One huge criticism of almost all research on attractiveness is the low ecological validity of the studies. In psychology there’s a trade-off that researchers have to make when designing studies – do they tightly control the variables to make sure as few unknown factors are influencing the results as possible, or do they control as little as possible, keeping the test closer to real life but being less sure about what is actually causing the results?
This is ecological validity, the former example is low ecological validity, the latter is high. In attraction research, a lot of studies are done by taking a participant into a room, showing them pictures of men or women, and asking to rate their attractiveness on a 1-10 scale or similar. In fact, sometimes line drawings are used rather than actual pictures of people!
There are loads of issues here. For example, 2d pictures leave out bodylanguage, voice tone, how people move, mannerisms, how they look at you, how close they stand to you, and so on. The good scientists are merely trying to take these things out of the equation, so they know the effect of visual appearance alone, or some aspect of visual appearance. But then the studies cannot say whether any effects found would still hold when these other factors are in play. Maybe visual factors, important when judging a 2d image, are far less important in more natural settings, maybe they aren’t important at all.
So I judge them very carefully – it’s good that they are consistent with the theories in question (which they generally are), but I’d like to see the hypotheses put on the line a little more, because they don’t reflect real situations.
But do they?
Advertisers probably would value from such information, but there’s another situation where judgements of 2d images have real life application – online dating sites! You could feasibly use this research to increase your “hit rate” on sites like match.com, eHarmony, and the rest of them.
I’ll try to compile some of this research and come up with some suggestions.
Science and dating – don’t always mix. (xkcd)