Having options alters the attractiveness of familiar versus novel faces: Sex differences and similarities

Although online dating allows us to access a wider pool of romantic partners, choice could induce an ‘assessment mindset’, orienting us toward ‘optimal’ or alternative partners and undermining our willingness to commit or remain committed to someone. Contextual changes in judgements of facial attractiveness can shed light on this issue. We directly test this proposal by activating a context where participants imagine choosing between items in picture slideshows (dates or equally attractive desserts), observing its effects on attraction to i) faces on second viewing and ii) novel versus familiar identities. Single women, relative to single men, were less attracted to the same face on second viewing (Experiments 2 and 4), with this sex difference only observed after imagining not ‘matching’ with any romantic dates in our slideshow (i.e., low choice, Experiment 4). No equivalent sex differences were observed in the absence of experimental choice slideshows (Experiment 3), and these effects (Experiment 2) were not moderated by slideshow content (romantic dates or desserts) or choice set size (five versus fifteen items). Following slideshows, novel faces were more attractive than familiar faces (Experiment 1), with this effect stronger in men than in women (Experiment 2), and stronger across both sexes after imagining ‘matching’ with desired romantic dates (i.e., high choice, Experiment 4). Our findings suggest that familiarity does not necessarily ‘breed liking’ when we have the autonomy to choose, revealing lower-order socio-cognitive mechanisms that could underpin online interactions, such as when browsing profiles and deciding how to allocate effort to different users.


University of Lincoln, College of Social Science Research

Jordan R Sculley, Abertay University, School of Applied Sciences

Kay Ritchie, University of Lincoln, School of Psychology