Today we're pleased to share something a little different with you: a guest post on the psychology of choice and beauty! From my dazzling friend Melanie.

Doesn't it seem like every time we turn around someone beautiful is trying to sell us something? Sometimes it makes sense - we see gorgeous women with beaming smiles heralding the advantages of Colgate, and handsome men with chiseled six packs selling workout equipment.

But what about the beauties selling LCD TVs or La-Z-Boys? Does having a beautiful model standing next to something really help it sell, even if that product
has nothing to do with physical beauty?
Where Do We See These Beautiful People?

You might be in a store where you simply see a picture of a beautiful woman, attached to no product whatsoever. This doesn't look like an advertisement, but the we are exposed to these images every day - in magazines, on television, on billboards, and in movies - and we often see advertisements or products shortly afterward. (Exhibit A)

You may see a beautiful woman who is clearly advocating a product, but the product itself has nothing to do with how beautiful she is. In this advertisement, model-actress Deepika Padukones is endorsing the Sony Cybershot camera (exhibit B), but no woman would ever realistically assume that using this camera could make her look more like Padukones.

Finally, you may see a beautiful woman in a context where it actually makes sense - advertising a product that relates to her beauty. In this ad, Pantene Pro-V (exhibit C) clearly hopes that you will aspire to have hair just like this model's - and t
hey're suggesting that you can get it if you use their product.
The Power of Beauty

So, we see beauty everywhere. But does it really accomplish anything? And even if beautiful women sell more shampoo and soap, can they really sell more cameras and couches?

Well, beauty's a mixed bag - and it doesn't always influence your preferences in the same way.

The way our brains work, just being exposed to something can influence how we see the world around us. When it comes to beauty, seeing a pretty person activates thoughts of 'goodness,' which extends to our evaluations of other things. As a result, buyers who see a beautiful person then go on to rate every product they come across more positively than buyers who didn't see her. All it takes to boost product evaluations is the sight of a pretty girl - even if she's simply on a magazine in the checkout lane!

So what happens when you link beauty with a product like a camera? Well, this works much like that old study with Pavlov and his dogs. If you pair meat with a bell enough times, the dog will automatically salivate whenever it hears the bell, even if there's no meat there. If you pair a beautiful woman with your camera enough times, consumers will think of beauty and positive evaluations when they see your camera, even if the camera has nothing to do with the woman actually being beautiful. If you've seen ads like this enough times, then the next time you see a Sony Cybershot
(exhibit B) - much like Pavlov's dogs salivated when they heard a bell - you will automatically think of concepts like "beauty" and "desirability." But unlike how it worked with Jennifer Lopez on the magazine cover (exhibit A), this doesn't extend to other products that you may come across. It only applies to the product that you kept seeing paired up with the pretty girl (in this case, the camera) - it wouldn't influence your judgment for any other product you just happened to see.

Now what happens when you pair beauty with a product that may have actually helped the model become as beautiful as she is - like shampoo?
(exhibit C) Well, that's where things get really interesting. As it turns out, there are two kinds of people: Those who think that their personal attributes will never change (they are who they are, they look how they look, and there's very little that they can ever do to substantially change that), and those who think that they can really improve themselves (with hard work and/or the right products, anything is possible!)

These two groups of people respond to beauty product ads with beautiful people in them very differently. When seeing an advertisement like the one above, people who think they have the ability to successfully change themselves actually like the shampoo more when it's linked to a beautiful woman. For them, seeing the beautiful woman works like a really successful persuasive argument: "Try this shampoo! Your hair can look just like mine!" But people who think they cannot change themselves don't like the shampoo nearly as much when it's displayed next to a pretty girl. For these buyers, the beautiful woman's presence is completely irrelevant; their hair can never look as good as hers, and they like the shampoo less as a result.

So what does this all boil down to?
  • Seeing beautiful people - even if they aren't actually in an advertisement! - can influence how we evaluate the people, places, and products around us.

  • When we see a beautiful person linked enough times to an item that has nothing to do with beauty (like a couch, a TV, or a camera), we act like Pavlov's dogs - we think of beauty and desirability whenever we see that item, and that makes us like it more.

  • Whether or not seeing a beautiful person makes you more likely to buy a beauty product (like shampoo, lipstick, or eyeliner) has everything to do with how you feel about yourself. If you think you can change your appearance, you are more likely to want to buy the product - but if you think your appearance is pretty stable, it can actually backfire and make you like the product less.
Happy shopping!

Melanie received a B.A. in Psychology with departmental distinction from Duke University in 2009. She is currently a doctoral student in social psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Professionally, she studies goals/motivation, risk behavior prevention, persuasion, and the effects of power, status, and social class on attitudes and behavior. Personally, her interests include her kittens (Daisy & Mason), Duke basketball, being a history nerd, and watching way too many horrible TV shows.

On top of all of that she is one of my best girls and I thank my lucky stars for her between 3 and 5 times a week, most weeks.

Make sure to check her out on PsySociety where she blogs about the intersection of psychology and pop culture, and follow her on Twitter!

Melanie and I last summer at our high school reunion.

One Comment

  1. What an honor, girls! Thank you for letting me be a part of your beautiful site!

    And once again, many many congratulations to the new Mrs. H! :)