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My friend (a woman) is convinced that all men who find those posters of "women scantily clad in their bathing suits or thongs and big breasts (often fake)" attractive are simply brainwashed by society.

I told her I disagreed. I told her that her experiences with a previous boyfriend (who was ugly, chubby, but she loved him dearly) had radically changed her views, such that she was the outlier, not "everyone else". What the average male thinks of those posters is the default genetic predisposition that males have towards women -- we tend to look for big breasts for breastfeeding our children, good WHR, typically healthy-weight (toned,not excessively fat but not crazy skinny either) as an indicator of overall health, etc.

Is there any literature on:

  • Whether experience can alter one's perception of attractiveness (i.e. over time x women you find hot will no longer be attractive to you). Note, I certainly think this is true, but I never learned about it specifically in psychology so if anyone know's more that'd be awesome
    • If experience can alter this perception, to what extent?
  • Whether the average person is "brainwashed" into thinking that the not-entirely-natural (makeup, breast implants, etc) women on TV are attractive.
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I told her that her experiences with a previous boyfriend [...] had radically changed her views... Doesn't that answer your question right there? You're accusing your friend of the very thing you're unsure about. –  Jeff Apr 19 '12 at 13:49
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@Jeff - Yes, this is a reference request for literature to support this... –  stoicfury Apr 19 '12 at 17:07
    
sorry, i did not see the tag... the title is a bit misleading though, i think. Perhaps something like 'By what mechanism does experience alter perceptions of beauty?' or something –  Jeff Apr 19 '12 at 17:10

3 Answers 3

up vote 8 down vote accepted

There are many reasons why men may find 'not-entirely-natural' women more attractive.

One reason, perhaps obvious, is simply based on evolutionary preferences. A rosy complexion may indicate good health, whereas larger breasts may signify fertility. Whether fake or not, women use makeup and surgery to accentuate features that men already find attractive. Though it is true that some women may accentuate features to the point of unrealism, it is worth noting that aesthetic reactions are established prior to one's cognitive appraisal for attractiveness [citation needed]. The mechanism in our brain that judges instantaneous beauty is likely not privy to information such as 'that woman in front of me has fake breasts'.

That being said, I think a better answer to your question relies on the notion of fluency--the metacognitive experience of difficulty associated with any cognitive act. Familiarity fosters high fluency, because our mind processes familiar things more quickly or easily than novel things. Several studies have shown that familiarity or fluency leads to an increased rating on any number of positively valence dimensions, including likability and attractiveness. [1][2] (As a side note, it's also interesting that the reverse is also true-- attractive faces are judged a more familiar [3]).

The media certainly plays a large part in increasing this familiarity through what we see on TV and in magazines. Different cultures develop different cultural norms for attractiveness as a result of their exposure. The same effect is frequently observed in people who are attracted to others of the same race. This preference is shown even in young infants, as a result of increased exposure to faces of their own race. [4]

Lastly, the 'message' conveyed by media likely influences our perception of beauty as well. Ads tell us that we have to constantly use the right shampoo, or diet supplement, or facial cleanser-- pressuring us to believe we won't be beautiful if we don't use these products. The message is not cryptic-- products often reference the 'healthy' or 'attractive' effects of their use. Perhaps someone better versed in the literature on belief formation or persuasion could add some useful citation here as well, this it not my area of expertise. (I often refer people to Cialdini's Influence: Science and Practice for an overview of the literature related to persuasion, which may be worth checking out if no one can provide more targeted references).

[1] Peskin, M. & Newell, F. N. (2004). Familiarity breeds attraction: Effects of exposure on the attractiveness of typical and distinctive faces. Perception, 33, 147-157.

[2] Reber, R., Schwarz, N., & Winkielman, P. (2004). Processing fluency and aesthetic pleasure: Is beauty in the perceiver's processing experience? Personality and Social Psychology, 8, 364-382.

[3] Monin, B. (2003). The warm glow heuristic: When liking leads to familiarity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 1035-1048.

[4] Kelly, D.J. et al. (2005). Three-month-old, but not newborns, prefer own-race faces. Dev Sci, 8, F31-F36.

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At one time Mauritanians considered fat women more attractive than thin. Unless Mauritanian men were born different to other men, surely we have to suppose that Mauritanian men were trained that way.

Sources:

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We should differentiate between the behavior aspects of attraction and the physical aspects. Behavior involves what bathing suit someone chooses to wear, what makeup they wear, how they carry their body, etc.

Regarding the behavior aspect of attraction: Judith Butler argues that it is a culturally-constructed performance. Behavior varies by culture.

For example, the European conception of masculinity is often thought to be different from the American conception of masculinity. (more "metrosexual")

Another example: Lesbians are more attracted to women who look like a typical butch lesbian. Why is this? Is there an evo-psych aspect to being attracted to short spiky or asymmetrical hair, thumb rings, and other things that make someone show up on other people's lezdar? Possibly, but more likely it's a cultural signifier, a shibboleth, so that members of the same group can identify each other.

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do you have a reference to support the "Another example" paragraph or is it based on a personal appraisal (same for the preceding paragraph, actually)? –  Artem Kaznatcheev May 7 '12 at 13:14

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