In the Eyes of Many Beholders

What constitutes beautiful can change rapidly, according to a recent study.
While much research has shown that beautiful people have better lives—that include more successful careers, higher-paying jobs, and more positive attention from society—just what constitutes “beautiful” can rapidly change, according to a recent study.

“We found that human standards of beauty are not set in stone, but are quite fluid and can change almost instantaneously,” says Haiyang Yang, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in Baltimore, Maryland. He conducted research on the topic with Leonard Lee, associate professor and dean’s chair at the National University of Singapore. Not only that, they found that standards of beauty continually shift to align with the standards of the majority, that this shift can occur completely without social pressure, and that these shifts in perception can become permanent.

To conduct their research, Yang and Lee examined about 800,000 anonymous ratings by more than 60,000 visitors to an online dating website where visitors rate people as “hot” or “not,” using a ten-point scale where ten is the highest. Once they rate a photo, visitors are shown the average score from all previous evaluations. As they view more photos over time, their ratings begin to shift toward the average—even when they aren’t shown those averages until they’ve entered their own rating, and even though no one is watching them make their own evaluations.

“Because of this effect, some people became ‘instantaneously hotter’ to the website visitors. Others, unfortunately, became worse off,” Yang says.

In a second experiment, viewers also were allowed to see the average ratings before they made their own determinations. Researchers found that viewers’ ratings converged on the norm regardless of timing. However, the ratings by viewers who never saw the averages did not converge on the norm at all.

In a final experiment, researchers found that the ratings by participants who were shown photos with falsely lowered averages deviated even more participants themselves claimed that knowing the average ratings did not influence their own evaluations.

“If the notion of beauty can be instantaneously constructed, as our findings suggest, it would be important to identify factors that can influence these processes,” says Yang. “Future research in this direction is likely to have implications not just for business but for many other fields.”

“Instantaneously Hotter: The Dynamic Revision of Beauty Assessment Standards” is forthcoming in Advances in Consumer Research.