Are strangers more attractive, interesting to us than people we know?

Science and Health

Meeting a stranger in a social encounter – at work, for a blind date, or at a family event – often makes people nervous and have false expectations. People tend to evaluate themselves as better than they actually are. Such enhanced positive evaluation occurs not only for the self, but also for others. 

Self-enhancement is often regarded by psychologists as a form of self-protection, a means to achieve positive self-regard and to promote psychological–emotional well-being by protecting the individual from threats like criticism.

A new study at Tel Aviv University (TAU) has clearly shown that when people are told they are going to be meeting strangers and potentially form a friendship with them, most of them displayed a tendency to attribute enhanced physical attributes to complete strangers, including a pleasing appearance, smell, and voice.

They based their reasoning on the notion of “motivated cognition,” a process in which goals, needs, and motives shape individuals’ reasoning and thinking, leading to inaccurate representation that co-aligns with one’s desires.

In the study, participants were presented by the research team with images of unfamiliar individuals and asked to rate them based on various criteria. They presented the participants with pictures of strangers and asked them to rate them according to various parameters. The unexpected revelations clearly showed that when the subjects were told of their imminent interaction and potential connection with these strangers, the majority exhibited a tendency to attribute more attractive appearances, pleasant scents, and agreeable voices to these individuals. 

Prof. Danit Ein-Gar. (credit: ISRAEL HADARI)

The research was led by doctoral student Natalia Kononov and Prof. Danit Ein-Gar of Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management. The study was published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin under the title “Beautiful Strangers: Physical Evaluation of Strangers Is Influenced by Friendship Expectation.”

Ein-Gar explained that, as many studies have shown in the past, humans have an inherent aspiration to be in a socially and physically gratifying environment so we sometimes tend to subjectively interpret reality to align with our desire for a pleasant sensory experience. In the new study, the researchers wanted to examine how one’s preference for spending time in pleasant surroundings may also affect the perception of the “other,” even though he or she had never met him or her.

“The findings showed that in many cases, our innate desire to immerse ourselves in a physically pleasing environment leads us to overestimate even unfamiliar individuals we anticipate interacting with in the future,” Ein-Gar noted. “We tend to pre-label those strangers as better-looking and more appealing in the way they sound and smell, despite the fact that we never met them. Our judgments are formed solely on the basis of a photograph that doesn’t contain information about the person’s scent or the sound of their voice.”

The study included a series of online questionnaires, with some 5,000 respondents from the US taking part. The researchers divided the participants into two groups and presented them with photos of individuals they had never met before. Members of the first group were asked to first imagine that they had a very successful initial encounter with the stranger in the picture and that they would like to cultivate a friendly relationship with them. Only then were they asked to rate the features of the individual shown in the photo. In contrast, the control group rated the person photographed based only on their impressions of the photo without any assumptions regarding a positive initial meeting or the intent to establish a relationship.

A desire to establish a friendship

In another case, all study participants were informed of their desire to establish a friendship with a stranger they had just met at work. However, one group was told that this person had been assigned to their local branch, implying frequent encounters at work, while members of the control group were told that the stranger was assigned to a distant branch so they wouldn’t have the chance to spend time together. 

In both cases, the findings showed that the subjects tended to overestimate and attribute better physical attributes to these strangers with whom they were going to be spending a significant portion of their time. To neutralize other biases, the researchers conducted the experiment using images of men and women from diverse ethnic backgrounds. This measure substantiated that the effect was not influenced by gender, sexual attraction, or specific appearance traits, but by their desire for a positive sensory experience.

Natalia Kononov. (credit: TEL AVIV UNIVERSITY)

“When we spend a lot of time in the presence of another person, there is naturally a habituation effect; for example, we “don’t see” the receding hairline or pimples, or we become accustomed to a squeaky voice. In this study, we reveal something different,” Ein-Gar explained. 

“We demonstrate that even in the absence of face-to-face interaction and with no prior physical encounters, we tend to project a more positive evaluation on an individual we expect to spend time with. We anticipate that they will look, sound, and even smell good. When we expect to have shared experiences with someone, our inclination is to ensure a pleasurable sensory encounter. That’s why we preemptively attribute positive physical attributes to the person,” she continued.

Kononov, whose doctoral thesis was devoted to this study, emphasized that this phenomenon “does not stem from perceiving someone positively just because we like them. Instead, it emerges from an underlying motivation that is not necessarily conscious to create a pleasant reality for ourselves. After all, it is possible to love a person and still see all their flaws.

“When we anticipate spending time with someone, there’s a subconscious incentive for that person to be physically pleasing, so we tend to evaluate them in a way that is consistent with our desires. This can be likened to the anticipation of taking a long-distance trip. If I really want to visit Hawaii, I will convince myself that it’s easy for me to get there, as opposed to a situation in which I don’t really want to go to Hawaii. The same principle applies to interactions with strangers: we convince ourselves that it will be pleasant to be around them if our motivation is to become friends.”