Published online 26 January 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.37

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Men prefer less powerful women

The positioning of people's photos affects how attractive and powerful they seem to be.

Disco dancerWomen in a study rated pictures of men that appeared at the top of a screen more attractive.I.Peters/iStockPhoto.com

How high or low an image of a man or woman appears on a screen plays a part in how attractive they are perceived to be by the opposite sex.

When men rate the attractiveness of women in pictures, if one image is higher up than another, they will find the lower image more attractive. In contrast, when women look at similarly arranged pictures of men, they perceive the higher images to be more attractive, according to a study in Social Cognition1.

The authors of the study, psychologists Brian Meier and Sarah Dionne at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, think that perceptions of power might be behind this trend. The concepts of power is thought to psychologically represent vertical space in a way that is consistent with common metaphors such as 'on top of the corporate ladder' or 'king of the hill'. So when people think of power differences, they literally think of spatial differences too, with powerful being viewed as up and powerless as being down.

Some evolutionary psychologists think that males are more desirable to females when they are high in power because they have considerable social status and resources, whereas females are more desirable to males when they carry traits associated with low power such as youthfulness and faithfulness.

Down and out

To see how these psychological phenomena might apply to human interactions, the authors examined how the perception of attractiveness might be altered by the positioning of a photograph.

The researchers asked 29 men and 50 women, all students at Gettysburg College (19 years old on average), to look at images of people and rate their attractiveness on a scale of 1–750. The study used 30 pictures of men and 30 pictures of women.

Screen test pictureParticipants were shown images of the opposite sex at the top and bottom of a screen.B. Meier & S. Dionne

Each individual was shown, in a random order, all of the images and advised that they would see images repeated during the study. Each image was both seen and rated twice. The only difference between the two viewings of each image was that image position was adjusted. For example, if an image was first viewed on the bottom of the screen, it would later appear on the top.

Men rated the same images of women as 1.8% more attractive when the images were on the bottom of the screen than when they were on the top. Women, in contrast, rated images of men at the top of their screen as 1.5% more attractive than when those same images were at the bottom.

The percentages may sound small, but because the participants were rating the same photo in different screen positions, they were effectively acting as their own controls, says Meier. "There should not have been any variance at all yet we found significant differences," he says.

Always somebody taller

Most work in this area has looked at reaction times as a measurement, says psychologist Thomas Schubert at the Lisbon University Institute. For example, in a 2005 study2, Schubert asked people to identify as quickly as they could whether words on a screen were 'powerful' or 'powerless'. The study showed that a word such as 'master' was identified as powerful more quickly if it was placed above a word such as 'servant'. In the same way, people were quicker to recognise words as powerless when they were placed below a powerful word. The delay when words were differently placed is thought to be the result of cognitive interference, where the meaning of the word conflicts with the meaning of its on-screen position.

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"That this study shows changes in human attraction because of mere changes in screen position is impressive. This is a big step forward from our reaction-time findings," says Schubert.

The findings could help to explain why men in heterosexual partnerships are taller than their partners more frequently than would be expected from the range of heights of men and women. Men seem to prefer shorter women, and women prefer taller men. "Height might actually be a cue to power and, as we are finding in our study, attractiveness," says Meier.

"What I wonder is whether the participants in this study thought, unconsciously, that the images which were viewed higher were of taller people," adds Schubert. 

  • References

    1. Meier, B. P. & Dionne, S. Soc. Cognition 27, 883-892 (2009). | Article
    2. Schubert, T. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 89, 1-21 (2005). | Article
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