When actors Julia Roberts and Benjamin Bratt called it quits recently, the media went into a frenzy of speculation about why Roberts (who is only 33 after all) can't seem to stay in a lasting love relationship. Some offered her restless nature as a reason; others guessed that Bratt wanted her to move to San Francisco and work less.
And then there were the scientific explanations.
The reason Roberts flits from man to man like a honeybee to flowers, Dr. Georgia Witkin, a clinical psychologist, told US Weekly magazine, is that there is always a more attractive potential partner nearby. When the magazine posed the question "What is Julia's Problem?" to a panel of experts, Witkin replied, "It's not that stars like Julia are afraid to go into relationships; it's just that there's an alternative that is more attractive, and that is the universe of other choice."
What Roberts may be experiencing, in other words, is something called the contrast effect, a phenomenon that influences human perception by presenting two things of varying attributes, one after the other. Example: After a man sees Angelina Jolie naked, his wife of a dozen years may not look so hot. (Or: After Julia Roberts makes a movie with George Clooney, maybe Benjamin Bratt loses some of his luster.)
For the past 21 years, psychologists Douglas Kenrick and Sara Gutierres, both at Arizona State University in Phoenix, have explored the contrast effect as it plays out in judgments made about the opposite sex's desirability. The researchers wanted to explore evolutionary psychology's theory of heterosexual mate selection: Men desire attractive women because beauty and youth indicate fertility whereas women want successful men because it ensures the children's survival.
In a 1980 study, the researchers found that male undergraduates rated a photograph of an average-looking woman presented as a potential blind date for a dorm resident "significantly less attractive" after watching the TV show "Charlie's Angels" as compared to men who hadn't seen the show. (This was aptly called the "Farrah factor.")
In a 1989 study that might have been called the "centerfold factor" the researchers bombarded men with nude magazine centerfolds, finding that afterward the subjects reported that not only did their partners seem less sexually attractive, but they also felt less in love.
Images of naked men had no effect on how women felt about their current partners. But women have their own superficial values, it turns out. In "Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty" (Doubleday, 1999), author and Harvard University psychologist Nancy Etcoff notes a study in which one man is dressed in a fast-food uniform, another in a three-piece suit. Women were asked to rate each man's attractiveness and (surprise!) the majority preferred the man in a suit.
In a 1994 study conducted by Kenrick and colleagues, women undergraduates who viewed photographs of men with descriptions detailing their leadership qualities and accomplishments rated their satisfaction with current partners less favorably than women who viewed profiles of men described as passive and undirected.
Clearly, a fat wallet and power influence what women consider attractive--just as beauty informs what men define as attractive. The contrast effect influenced self-perception less. In their most recent study, the researchers found that women undergraduates exposed to eight photographs of women models rated themselves as less desirable marriage partners than the models but their perceptions about their own attractiveness did not change. Men had similar reactions after seeing photographs of men described as socially powerful. In other words, if an individual gave herself a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10 before viewing the photos, she still felt she was a 7 afterward.
"Viewing models didn't change women's perception of their own attractiveness," said Gutierres, who was surprised by the finding. What changed was people's perception of the pool of possible gorgeous young women or highly successful men, said Gutierres. "Our ancestors in their lifetimes would see only a few attractive people around them," said Gutierres. "Now we see attractive images around the globe daily and in highly concentrated doses."
Not surprisingly, the phenomenon is most potent in the hurly-burly world of "hooking up" or, if you are over 20, dating. "Once people have an established relationship, they start to overlook superficial things about a person's body or facial features," said Gutierres, who cautioned that it is difficult to extrapolate from studies of college undergraduates to the general population.
But what happens when someone is surrounded by the beautiful people in the flesh?
Sociologist Satoshi Kanazawa, an assistant professor of sociology at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and Mary Still, a sociologist at Cornell University, studied the cumulative effect on male teachers of constant exposure to young attractive women.
In a paper titled "Teaching May Be Hazardous to Your Marriage," published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, the researchers speculated that college professors and high school teachers might experience the contrast effect in extreme.
The sociologists examined a nationally representative study on the marital status of 33,000 adults. Researchers found that male high school teachers and male professors were more likely than others in the study to be divorced. They speculated that "men in these occupations become dissatisfied with their wives due to the constant exposure to young, attractive women," divorce them, then don't remarry because--and here, the researchers make a colossal leap--no adult woman they encounter would be as attractive as a young nubile thing.
Love is far too complex to depend solely on a partner's attractiveness or lack thereof. Still, the power and importance of physical perfection in our culture is undeniable. Certainly, the first thing that attracts us to someone is how he or she looks. If being surrounded by the super beautiful puts one at risk for the contrast effect, then those in show business are particularly vulnerable.
Michael Levine, a Hollywood publicist who co-authored a story on the contrast effect in Psychology Today, claims that dating "extraordinarily beautiful women" has poisoned him for the merely great looking.
"If you are deluged with images of the perfect," said Levine, "it diminishes your capacity to love the ordinarily beautiful."