Researchers have long documented the impact of what they call the "beauty premium": Not only do good-looking people tend to command more attention in school and work, but they also appear to make more money in their fields, compared to their less attractive co-workers. But as a new study published last month in Personal Relationships points out, "being physically attractive is not without its liabilities."
A team of researchers led by Christine Ma-Kellams, a social psychologist with ties to Harvard University and the University of La Verne in California, wanted to better understand the impact of physical attractiveness on relationship outcomes, namely: Do beautiful people have shorter relationships and more divorces? Her research team conducted four studies to see if there was a connection, and, if so, what contributing factors might be at hand.
In the first two studies, the team established that, indeed, there is a link between beauty and breakups. In one experiment, two independent female coders pored over old high school yearbook photos from the late 70s and 80s and rated men based on facial attractiveness. Researchers then looked up the subjects on Ancestry.com to determine their marital status and found that those who were divorced were, on average, rated more attractive than the married men. The second experiment found similar results: The same coders rated the top male and female celebrities, according to IMDb and Forbes; the most attractive were also married for shorter amounts of time.
Past research has found that people who are in relationships tend to lose their wandering eye over time; because of this, the study's authors sought to investigate whether more attractive people still maintain interest in alternative relationship options. Participants in a third study, with just under half being in exclusive relationships, were asked to rate the attractiveness of a "target" of the opposite sex. Researchers discovered that those who were more physically attractive and in a committed relationship actually showed more interest in the targets. This, the authors write, reveals a "relational liability insofar as it promotes perceived interest in alternative partners."
A final experiment addressed relationship satisfaction and its impact on interest in alternatives. Participants who were made to feel more attractive (after viewing a series of photos featuring less attractive, same sex people) rated images of opposite sex, attractive targets more attractive, and especially so if they admitted they were dissatisfied in their current relationship. The same was not true for people who were made to feel unattractive by viewing a series of photos of more appealing people. (Images were taken from Google search results for "attractive female," "unattractive female," "attractive male," and "unattractive male.")
"The findings are noteworthy," the study's authors note, "because they demonstrate that [physical attractiveness] predicts the likelihood of [a] relationship being threatened—in this case, by poor relationship satisfaction."
Overall, the study suggests pretty people may have more breakups because they may be less willing to do the work necessary to maintain their relationships. "I think attractiveness gives you more options in terms of relationship alternatives," Ma-Kellams tells Broadly, "which might make it harder to protect a relationship from outside threats. In this sense, having too many other choices is likely not beneficial for relationship longevity."
Ma-Kellams says she became interested in this research when she looked at the existing literature on physical attractiveness and wondered if there was another side to the idea that beauty was always desirable. "Casual observations suggest that physical attractiveness is not a guarantee of long-lasting, satisfying relationships," she says.
While those who have been snubbed by a good-looking person may find solace in these findings—sorry, it may not have lasted anyway—Ma-Kellams says there's a lesson here for pretty people, too. "One possible takeaway for physically attractive people is to be aware of their own capacity and tendencies in close relationships," she says. "Ending a relationship isn't necessarily a negative thing (depending on the perspective), but if the goal is to have an enduring one, then perhaps an attractive person should be mindful of their own limitations and not rely too heavily on their own appeal."