Joe and Michelle are having dinner at a romantic restaurant. It’s their first anniversary, and everything is perfect — until an attractive woman walks past the table. Michelle notices that Joe casts a quick glance at the woman. Michelle flashes an annoyed glare at Joe, who knows he’s in trouble. “I didn’t mean to look at her,” he pleads, “guys just can’t help it when a pretty woman walks by.” Michelle gasps. “B-but she’s not as pretty as you,” Joe stammers, unpersuasively.
Is it really true that we can’t help looking at a pretty face? There’s a lot of research suggesting that we notice attractive faces quicker than others, and that we look at them longer than unattractive faces. But fewer studies have considered how distracting attractive faces are when we are focused on a different task.
Here’s an example. In the following movie you’ll see an arrow (actually a < or > sign), followed by a grid of symbols like this, to the side of the screen where the arrow is pointing.
Your job is to ignore the image on the other side of the screen (either a blank square or a face) and judge whether the T in the middle of the grid is upright or upside-down. Give it a shot — you’ll get four tries. Watch carefully, the images flash by quickly!
It’s a difficult task, and you might have to play the movie a few times, but when you get the hang of it, you’ll find you can actually be quite accurate — even when the distracting image is a face (I’ll let you be the judge of which face was more attractive). Jie Sui and Chang Hong Liu showed hundreds of movies like this to 40 University students. The question, of course, is whether more attractive faces are more distracting than less-attractive faces, so the researchers chose 164 faces that had been rated as very attractive or very unattractive by a different group of students. The faces were randomly placed in the videos as distractors from the primary task of judging whether the center T was right-side-up or upside-down. The students were told to ignore the faces and focus just on the symbols. How did they do? Here are the results:
The reaction times were significantly longer when the distractor was an attractive face compared to when it was either an unattractive face or an empty box. There was no significant different in reaction time between the unattractive face and the box. In this experiment (and my sample movie), the faces and symbols were shown for just 200 milliseconds.
While this effect may not seem very dramatic, it’s important to remember that most of the reaction time is fixed by the physical limitations of how quickly our brain can respond to any visual image and direct our body to respond. As a portion of the time we spend actually deciding whether the T is inverted, a 10 millisecond difference is a long time.
The researchers also sometimes had the arrow misdirect the students toward the distracting face/box — still asking them if the T was upside-down. In this scenario, facial attractiveness didn’t matter, but both faces were more distracting than the box.
In a second experiment, the researchers flashed the faces for only 100 milliseconds. They found the same effect, but only when faces appeared on the left (for a possible explanation of this, you might take a look at this study, which we discuss in more detail in this month’s Cognitive Monthly). They also measured eye movement, and found no relationship between where the eyes moved and the effect. This makes sense because the images flash by faster than the eyes are physically capable of responding.
Sui and Liu say this research demonstrates that attractive faces can distract us from tasks even outside of social contexts. They did not find a sex difference in response — the faces they used were evenly divided between sexes, and they found the effect with both male and female participants.
So Joe might be right that it’s not possible for him to focus all his attention on Michelle, even on their anniversary. Perhaps next time he should consider cooking her dinner at home!
Sui, J., & Liu, C. (2009). Can beauty be ignored? Effects of facial attractiveness on covert attention Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 16 (2), 276-281 DOI: 10.3758/PBR.16.2.276