term relationships: it has been shown that physical attractiveness is most important in short-term relationships, whereas in long-term relationships, the most important things are compatibility of attitudes and morals. The matching theory also doesn’t take into account that people may compensate for a lack of physical attraction by focussing on people’s positive personality traits.

  • Beta-bias: many studies have shown men value physical attractiveness more than women in relationships. Meltzer et al. (2014) found that men rate their long-term relationships as more satisfying if they find their partner physically attractive. Meanwhile, for women, their partner’s attractiveness didn’t influence their satisfaction. This shows that physical attractiveness is not a reliable motivator for attraction across genders.

  • Towhey (1979) gave participants photos of strangers along with some biographical information. Participants were asked to rate their attractiveness and found that physical attractiveness was more important to participants who also displayed sexist attitudes (which were revealed via a survey). Whilst the halo effect and matching hypothesis put physical attractiveness at the forefront of attractiveness, Towhey’s study shows that attractiveness may be more or less influential to different people.

Physical Attractiveness - Key takeaways

    • The halo effect is when we perceive physical attractiveness as a sign of positive personality traits.

    • The matching hypothesis (established by Walster et al.) proposes that people seek partners who have a similar level of physical attractiveness as them to avoid rejection.

    • Walster et al. (1966) carried out a study at a university dance which showed that people sought out dates with people even if they were more attractive than them, contradicting Walster et al’s hypothesis.

    • Although physical attractiveness is cross-cultural, it is not cross-gender. Men seem to value physical attractiveness more than women.

Frequently Asked Questions about Physical Attractiveness

The matching hypothesis is the theory that people choose partners who are a similar level of physical attractiveness to themselves as this means they won’t experience rejection. 

Physical attraction is when someone is attracted to another person due to their physical appearance. 

According to the halo effect and the matching hypothesis, attraction is motivated by physical attractiveness as we associate positive traits with good looking people. We also tend to form relationships with people who are a similar level of physical attractiveness as ourselves. 

The halo effect is when people link positive personality traits to physical attractiveness.

Cunningham et al. (1995) found that there were common traits that were considered physically attractive in Asian, European, and Hispanic cultures, suggesting that physical attractiveness is global.

Final Physical Attractiveness Quiz


_____ attractiveness is a factor affecting attraction.

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The ______ effect is when people link physical attractiveness with positive personality traits.

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Who proposed the matching hypothesis and when? 

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Walster et al. (1966).

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According to the matching hypothesis why do people look for partners with a similar level of attractiveness to them?

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To avoid rejection. 

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What is one strength of the halo effect as an explanation for attraction? 

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It is supported by Palmer and Peterson (2012) study in which attractive people were judged as more knowledgeable and politically competent than unattractive people. 

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The_______ hypothesis explains attraction as an attempt to find a partner who is a similar level of attractiveness to you. 

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Which groups did Cunningham (1996) investigate in their study of attraction? 

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Hispanic, Inuit, Asian. 

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Who found that there was a strong correlation between partners' ratings of their attractiveness?

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Which study contradicts the matching hypothesis and why?

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Taylor (2011) found that on dating sites, people sought out those who they viewed as more attractive. This contradicts the matching hypothesis, as people did not seek out those with a similar level of attraction to themselves. 

Show question


What is one weakness of the halo effect? 

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Attractiveness is based on personal opinion and is subjective, meaning you cannot generalise who is attractive and who isn’t, as Dion et al. (1972) did in their study. 

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