Study results show that the desire for friendship influences our physical judgment of strangers

People tend to see strangers in a more physically positive light when they want to be friends and expect to spend time with them, according to a new study published in the Bulletin on Personality and Social Psychology. The results provide evidence that being interested in a stranger’s friendship affects ratings of their physical attributes.

Previous psychological research has shown that we tend to believe that we are better than average and that our friends and family are better too. The researchers behind the new study wanted to know if this positive attitude also occurs when we meet new people we don’t know. They were curious if we also judge strangers differently if we think we can befriend them and spend time together.

“I was interested in this topic because the way we perceive and evaluate strangers, especially when it comes to friendships, is a fundamental aspect of human social interaction,” said study author Natalia Kononov, a PhD student at Tel Aviv University. “In many cases we have to interact with people we don’t know and first impressions are formed very quickly. I was interested in how we can increase the first impression with motivational processes.”

The researchers conducted three separate studies to find out whether people would find strangers more attractive and agreeable if they expected to be friends with them. The studies included a total of 4,755 participants recruited through Prolific.

In the first study, participants were told that they were part of a “Netflix club” where they discussed shows and films with other members. They were introduced to a new club member named “Avery”, read about Avery’s everyday life and showed a picture of her.

The researchers then randomly assigned participants to one of three conditions: Participants were told that she and Avery had similar interests and would become good friends, participants were told that she and Avery had different interests and were unlikely to become friends or participants were told that they and Avery had similar interests and would become good friends neutral information about Avery’s preferences (the control condition).

The researchers found that participants who thought they would befriend Avery rated Avery as more beautiful. This applied to both men and women. It seemed like the desire to be friends and the expected time together had an impact on how they perceived the person’s appearance.

In the second study, the researchers used a similar methodology, but this time they used a person named Jacob. They wanted to test whether interest in friendship affects ratings of other physical aspects, such as smelling good and having a pleasant voice. They found that people interested in being friends with Jacob and spending more time with him felt he looked better, smelled better, and had a nicer voice—although no scents or sounds were available .

“The most important thing to take away from this study is that just implanting the idea in an unfamiliar person’s mind that we might be able to spend time together could affect their assessment of us,” Kononov told PsyPost. “Often we think someone wants us to be viewed positively, but it’s also important that they think we’d spend time together and see each other. This understanding can have practical implications for various social interactions and relationship-building scenarios.”

In the third study, the researchers wanted to find out whether the effect still occurs when it is not possible to actually become friends. Participants were told that they had started at a new company and had met a new employee with whom they wanted to befriend. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups: participants were either told that they and the employee would work closely together, or that they and the employee worked remotely and would not see each other often.

The researchers found that people who thought they would spend more time with the employee rated them more positively in terms of their appearance, smell, and voice. This showed that the desire to be friends and the opportunity to spend time together affected the way they perceived the person physically.

“We were surprised to learn that the tendency to judge others positively just because we like them can be curbed by the fact that we don’t see that person in person,” Kononov said. “It was interesting to see that how much time people thought they were spending with the stranger is also important – the more time, the more positively they viewed the stranger. It was also surprising that the effect was equally strong in both men and women, since we could not find any gender-specific differences.”

The research provides valuable insight into evaluating strangers, but there are areas where further investigation is needed.

“It’s interesting to think about the virtual world where a lot of interactions take place these days,” Kononov said. “In practical terms, how does the expectation of spending time with someone affect our evaluation of that person? Our study focused on physical interactions, but the rise of virtual communication raises new questions and challenges. Understanding how virtual interactions might mirror or differ from face-to-face interactions is an exciting area for future research.”

“This research opens up new avenues for understanding how we perceive and value others, not just in romantic or family relationships, but also in friendships,” Kononov added.

Beautiful Strangers: Physical Evaluation of Strangers Is Influenced by Friendship Expectation study was authored by Natalia Kononov and Danit Ein-Gar.

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