A study published in PLOS One suggests that people are biased toward accepting evolutionary psychology theories whose principles are in their favor. The researchers found that people who were more attractive were more likely to endorse evolutionary psychology principles that describe mating advantages for attractive people.
Evolutionary psychology contends that the origins of various psychological processes are rooted in biology. The authors of the study, a research team led by Andrew Ward, describe the discipline as a somewhat controversial field. In particular, theories concerning mating strategies have been widely disputed. These theories tend to argue that men have adapted to prefer mates with cues that signal reproductive value, like physical attractiveness. Women, on the other hand, have evolved to prefer mates with the ability to provide resources.
Ward and his colleagues wanted to explore one factor that might predict a person’s likelihood of endorsing evolutionary predictions concerning mating strategies. Following theories of motivated inference, the researchers proposed that attractive people should be more likely to endorse theories about mating strategies since attractive people are more likely to benefit from these theories’ arguments. Presumably, people are emotionally biased toward agreeing with arguments that work in their favor.
To explore this, the study authors had 84 undergraduate students in the United States read a description of evolutionary psychology that highlighted differences in men’s and women’s mate preferences. They were then asked to rate their support for evolutionary psychology. Additionally, two independent coders rated the physical attractiveness of each participant.
The researchers found that students’ attractiveness was significantly related to their agreement with evolutionary psychology, such that those who were most attractive were more likely to support the theory. Notably, neither gender, political affiliation, income, nor age was associated with support for evolutionary psychology.
An experimental study found further evidence of this bias using a manipulation designed to enhance perceived attractiveness. This time, the students were separated into two groups. A control group was asked to rate how attractive they think they are perceived by others, and an experimental group was asked the same question but after being primed to remember a time when they felt they looked their best. Both groups then read the same description of evolutionary psychology as in the first study and indicated their support for the theory.
Those who were primed to feel attractive gave themselves higher ratings of attractiveness than those who were not, indicating that the manipulation was successful. Additionally, this group showed greater support for evolutionary psychology compared to the control group.
A final study was conducted to rule out the possibility that attractive people might simply be more accepting of any controversial theory. Again, students were either primed to imagine themselves as attractive or not. This time, they indicated their support for two different controversial theories. One theory revolved around Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and the other presented critiques of biological perspectives in psychology.
The researchers found that those in the enhanced attractiveness condition perceived themselves as more attractive than those in the control condition. However, the two groups did not differ in their endorsement of either theory. This suggests that the attractiveness bias is only relevant to controversial theories of evolutionary psychology.
Among limitations, the sample was not representative of Americans, with participants being younger, more liberal, and of a wealthier background than the average U.S. citizen. Ward and his team additionally note that while their findings are in line with theories of motivated inference, further research will be needed to refine the reasons why physically attractive people tend to be more supportive of certain evolutionary psychology predictions. Nevertheless, the findings do suggest that people are more accepting of theories when they are more motivated to believe that information.
The study, “Physical attractiveness predicts endorsement of specific evolutionary psychology principles”, was authored by Andrew Ward, Tammy English, and Mark Chin.