Dan Ariely, in his bestselling Predictably Irrational, shares his story of changing overnight from an attractive, 18 year-old soccer star to the victim of a burn accident that kept him in the hospital for three years. After months in bandages, Ariely sees his face in the mirror for the first time:
The whole right side gaped open, with yellow and red pieces of flesh and skin hanging down like a melting wax candle. The right eye was pulled severely toward the ear, and the right sides of the mouth, ear and nose were charred and distorted…I recognized only the left eye that gazed at me from the wreckage of that body.
…At that point in my life I was trying to find my place in society and understand myself as a person and as a man. Before my accident, I had known exactly where I fit in, and who might want to date me. But now, I asked myself, where did I fit into the dating scene? Having lost my looks, I knew I had become less valuable in the dating market.
…If the attractive girls rejected me, would I have to marry someone who also had a disability or deformity? Did I need to accept the fact that my dating value had dropped and that I should think differently about a romantic partner?
..I resolved to evade the problem of my declining value in the dating market by avoiding the issue altogether…I certainly wouldn’t submit to any romantic needs. With romance out of my life, I wouldn’t need to worry about my place in the dating hierarchy or about who might want me. Problem solved.
One day, though, Ariely got an erection as an attractive young nurse washed his stomach and thighs. He understood then that his teenage hormones were indifferent to his appearance and did not respect his decision to avoid physical longing. As he lay in bed month after month, he thought a lot about what he calls the “romantic dance.”
It was obvious to Ariely that people generally observe the tenets of assortative mating.
To a large degree, beautiful people date other beautiful people, and “aesthetically challenged” individuals date others like them.
He talks about the process of adapting to the realization that one has limited appeal. He characterizes this as a “sour grapes” strategy, a form of psychological adaptation whereby the highly attractive people (grapes) become less desirable (sour) to those who cannot have them.
Instead of simply rejecting what we can’t have, real adaptation implies that we play psychological tricks on ourselves to make reality acceptable.
Ariely suggests that there are different ways of adapting. One common way is to lower one’s aesthetic ideals. We begin to see perfection in others more in line with our own SMV. Suddenly, large noses have character (I feel this way!), or crooked teeth are endearing.
A second approach is to keep one’s original standards of beauty intact, but begin to search out other qualities, like humor or kindness. Either we start to value a lack of perfection, or we alter the degree of importance that we assign to certain attributes.
Despite the incredible capacity of humans to adapt to all sorts of things, we must also consider the possibility that adaptation does not work in this case…Such a failure to adapt is a path to continuous disappointment because less attractive individuals will repeatedly be disappointed when they fail to get the gorgeous mate they think they deserve. And if they settle…they will always feel that they deserve better – hardly a recipe for a fine romance, let alone a happy relationship.
Ariely conducted a study with the site Hot or Not, looking at the rating and dating information of 16,550 members. He outlined the three possible ways to deal with personal limitations:
Alter perception of aesthetics
Reconsider the rank of attributes
Ariely hypothesized that if less attractive people had not adapted, their view of the attractiveness of others would be the same as highly attractive people.
It became clear right away that standards of beauty were universal. No one was altering their perception of aesthetics. To test whether people were reconsidering the rank of attributes, they studied the data on the Meet Me feature. They found that although people had not altered their perceptions of attractiveness, they were relatively realistic in their expectations about whom might want to meet them.
With only Option #2 left in the running, Ariely set out to test whether people could not only emphasize looks less, but learn to love other attributes. He set up a speed dating experiment. In advance of the speed dating event, more attractive people indicated a strong preference for attractiveness in a mate. Less attractive people cared more about traits like intelligence, humor and kindness. After the event, the less attractive people were more interested in going on a date with someone with an attractive non-physical characteristic. The highly attractive people wanted to go out with other very good-looking people.
Ariely concluded that less attractive people learn to view nonphysical attributes as more important.
An aside: Gender differences were prevalent in the study:
Men were 240% more likely to send Meet Me invitations.
Men cared more about looks than women did.
Men were more likely to aim for women who were “out of their league,” several numbers higher on the Hot or Not scale.
Regardless of our value judgments about the real importance of beauty, it is clear that the process of reprioritization helps us adapt. In the end, we all have to make peace with who we are and what we have to offer, and ultimately, adapting and adjusting well are key to being happier.
Ariely is happily married to a woman he met in grad school:
By any stretch of assortative mating imaginable, she should have had nothing to do with me…I came to believe that, as unsentimental as it sounds, Stephen Still’s song has a lot of truth to it. Far from advocating infidelity, “Love the One You’re With” suggests that we have the ability to discover and love the characteristics of our partner. Instead of merely settling for someone…we end up changing our perspectives, and in the process increasing our love of the person.
It occurs to me that if human beings regularly adapt in this way, then perhaps we are also capable of recognizing the less attractive qualities behind the exterior packaging in some people. If I could be attracted to the space between my husband’s front teeth, because he told an endearing story about not being able to scrape the inside of an Oreo clean, then maybe I can also feel repulsed by the perfect smile or smug facial expression on a player.
Succeeding in this SMP will require adaptation for many of us, and in ways that Ariely’s experiment did not address. That will ultimately be the key to relationship success.