Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Commitment vs. Attractive Alternative Temptations

What guarantees commitment in the face of attractive alternative temptations? Nothing.

What maintains commitment in the face of attractive alternative temptations? Many things.

There is no doubt that men and women are both equally drawn to look at what would be conventionally deemed as attractive. Whether we cite evolutionary studies that suggest that physical attractiveness served as a potential sign of high genetic fitness or fertility, the fact is that because of our draw to the attractive, Hollywood has survived, tabloids live off the pictures of the beautiful people and most people notice the good looking person who walks into the office.  We have what researchers call an “attentional adhesion” to attractive people — it is hard to take our eyes off them (Maner, Gailliot, Rouby& Miller, 2007).

But…there are many expected and unexpected reasons that commitment to our romantic partners wins out over attractive alternatives. For one, the love one feels to a committed partner is usually based upon mutual physical attraction and much more. Partners, who commit to each other, be it for a year or 20 years, usually share a trust, a unique sense of “we” and sense of enhancement that they want to last forever.

Unexpected Factors That Maintain Commitment

What may surprise you is that well beyond this state of heart and spirit, commitment involves a state of mind that protects the commitment from the threat of attractive alternatives. Commitment to a romantic partner changes our perception of attractiveness.

In a study described in the New York Times article, “The Science of a Happy Marriage,” psychologist John Lydon asked highly committed married women and men to rate the attractiveness of people of the opposite sex in a series of photos.  As expected, they gave the highest ratings to people who would be typically viewed as most attractive. Later, when shown similar pictures and told that the person was interested in meeting them – something changed. They gave the pictures lower scores than they had the first time around!

It seems we may instinctively need to find someone less attractive when they become a potential threat to our commitment.

Adding to this is a finding that we may also protect our commitment by “automatic inattention” to attractiveness on levels below our conscious control.

In a 2008 study reported in Evolution and Human Behavior, psychologists, Maner, Rouby and Gonzaga found that after non-married committed romantic partners wrote about the strong love feelings they had for their partner, they unwittingly protected their commitment by “automatic inattention” to attractive alternatives.  Thinking that they were being tested on a cognitive performance task for categorizing objects, those who had written about their love feelings, showed by their response time the least attention to one variable — pictures of the most attractive people embedded in the task.  Their visual processing attention seemed repelled rather than captured by attractive members of the opposite sex.

What can we take from this about Commitment vs. Attractive Alternative Temptations?

  • That on a very basic level – most of us will instinctively look at attractive people.
  • That regardless of attractive temptations, most people want to stay committed to their romantic partners.
  • That consciously and even at levels below consciousness, people will shift their perception of attractiveness or use inattention to reduce the threat of temptation and protect their commitment.
  • That our energy is best spent on focusing and nurturing the romantic love and threads of connection we feel for our partner… When that is working, it doesn’t really matter who moves in next door or who works in the next office.

Further Reading:

Maner, J.K., Gailliot,M.T.,& DeWall,C.N.(2007). Can’t take my eyes off you: Attentional adhesion to mated and rivals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 93,389-401.