They say that couples in love have eyes only for each other. It seems that they are right. Though research has suggested that most people in relationships — about 90 percent, to be specific — admit to fantasizing about someone other than their current partner, some are, obviously, able to keep themselves from acting on those desires. According to a recent study, published online last month in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this may have less to do with sheer willpower than an intriguing quirk of human psychology.
The study found evidence for a process called “perceptual downgrading,” in which people in relationships perceived other attractive, single people as less attractive than they actually were, in an unconscious attempt to protect their relationship from a potential threat. Rutgers University psychologist Shana Cole, who led the study, notes that though previous studies have been done on the human need to devalue a temptation when it contradicts long-term goals, none of them really explored whether this was an implicit process, or just the result of people consciously judging and self-reporting incorrect information. That is to say: Do people simply say they find other attractive individuals less attractive because they’re in a relationship, or do they actually perceive them as such?
To answer this question, Cole gave a group of college students a list of information about a potential lab partner of the opposite sex, including a photo and their lab partner’s relationship status, before showing them images of 11 faces that all looked vaguely similar. Of the 11 images, one was the original photo of the lab partner, while five were made more attractive and five were made less attractive by adjusting things like face symmetry and skin tone (by adding or removing redness and bumps in varying degrees).
Participants were asked to pick which of the 11 images was actually their lab partner as part of a “knowledge test” to see how much they had learned. Single participants chose images slightly more attractive than the original photo, as did participants in a relationship who learned that their lab partner was also in a relationship. People in relationships with a single lab partner, however, consistently picked the less attractive images.
In order to make sure that this downgrading wasn’t due to an error in memory, researchers placed the actual photo of their lab partner next to the display containing the ten altered images and the one original, so participants had the opportunity to compare before making their choice.“We wanted to say something more about their perceptions of the individual. That even with the photo right there, they were picking a match that was more or less attractive than the original,” explains Cole. The students were even told they would have their name entered into a $50 raffle if they chose correctly, to incentivize them to take the activity seriously and choose the real face. The fact that participants in relationships consistently chose less attractive images, despite this incentive, suggests that they really perceived their lab partner as less hot than they actually are.
Perceptual downgrading may sound like a godsend for jealous partners everywhere, but we have some bad news: This effect doesn’t happen for all couples, only happy ones. When the team replicated the study, this time asking participants how satisfied they were in their relationships, they found that people who claimed to have less satisfying relationships perceived their lab partner to be more attractive, just like single people.
Of course, there are other reasons that unfaithfulness occurs besides sheer attractiveness of the romantic partner — sometimes it’s due to charm, or wealth, or a variety of other factors that can tempt someone to stray from their significant other. “Right now we’ve shown that this perceptual downgrading bias exists, but we still need to do more to try to see how it relates to behavior toward attractive targets,” explains Cole. Though there will be hurdles to jump over in any relationship, evidence of perceptual downgrading should provide some measure of comfort to truly happy couples: Even the unconscious depths of your brains are working to give you a happily ever after.