The Role of Attractiveness in Dating Selection

Sarah C. Atchley
Hendrix College


Current research explores how attractive a person is perceived based on the number of sexual partners the person and the attractiveness of those sexual partners. Without ever witnessing the individual, participants formed opinions of the individual’s level of attractiveness and desirability based on a high or low number of sexual partners and high or low attractiveness levels of those partners.


When selecting romantic partners, people have very different perspectives on what is considered desirable. One person may put high emphases on the importance of hygiene, fashion, or physical attractiveness that another may find to be less attractive. While there are several factors influencing one’s choice of a romantic partner, a person’s level of attractiveness is one of the strongest indicators of dating desirability. Another important aspect of attractiveness is lifestyle. One’s personal choices, such as whom and how many people an individual chooses to date, also factor in deciding who is attractive. A person’s number of sexual partners and a person’s attractiveness are two key components to attraction; however, one questions if a person could be found attractive based on qualities of their partners. It is for this reason that the present research addresses how someone is perceived based on the number of their sexual partners and the level of attractiveness, on average, that their partners reach.

Review of the Literature 

A look at previous studies offers insight into this claim. One such study was conducted using an Internet questionnaire that measured the role of attractiveness and sexual history on dating selection. The first section of the questionnaire included questions regarding sexual history. The next section contained pictures of individuals with varying levels of attractiveness and a brief description of their sexual history, which included different levels of previous sexual activity per description. Participants then rated how desirable they found the person to be, based on their sexual history and level of attractiveness. As expected, participants rated the person as more desirable if he or she was considered physically attractive and less attractive when the person’s number of sexual partners was high (Epstein et al., 2007). This study indicated that a person’s level of physical attractiveness and number of sexual partners do indeed influence how a person is perceived as attractive or unattractive.

Another study examined the role of attractiveness from an evolutionary standpoint. Authors Leenaars, Dane, and Marini, (2008) speculated that men and women differ in cognitive processes when it comes to what is found attractive in potential dating partners because women invest more effort than men in sexual activity. In order to assess this, participants answered several questions in a survey related to their own perceived physical attractiveness and the level of social passes they receive from the opposite sex. Women reported that they are more likely to engage in activities such as wearing makeup or keeping up with fashion trends than men because they feel as if they have to try harder to obtain a mate. This is consistent with the experimenters’ hypothesis.

According to Leenaars, Dane, and Marini (2008) women are also more likely to play hard-to-get than men. This is also an effective cognitive strategy from an evolutionary perspective because it illustrates their desirability to men. If a woman is resistant to engage in sexual behavior with a man and pretends to be unavailable, her self-esteem is boosted. Potential sexual partners pick up on this confidence, which is found, in turn, attractive. This research is important because it offers insight into the different patterns of thinking men and women have regarding attraction.

A woman who engages in cognitive strategies, such as playing hard to get, was rated more attractive than those who do not by participants of both genders. The more a woman utilizes these, the more she is viewed as a rival for competing potential mates. According to this literature, a person’s level of attractiveness not only depends on physical appearance but also the nature of the person, i.e. flirtatious versus hard-to-get. If a person is more willing to engage in these evolutionary strategies, the more that person is deemed attractive by peers. For the purposes of the experiment at hand, it is important to consider not only physical attraction but also personality and effort because they are factors that play into how people choose their potential sexual partners (Leenaars, Dane, and Marini, 2008).

Another study revealed additional factors in what is considered attractive, similar to the previous study (Garcia, 2006). According to this literature, a person is considered more attractive if they are not perceived to be promiscuous. Promiscuity can be measured based on a person’s physical attractiveness and the number of sexual partners the person has had. In order to assess this, participants read a questionnaire completed by a confederate, either male or female. The questionnaire contained how attractive the person rated himself or herself and the number of sexual partners he or she has had. Participants then filled out a survey indicating how likely the person would be selected as a romantic partner.

Participants indicated that the higher the number of sexual partners, the higher the sexual experience. The confederates who engaged in fewer sexual activities were perceived as more desirable than those with more sexual experience with no relation to physical attractiveness. Although researchers predicted that this would differ for men and women, the results showed that both men and women found it to be more attractive to have less sexual experience. These results implied that there were certain characteristics that men and women look for in romantic partners, and high sexual experience is not one of them.

Yet another study outlined the differences in which men and women rate levels of attractiveness or sexiness. In this experiment, participants’ dating preferences were examined in conjunction with their own level of attractiveness, with specific emphasis on whether or not one’s own attractiveness affects how attractive one finds others. Participants viewed pictures and profiles of people on HOTorNOT.com, a website in which one can rate the attractiveness and desirability of people based on pictures and a short description of the person. Participant ratings of attractiveness were measured in comparison with HOTorNOT’s existing ratings to determine what about a person is considered attractive. In conclusion, participants’ responses were similar to HOTorNOT.com’s existing ratings of attractiveness. Pictures already rated as attractive were consistently rated higher than those deemed to be not attractive. The higher one rated a picture as attractive, the more likely the person in the picture would be selected as a potential dating partner. It was also found that males are less picky than females in selecting dating partners. These findings indicated that a person’s level of attractiveness greatly affects their desirability to others, which parallels with the hypothesis designed for the research at hand (Lee et al. (2008).

Internationally, a study performed in Germany mirrors the results of the aforementioned study. Participants were given a survey containing written information listing one of three levels of attractiveness: not attractive, moderately attractive, or very attractive. On a 0 -100 scale, participants gave the number indicating their perception of how likely they were to: go on a date with the person, go to bed with that person, or go to that person’s apartment. The results revealed that men were much more likely than women to do any of the three options listed above no matter what level of attractiveness the person was. Women, however, were much more selective. Women were more likely to go on a date, go to bed, or go to the apartment of someone moderately high or highly attractive but not with someone less attractive (Schützwhohlt, McKibbin, and Shackelford, 2009).

This was an important finding because it demonstrated, on some level, that the power of attractiveness is a universal phenomenon. Instead of focusing this research in the United States, this study was conducted in Germany (Schützwohlt, McKibbin, and Shackelford, 2009). Because this study yielded similar results to the previously mentioned studies, one can assume that attractiveness plays a role in every culture. Specifically, the more attractive a person is, the more likely other people will want to associate with that person.

Given this previous literature, it was predicted that, for the purpose of the current experimental design, men and women would respond differently to a questionnaire inquiring how attracted participants were to someone they had never even seen. In the questionnaire, the pictures of a person’s sexual partners were displayed for participants, implying both the number of sexual partners and their varying levels of attractiveness. Participants were then to report, based on only the pictures of a person’s sexual partners, how attractive the target person—who remains unseen. Once conducted, the results offered insight into whether or not a person could be found attractive based solely on their sexual history and how attractive that sexual history was.



Participants ranging in age from 18 to 22 were recruited on Hendrix College campus in Conway, Arkansas—the sample consisted of relatively young participants (M = 19.37, SD = 1.01). Of these participants, 23 percent were 18 years old; 33 percent were 19; 30 percent were 20; 13 percent were 21; and 1 percent were 22. Students were informed via e-mail of extra credit points in certain Psychology classes if they were to respond to the questionnaire, and upon the sending of the e-mail, 93 participants completed the survey. Of those 93, 23 percent were male and 77 percent were female. The majority of participants (85 percent) were of Caucasian background, leaving 15 percent to be a combination of African-American, Hispanic, or other origin. Participants also differed in class rank: 42 percent were freshmen, 41 percent were sophomores, 9 percent were juniors, and 7 percent were seniors.


An online questionnaire was designed to assess how an individual was perceived based on the frequency and attractiveness of his or her sexual partners. The questionnaire contained pictures of women’s faces and upper bodies and a series of nine items. Participants—who were rewarded with extra credit in one of their psychology classes—answered these items, and their answers were used to measure their perceptions of desirability, including examples such as: “This man is physically attractive” and “I would recommend this man to my friends as someone to date.” To respond to these items, a seven-point scale was created in which participants rated their varying agreeability with each statement. Three of the nine items centered on the hypothesis of the study—the other six items were intended to mislead participants regarding the actual purpose of the study. These three items were selected to be individually evaluated through an analysis of variance to determine their effects, including reliability and validity.

 In order to code for attractiveness, the website HOTorNOT.com (Eight Days, Inc., 2009) was used. This website allowed individuals to rate a person’s level of attractiveness based on the person’s picture, which was posted on the website. The pictures of the women used in this study were found on this website, and those pictures were previously rated highly or poorly on attractiveness by existing members of HOTorNOT.com. These data were the basis for the selection of the pictures.


A mass e-mail containing a description of the study and link to the survey was sent to students currently enrolled in Psychology courses. The questionnaire was created on SurveyMonkey, an online survey generator, and was a 2 x 2 factorial design, containing the variables attractiveness and number of sexual partners. There were two levels to the attractiveness variable; one being physically attractive and the other physically unattractive. In the variable concerning frequency of sexual partners, out of the two levels, one was a high number of partners (eight partners), and the other was a low number of partners (two partners).

The first section of the survey included demographic questions concerning age, ethnicity, year in school, birth month, and gender. After completing the demographics section, participants were directed to a webpage with a brief message at the top informing subjects of the purpose of the study. The message also contained instructions to consider an average male college student and his relationships with the women displayed in pictures for participants to view subsequently following the short message. The number of pictures indicated the number of sexual partners of this imagined male student—the woman in each picture being a single sexual partner of the student. Every participant responded to the same demographics page, but the following page differed per participant based on which month the participant was born. Depending on the month, the participant was directed to a page containing either two pictures—indicating a low number of sexual partners—or eight pictures, which indicated a high number of sex partners. The women in the pictures were either all attractive or all unattractive, depending on the page to which the participants were directed.
After viewing the pictures, participants answered questions pertaining to the fictitious male student. The questions were designed to measure how attractive participants perceived the male student to be, considering the influential factors of frequency of his sexual partners and the attractiveness of those sexual partners. These questions also measured how dateable this fictitious student was perceived to be and whether or not the student’s sexual behavior—that is, his sexual activity with varying numbers of partners—was deemed acceptable, which related to how attractive or dateable he was considered to be. 


An analysis of variance was used to assess the significance of three separate items included in the survey in order to examine the hypothesis that the number of one’s sexual partners and the attractiveness of those sexual partners influences how attractive and dateable that person is perceived by others, The first item assessed whether or not the participant found the fictitious male student to be attractive. The analysis of variance revealed that partner attractiveness does have a main effect on participant ratings of attractiveness (M = 3.49, SD = 1.38), F(1, 87) = 0.00, p < 0.05. When the sexual partners were presented as unattractive, the study found the participants in this condition generally rated the male subject as unattractive. In the attractive condition, the participants found the fabricated male student to be more attractive (M = 5.11, SD = 1.15). There was also no effect of gender in participant response to this item, F(1, 87) = 0.10, p > 0.05, meaning there were no differences between men and women on their responses to attractiveness. There was no significant interaction effects for this item F(1, 87) = 0.28, p > 0.05. 

The second item asked participants if they found the fake student’s sexual behavior to be acceptable. The statistical analysis resulted in a significant effect for the number of sexual partners in response to this item (M = 4.05, SD = 1.40), F(1, 86) = 0.02, p < 0.05. The participants in the condition where the male subject had fewer partners were more accepting of his behavior, as opposed to participants in the condition with a high number of sexual partners (M = 3.18, SD = 1.48).  However, there was no main effect for the attractiveness of sexual partners affecting answers to this item, F(1, 86) = 0.78, p > 0.05, but there was a significant effect for number of sexual partners, F(1, 86) = 0.05, p = 0.05.  There was no significant effect for gender differences in responses to this item, F(1, 86) = 0.60, p > 0.05.

The final item posed the question of whether or not participants would recommend this male subject to date one of their friends. The analysis showed that the number of sex partners had a significant main effect on participant answers (M = 3.18, SD = 1.13), F(1, 86) = 0.02, p < 0.05. The high number of sexual partners resulted in lower ratings from participants in this condition. In the condition with the low number of sexual partners, participants were only slightly more likely to respond with higher ratings (M = 4.05, SD = 1.04). There was no significant main effect of the attractiveness of sexual partners influencing participant response, F(1, 86) = 0.43, p > 0.05. There were no main interaction effects found among attractiveness and the number of sexual partners for the responses to this item, F(1, 86) = 0.28, p > 0.05. These means can be found in Figure 1.

Figure 1. An illustration of different levels of agreeability on factors with consideration of high and low sex partners.


Previous research indicated that physical appearance and promiscuity played into an individual’s level of attractiveness. The finding in the current research was that the number of sexual partners and how attractive these sexual partners were influences how attractive and desirable that one person is. Specifically, the lower the number of sex partners and the better the appearance of sex partners increased a person’s likeability and attractiveness.

The results of the analyses implied that the more attractive a person’s sex partner is the more attractive the person is considered by peers, and the more sex partners a person has the less attractive the person is. The results also implied the reverse: the less attractive a person’s sex partner is the less the person is perceived as attractive, and the less sex partners a person has the more attractive the person is. The first analysis indicated that no matter how many sex partners a person had, if those sex partners were viewed as attractive, so was the hypothetical male student on a strictly physical level.

The second analysis revealed that the more sexual partners a person had, the less acceptable the behavior was by others. These findings indicated that having a higher number of sex partners is looked down upon and seen as less attractive by this particular sample, which is also consistent with the studies described in the literature review. These findings were also consistent with the conclusions of the final analysis, which stated that participants would not recommend the fake subject to a friend given a higher number of sexual partners. It is possible that these results have implications regarding the students attending Hendrix College. These outcomes may indicated that perhaps Hendrix students do not always live up to their fiercely liberal reputation, but there are other plausible reasons behind these results. For example, the awareness of sexually transmitted diseases has become more readily understood by young adults; an increase in the number of sex partners also increases the likelihood of contracting one of these diseases.

There are several limitations to this study. One such limitation is the fact that only photos of women were used. This limits the generalization of the findings because the majority of participants involved in the study were women. For many women, rating the attractiveness of a male based on the appearance of his female sexual partners would not result in the same results as if there were pictures of men. Some women may simply refuse to judge another woman’s appearance in fear of the experimenter questioning her sexuality, and the same could possibly, if not more so, be true for men if the pictures had been strictly of other men and no women. Other women simply may not care or be interested in looking closely or paying attention to a series of pictures of other women. One way to improve this study in future research is to include pictures of both men and women.

Another limitation is the small sample size. Although the sample size was large enough to be evaluated for significance, the 93 participants do not represent up a large number—therefore limiting generalization. Another limitation is that the participants were recruited from a small liberal college. This liberal influence may have skewed results in some way. In order to correct for both of the aforementioned limitations, the participants could have been recruited from a broader area.

People are constantly finding themselves in situations in which attractiveness and number of sexual partners becomes an issue. It is often that individuals are simply nicer to attractive people and relatively impolite to people with a higher count of sexual partners. From the results of this experiment, it is suggested that people are judged by the attractiveness of their sexual partners and the number of sexual partners. The more attractive one’s sexual partners are, the higher one is rated on attractiveness by peers. The higher the number of sexual partners one has, the less the person is considered desirable or dateable. These results indicated that not only are people treated differently based on their level of attractiveness but also on the attractiveness of their sexual partners. It can be hoped that people learn from these findings and not judge an individual based on these two components alone.


Epstein, J., Klinkenberg, W., Scandell, D., Faulkner, K., & Claus, R. (2007). Perceived physical attractiveness, sexual history, and sexual intentions: an Internet study. Sex Roles, 56, 23-31. doi:10.1007/s11199-006-9169

Garcia, L. (2006). Perceptions of sexual experience and preferences for dating and marriage. The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, 15(2), 85-93.

Lee, L., Loewenstein, G., Ariely, D., Hong, J., & Young, J. (2008). If I’m not hot, are you hot or not? Physical attractiveness evaluations and dating preference as a function of one’s own attractiveness. Association for Psychological Science, 19(7), 669-676.

Leenaars, L., Dane, A., & Marini, Z. (2008). Evolutionary perspective on indirect victimization in adolescence: the role of attractiveness, dating and sexual behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 34, 404-415.

Schützwohlt, A., Fuchs, A., MicKibbin, W., & Shackelford, T. (2009). How willing are you to accept sexual requests from slightly unattractive to exceptionally attractive imagined requestors? Human Nature, 20(3), 282-293. doi: 10.1007/s12110-009-9067-3


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