The Role of Physical Attractiveness in Adolescent Social Development

Schad, Megan, Psychology - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Allen, Joseph, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia

The well-supported physical attractiveness hypothesis states that positive characteristics (e.g., social competence, intelligence) are associated with physical attractiveness. The current study investigates this phenomenon from a developmental perspective, utilizing individual growth patterns to examine the ways in which physical attractiveness is associated with social functioning over time.

This multi-method longitudinal study followed a sample of 184 adolescents, their closest friends, and their romantic partners from age 13 to 23. Observed physical attractiveness was measured annually from age 13 to 19 and again at age 21. Repeated measures of friend reported sociability, and self-reported self-worth and alcohol use were collected annually from age 13 to 23. Observed and partner reported romantic relationship quality measures were collected at ages 18, 21, and 23. Self-reported social anxiety was collected at ages 18, 19, 20, 22, and 23. Self-reported extroversion, agreeableness, coping strategies, and self-perceptions of attractiveness were collected at age 23.

Latent growth curve modeling was used to assess variation in physical attractiveness over time, and then to predict social functioning at age 23. Growth in physical attractiveness predicted higher friend-reported sociability and romantic relationships with less conflict and more observed positive behaviors at age 23. Higher baseline physical attractiveness predicted more frequently using substances to cope, drinking alcohol, and binge drinking at age 23.

Additionally, growth in physical attractiveness predicted relative decreases over time in conflict and relative increases in positive behaviors in romantic relationships. Higher baseline physical attractiveness predicted higher baseline sociability, increases in observed positive behaviors in romantic relationships, relative increases in social anxiety, and increases in frequency of alcohol use over time.

Self-perceptions of attractiveness, as opposed to observer ratings, were predictive of fewer positive behaviors in romantic relationships, reduced social anxiety, and greater extroversion and self-worth.

Finally, results provided some support for the existence of a sensitive period for physical attractiveness in early adolescence, with high early adolescent attractiveness predicting higher early adult self-perceptions of attractiveness even after accounting for overall attractiveness.

Gender was found to moderate only one model: Women whose physical attractiveness increased over time also reported more steep increases in alcohol use over time.

These results suggest that physical attractiveness remains an important predictor of behavior into early adulthood, and that variation in physical attractiveness over time is predictive of variation in social functioning. Overall, the influence physical attractiveness seems to be similar across genders. Finally, there may be evidence that early adolescent attractiveness has a lingering effect such that it remains an important predictor of early adult functioning even when accounting for current levels of attractiveness. Results are further discussed in terms of social learning theory and implicit personality theory.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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