In the age of Robert Pattinson, Blake Lively, Taylor Lautner, and Jennifer Lawrence, it's hard not to crush on attractive celebrities. (Karen Gillan
is my personal poison.) But the more I read about how obsessed some people are with celebrities, and how closely they tie their own identities to these people who they've never met, the more I'm reminded of an interesting study conducted on this very topic.
In 1980 Kenrick and Gutierres, researchers at the University of Montana, asked 81 male students to rate the attractiveness of a photographed woman. (Unknown to the students, the woman had been previously rated as having an average level of attractiveness.) Approximately half of the students rated the photograph after watching the television show "Charlie's Angels," and half rated the photo during the time the show was being aired. The authors found that the men who rated the photo after watching the show reported the woman as being less attractive than did the men who were in the control condition.
That is, simply watching a television show depicting unrealistically beautiful women negatively influenced men's ratings of another, average-looking woman.
Recognizing flaws in their design, Kenrick and Gutierres conducted two additional studies and found the same results. Thus, they concluded that their results were being driven by the contrast effect: Looking at exceptionally beautiful women makes other women appear less attractive.
Think about the implications of that for a moment. Simply watching television can influence how attractive we find people around us.
Of course, the contrast effect isn't limited to when we watch television. Magazines, websites, movies, and advertisements can have the same effect. How much more powerful, then, is the contrast effect when it's applied to more overt forms of physical exploitation?
Kenrick, Gutierres, and Goldberg (1987) conducted two studies to assess how erotica influences males' ratings of female attractiveness (and vice versa). The researchers simply asked participants who were in a live-in or marital relationship to rate the attractiveness of nude opposite-sex individuals and then rate aspects of their own relationship on an established scale. Frighteningly, the researchers found that men (not women) who viewed the erotic images (vs. those who did not) said that they loved their partners less after viewing the pictures!
Together these studies suggest that crushing on celebrities or viewing pornography can have a real, quantifiable, negative effect on our relationships with others. We begin to see people differently. They're not quite as attractive as they once were. What's worse, our love toward them may even be reduced, simply because we can't keep our eyes where they belong: on our partner and on him/her alone.
Now, I'm not trying to argue that the media controls our behavior, nor am I implying that these studies absolutely prove one thing or another. I'm merely pointing out the contrast effect to caution us: Wishing that Ryan Reynolds or Megan Fox would give you a call, or watching those erotic videos in your spare time, seems to be a relationship-altering waste of time. In fact, a better use of our time is to truly appreciate the people we already have in our lives.
Source: Kenrick, D. T., & Gutierres, S. E. (1980). Contrast effects and judgments of physical attractiveness: When beauty becomes a social problem. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 38(1), 131-140.
Source: Kenrick, D. T., Gutierres, S. E., & Goldberg, L. L. (1987). Influence of popular erotica on judgments of strangers and mates. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 25, 159-167.