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Through rose-tinted spectacles: Relationship satisfaction and representations of partner’s facial attractiveness

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We investigated individuals’ representations of their partners’ facial appearance as a possible contributory factor to relationship maintenance. Couples completed measures assessing their attitudes to their relationship and their partner, and were photographed. These photographs were manipulated to increase or decrease facial attractiveness. Participants were asked to select the veridical image of their partner from a seven image array (three less attractive than the original, the veridical image, and three more attractive than the original). Individuals who rated their relationships positively were more likely to select images of their partners that had been made artificially more attractive as being the veridical images. Individuals dissatisfied with their relationship showed the opposite effect. When participants were analysed independently by sex, these relationships were only present for female participants. Familiar celebrity faces manipulated in the same way were perceived accurately. Implications of these findings for the maintenance of relationships and theories of face perception are discussed.
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Journal of Evolutionary Psychology, 5(2007)1–4, 169–181
DOI: 10.1556/JEP.2007.1021
1789–2082 © Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest
THROUGH ROSE-TINTED GLASSES:
RELATIONSHIP SATISFACTION AND
REPRESENTATIONS OF PARTNERS’ FACIAL
ATTRACTIVENESS
IAN S. PENTON-VOAK*, ANGELA C. ROWE, JENNA WILLIAMS
Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Bristol
Abstract. We investigated individuals’ representations of their partners’ facial appearance as a
possible contributory factor to relationship maintenance. Couples completed measures assessing
their attitudes to their relationship and their partner, and were photographed. These photographs
were manipulated to increase or decrease facial attractiveness. Participants were asked to select
the veridical image of their partner from a seven image array (three less attractive than the
original, the veridical image, and three more attractive than the original). Individuals who rated
their relationships positively were more likely to select images of their partners that had been
made artificially more attractive as being the veridical images. Individuals dissatisfied with their
relationship showed the opposite effect. When participants were analysed independently by sex,
these relationships were only present for female participants. Familiar celebrity faces manipulated
in the same way were perceived accurately. Implications of these findings for the maintenance of
relationships and theories of face perception are discussed.
Keywords: facial attractiveness, close relationships, positive illusions, face perception
INTRODUCTION
Humans are, largely, a pair-bonded species in which partnerships often last many
years. The majority of people successfully manage to maintain mutually satisfying
relationships in which to successfully raise offspring. Although there has been
considerable research into the physical traits that attract one person to another (see
GANGESTAD and SCHEYD 2005, for review) and work investigating factors that may
* Corresponding author: IAN S. PENTON-VOAK, Department of Experimental Psychology,
University of Bristol, BS8 1TU Bristol, UK. Phone: +44 117 9288667, E-mail: I.S.Penton-
Voak@bristol.ac.uk.
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encourage individuals to look outside the pair-bond for extra-pair or short-term
partners (e.g. GANGESTAD et al. 2005), there is perhaps less research from an
evolutionary perspective into the proximate mechanisms that keep people together
in successful relationships. As the maintenance of sexual relationships in a pair
bonded species with heavy biparental investment has clear fitness implications, this
topic should represent a de facto concern of any evolutionary approach to rela-
tionships. In this paper, we investigate the possibility that individuals in sexual
relationships physically idealise their partners in terms of their facial attractiveness.
People in the throes of romantic love often appear to view their partners as
more beautiful, more intelligent, and more desirable than others perhaps might think
realistic. This phenomenon has been well studied by social psychologists, and
although this work has not been conducted or interpreted within an explicitly
evolutionary context, it seems plausible that such idealisation may be a proximate
mechanism which serves to maintain the pair-bond, and hence the adaptive outcome
of ensuring biparental care for offspring. Although it may intuitively appear that
having a realistic view of one’s partner might serve one’s relationship best over the
longer term (because knowing what can realistically be expected from a partner can
potentially avoid disappointments), the social psychological research overwhel-
mingly suggests that viewing one’s partner realistically can have disadvantages. In
fact, having an idealised view or “positive illusions” (in which intimates’
perceptions of their partner are more positive than their partners’ perceptions of
themselves) of one’s partner is linked to increased satisfaction and happiness
(MURRAY et al. 1996a; see GAGNÉ and LYDON 2004 for a review of biases within
relationships).
These positive illusions have been empirically demonstrated using survey-
based studies. Indeed, Murray and colleagues have found considerable support for
the benefits of positive illusions in couples; idealisation of one’s partner predicts
greater relationship satisfaction, love, lust, and less ambivalence towards a partner
(MURRAY et al. 1996a, b; MURRAY and HOLMES 1997). It would also appear that
they have both a self-fulfilling prophecy effect and serve a relationship maintenance
function by acting as a buffer against relationship conflict and adversity. Idealisers
are more likely than non-idealisers to assume that their partner’s motives in a
conflict situation are pro-relationship and that he or she is generally well-meaning
(MURRAY and HOLMES 1997). Relationship satisfaction appears to be associated
with idealistic, rather than realistic, perceptions of one’s partner. MURRAY et al.’s
(1996a) procedure investigates partner idealisation in terms of questionnaire
responses outlining personality attributes. The task for participants involves rating
their partner on the extent to which he or she is “kind”, “intelligent”, “moody” and
“lazy”, to name but a few traits included in the measure. Especially interesting from
an evolutionary perspective is the finding that women idealise their partners more
often than men, whose idealisation of partners is moderated by relationship
commitment (GAGNÉ and LYDON 2003). As, by and large, women provide more
obligate parental investment than men, relationship protection mechanisms may be
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stronger in women than men to reduce the likelihood of a potentially costly
relationship termination. Biases in social perception are hypothesised to serve
functional purposes in many cases, and may vary between sexes when the
cost/benefit function varies between men and women (HASELTON and FUNDER
2006).
The present study attempts to investigate a novel type of idealisation by
constructing images of partners varying in attractiveness using computer graphic
techniques. Unlike previous approaches to idealisation, which have largely relied on
attitudinal measures, we investigated whether intimates idealise their partners’
physical attributes, i.e. do satisfied couples see their romantic partner as being
closer in face shape to an attractive ideal than they really are? As such ideals of
facial attractiveness have been suggested to reflect underlying biological quality
biased perceptions of romantic partners may reduce both the perceived costs of
staying with one partner in the face of competition from higher quality alternatives,
and the benefits of searching for extra-pair mating opportunities. Such a mechanism
may be especially important in the light of increasing evidence that individuals
modulate their attractiveness judgements in terms of their own ‘mate value’. Low
‘mate value’ individuals find potential partners without cues to high phenotypic
quality more attractive than potential partners who posses such cues (PENTON-
VOAK et al. 2003; LITTLE et al. 2001)
Those committed to a close relationship also devalue attractive alternatives,
seeing potential partners outside the pair bond as less desirable (in terms of
personality attributions and physical characteristics) than they may appear to others
generally (JOHNSON and RUSBULT 1989). This commitment-devaluation effect
could be, like the idealisation of one’s partner, a relationship maintenance response
serving to keep romantic attention focused on the current partner. Moreover,
attractive alternatives need not be realistically available to elicit devaluation; highly
committed individuals in dating couples rated models from magazine adverts as less
physically attractive than others (SIMPSON et al. 1990). There is also some evidence
that individuals less committed to a current relationship may up-rate the
attractiveness of alternatives, presumably to facilitate the replacement of a less
satisfactory partner (BAZZINI and SCHAFFER 1999; but see LYDON et al. 2003). A
further possibility is that relationship satisfaction leads to general positive affect
which may result in both partner and non-partner images being idealised. We
investigated these possibilities using the same techniques as we used to study
partner idealisation, by employing manipulated images of unavailable, yet familiar,
faces (TV celebrities; public figures). These well known images fulfil the
requirement of being familiar to all participants while not being in a sexual
relationship with any of the participants.
Given current knowledge of face recognition, could it be possible that our
perceptual representations of romantic partners or other familiar faces could be
biased by our current attitudes to our relationship? As faces become familiar, we
become more acutely sensitive to the position of internal features. For example,
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O’DONNELL and BRUCE (2001) showed that sensitivity to changes in eye position in
facial images increased with their familiarity. BONNER et al. (2003) demonstrated
that the increased salience of internal features was present whether the faces were
learned from static images or videotape, suggesting that the source of our
representation does not significantly influence our later recognition.
Using psychophysical techniques, GE et al. (2003) showed that Chinese
participants were extremely sensitive to changes in interocular distance in a portrait
of Chairman Mao. In a task in which they had to determine from memory whether a
presented picture of Mao had been altered or was the original, their memory
threshold judgements approached the perceptual discrimination capabilities of East
Asian and Caucasian participants (who were less familiar with the image). This
suggests that face memory is highly accurate, and perhaps limited only by the
capabilities of our visual system. BRÉDART and DEVUE (2006) extended this finding
beyond iconic single images (such as the Mao portrait) to people who were
personally known to the participants (work colleagues), and replicated this high
fidelity for memory of familiar faces.
As memory for familiar faces is so robust, it may appear futile to predict biases
in our perceptions of loved one’s face shapes. The memory findings above,
however, are somewhat contradicted by other well-known effects found in face
recognition. The position of a face in a multidimensional space framework (a
‘facespace’, VALENTINE 1991) elegantly explains well-known caricature effects
found in the face recognition literature: Caricatures are recognised more accurately
than veridical images (e.g. LEE et al. 2000). It seems that despite our apparent
sensitivity to arbitrary changes in the internal features of familiar faces, images
manipulated in socially meaningful directions from a veridical representation (such
as caricatures, which exaggerate the difference between a given face and the
population average, easing recognition) may go unnoticed, or even be mistaken for
the veridical image.
In the current study, computer graphic techniques were employed to produce
three progressively more attractive images and three progressively less attractive
images of both members of a long-term relationship, and, additionally, familiar
faces from public life in the UK. If the presence of positive illusions is related to
relationship satisfaction, an idealisation-satisfaction hypothesis predicts positive
associations between measures of satisfaction and physical idealisation (defined as
choosing a photograph that depicts a more attractive version of their partner as the
veridical image from an array). Similarly, the devaluation-satisfaction hypothesis
predicts that participants in satisfying relationships may devalue attractive
alternatives as operationalised by choosing a less attractive morphed image of such
an alternative (i.e. not idealising the appearance of familiar celebrity faces).
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METHODS
Participants
Fourteen heterosexual couples were recruited using press advertisements to take
part in an experiment investigating personal relationships within couples as part of a
wider research project into success and failure in relationships. A diverse sample
responded (mean age: 39 years, SD 18 years; mean relationship length of 144
months). Materials
After signing an informed consent and an image consent form, each participant was
photographed and completed MURRAY et al. (1996b) Positive Illusions Measure.
This measure consists of several subscales, three of which are directly relevant to
satisfaction with both a responder’s relationship and partner. Firstly, the ‘Thinking
about my relationship’ subscale is a 53-item scale assessing attitudes towards an
individual’s current relationship (e.g. “I feel extremely attached to my partner”; “I
often feel resentful toward my partner”). Participants responded using a 9-point
scale (1 = ‘not true at all’ through 9 = ‘completely true’). Secondly, the
‘Interpersonal Qualities Scale’ (MURRAY et al. 1996a) is a 20-item adjective
checklist assessing attitudes towards the current partner (e.g. warm, thoughtless,
moody, witty). Participants rated how well each trait described the partner using a
9-point scale (1 = ‘not at all characteristic’ through 9 = ‘completely characteristic’).
The third subscale is a 15-item measure assessing attitudes to the future of the
current relationship (e.g. “Our relationship is leading to dissolution or divorce”;
“My partner and I are able to share our innermost feelings with one another”).
Participants responded using a 9-point scale (1 = ‘much less likely to occur in my
relationship than in most’ through 9 = ‘much more likely to occur in my
relationship than in most’). These three sub-measures will be subsequently be
referred to as ‘Thinking About My Relationship’, ‘Thinking About My Partner’ and
‘The Future of My Relationship’ measures.
Stimuli
Each participant was photographed in a neutral expression against a plain
background. These photographs were manipulated to produce seven stimuli with
varying levels of attractiveness: three increasingly less attractive than the original,
the veridical image, and three increasingly more attractive than the original
(Figure 1).
These transforms were performed using standard digital caricaturing
techniques. Digital composite male and female average faces were constructed from
samples of 70 undergraduate faces of each sex. Each individual face is delineated
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Figure 1. Examples of the stimuli used in the study. The veridical female (top) and male (bottom) images are in the centre. Images to the
right have been manipulated to increase in attractiveness, while those to the left decrease
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(marked up) with 174 control points indicating the positions of easily identifiable
features (face outlines, eyes, nostrils, lips, etc.). From the delineation data of all the
faces of each sex, the average position of each feature point on the face can be
calculated. This involves calculating the mean position of each of the delineation
points across the faces in the set that is being averaged: The mean XY position of
each of the 174 feature points defines the average face shape of the set. Similar
male and female ‘attractive’ averages were constructed from 20 faces of models of
each sex, collected from internet photo sites.
The shape differences between the ‘undergraduate’ and ‘attractive’ averages
were used to transform the original image of the participants either toward or away
from the attractive face shape. The difference between each equivalent delineation
point on the ‘undergraduate’ and ‘attractive’ face shapes can be expressed as a two
dimensional vector. To construct more ‘attractive’ face shapes, every feature point
on a given face can be moved a prescribed distance along the correspondent vector
that expresses the difference between the ‘undergraduate’ and ‘attractive’ average
shapes. Less attractive face shapes can be constructed by moving in the opposite
direction along this vector. The colour information from the original face shape is
now rendered into the ‘attractive’ or ‘less attractive’ face shapes to complete the
images (see ROWLAND and PERRETT 1995 for technical details).
Testing
Two to three weeks following photography, participants were presented with
printed versions of the seven stimuli constructed from their own partner’s
photograph, shuffled into random order (their partners were not present during this
testing session). They were instructed to select the veridical image of their partner
from the seven. Participants were allowed to handle the images and compare them
to one another. Responses were coded from –3 (selection of the least attractive
face), through 0 (selection of the veridical face) to +3 (selection of the most
attractive face).
Each participant was then presented with five image arrays constructed from
images of well known British public figures and celebrities manipulated in the same
manner as the participant photographs, and once again asked to select the veridical
image. Participants saw celebrities of the opposite sex to themselves. Responses
were coded in the same way as those made to partner’s images. One participant
failed to complete this task. Finally, all participants were debriefed and dismissed.
Results
Participants displayed a significant tendency to idealise their partners, with a mean
score of 0.71 on a scale of –3 to 3, with 0 representing the veridical image, negative
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numbers the less attractive morphs, and positive numbers the more attractive
morphs (S.E. = 0.24; one-sample t-test against a test value of 0, t27 = 2.97, p < 0.01).
Overall, participants selected an image of their partner that had been manipulated to
have increased attractiveness relative to the veridical image. No such bias was
present in judgements of the familiar celebrity faces (mean score = –0.13; S.E. =
0.16; t26= –.833; NS). Participants idealised their partner’s faces significantly more
than they idealised the celebrity faces (t27 = 3.42, p < 0.01)
Scores on each of the three relationship measures (attitudes to current
relationship; attitudes to partner; attitudes to future of current relationship) were
calculated and correlated (Spearman’s r) with the attractiveness level of the face
chosen as the veridical representation of the participant’s partner, and the mean
response given as the veridical representation of the familiar celebrity faces (Table
1). Across the whole sample satisfaction on two of the three measures (attitudes to
partner, attitudes to relationship) were positively correlated with the amount of
idealisation (Table 1, column 1). There were no significant relationships between
any measure of relationship satisfaction and selection of the celebrity faces (Table
1, column 2).
Table 1. Spearman’s correlations (each cell shows rs and N) between the three relationship
measures and extent of idealisation of partner and familiar other (celebrity) faces
Partner idealisation Familiar other idealisation
Attitudes to current relationship .41*
28 .14
27
Attitudes to partner .49**
28 .02
27
Attitudes to future of current relationship .27
27 –.05
26
* p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01.
One potential criticism of work with dyads such as this is that it is not entirely
clear whether the sample size is the number of participants (in our case, 28) or the
number of dyads (14 in our study). Potentially, there is the possibility of pseudo-
replication if the number of participants is used where the number of dyads is more
appropriate. This is especially true if scores within dyads are correlated. In our
sample, there was no significant correlation between the amount of physical
idealisation that each partner of a dyad demonstrated (r = .18, N = 14, NS).
Nonetheless, a conservative way of overcoming this potential criticism when
members of a dyad are distinguishable (for example, by sex) is to analyse each
distinguishable group individually. In our sample, separate one sample t-tests of
This non-independence problem also precludes using ANOVA to analyse the results in
this study; A 2 (sex of participant) x 2 (face type: celebrity v. partner) mixed design with relation-
ship measures as covariates is arguably not appropriate (KENNY 1995).
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distinguishable dyadic members (males and females) suggested that this tendency to
idealise partners may be stronger in female than male participants. Although
women significantly idealise their male partners (mean idealisation = 0.79, t13 =
2.24, p < 0.05), male participants do not significantly idealise their female partners
(mean idealisation = 0.64, t13 = 1.88, NS). There was, however, no difference
between the level of idealisation between male and female participants (t26 = 0.292,
NS). Correlational analyses indicate significant positive correlations between two
out of three relationship satisfaction measures in female participants, but no
significant relationships in male participants (Table 2; Figure 2).
Figure 2. Scatter plots showing relationship between the ‘Thinking about my partner’ subscale
and idealisation for all participants (top); male participants (bottom left) and female participants
(bottom right). Images increase in attractiveness from –3 to 3; 0 is the veridical. Plots for the
‘Thinking about my relationship measure’ are similar
'Thinking About My Partner' measure
-3
-2
-1
0
1
2
3
456789
Attitude to partner (high = +ve attitude)
Im a
g
e selected
Rs = 0.49, p < .01, N = 28
Male Participants
-3
-2
-1
0
1
2
3
456789
Attitude to Partner (high = +ve
attitude)
Image selected
Rs = 0.36, ns, N=14
Female Participants
-3
-2
-1
0
1
2
3
456789
A
ttitude to partner (high = +ve
attitude)
Image selected
Rs = 0.72, p<.01, N=14
'Thinking About My Partner' measure
IAN S. PENTON-VOAK, ANGELA C. ROWE, JENNA WILLIAMS
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Table 2. Spearman’s correlations (each cell shows rs and N) between the three relationship
measures and extent of idealisation of partner for male and female participants
Female participants:
idealisation Male participants:
idealisation
Attitudes to current relationship .63*
14 .18
14
Attitudes to partner .72**
14 .36
14
Attitudes to future of current relationship .42
13 –.29
14
* p < 0.05, ** p < 0.01.
DISCUSSION
Participants reporting satisfaction with their current relationship and partner seemed
to hold a physical representation of their partner that was unrealistically favourable,
as evidenced by their choice of attractive manipulated faces as accurate
representations of their mate. Participants in unsatisfactory relationships showed the
opposite pattern: i.e. they picked an image of their partner that was somewhat less
attractive than the veridical image as the accurate representation. This is an
interesting finding, as most studies of partner idealisation concentrate on positive
bias or accuracy, rather than derogation within partnerships (GAGNÉ and LYDON
2004). Furthermore, although there is no significant sex difference in the absolute
amount of idealisation shown by men and women, the correlations indicate that
these effects are stronger in female than male participants, where they fail to reach
significance in our sample. These sex differences are analogous to studies of
attitudinal measures of idealisation (e.g. GAGNÉ and LYDON 2003).
No measure of relationship satisfaction predicted the idealisation (or
otherwise) of famous faces, which were perceived accurately. The lack of any
devaluation or idealisation of these familiar images also suggests that the partner
idealisation found is not an artefact of a generally elevated affective state which
may accompany romantic love – ‘rose tinted glasses’ are worn only for partners in
this study. These findings support the idealisation-satisfaction hypothesis, but
provide no evidence consistent with the devaluation-satisfaction hypothesis. The
effects reported appear target specific.
Idealisation of a partner’s physical appearance has been demonstrated before
with questionnaire measures and ratings of physical attractiveness, but our data
indicate that this phenomenon may result from the visual representation of the
partner in memory being biased towards shared standards of attractiveness (which
have been argued to reflect biological quality) rather than idiosyncratic taste. So, in
one sense beauty is in the mind of the beholder, owing to biased social perceptions
and/or representations.
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Our findings also represent a novel finding in the face recognition literature.
Despite high fidelity of memory for faces generally (GE et al. 2003), participants in
successful relationships do not select the veridical image of their partner from an
array in which facial features have been manipulated to vary in attractiveness, but
pick a more attractive image (with the converse applying to participants in
unsuccessful relationships). As attractiveness is often associated with averageness
(e.g. LANGLOIS et al. 1990), this finding may at first glance appear to be a slightly
unusual anti-caricature effect for familiar faces: participants appear to be picking
more average (i.e. more attractive) faces as veridical images of their partners (note
that a standard caricature effect would typically be expected in this situation). Our
manipulation, however, did not systematically alter averageness. Rather, our
technique explicitly alters the characteristics that define the shape differences
between ‘average’ (undergraduate) and ‘highly attractive’ (model) populations
suggesting that our finding is not best defined as an anti-caricature effect.
The idealisation of a partner’s trait attributes (e.g. kindness, trustworthiness,
etc.) may serve as a buffer against relationship adversity in two ways: a) by
influencing individuals to interpret potentially negative partner behaviour as
situational, as opposed to dispositional; b) by influencing a more positive
interpretation of relationship problems than might be the case otherwise. Given the
importance of facial attractiveness in human mate choice (RHODES 2005;
GANGESTAD and SNEYD 2006) and willingness to continue relationships (e.g.
BERSCHEID et al. 1971), the biases in social perception reported here may also serve
functional purposes in relationship maintenance. Idealisation or denigration of a
partner’s physical attractiveness may be a psychological mechanism that promotes
adaptive behaviour such as continued investment of resources in successful
relationships or a motivation to terminate unsuccessful relationships. A positive
representation of a partner’s attractiveness may motivate an individual to invest
more resources into a relationship as the current partner’s perceived mate value is
high. Investment in a successful relationship with an overvalued partner may
outweigh potential costs of mate replacement (e.g. rejecting current mate; mate
search). Conversely, given dissatisfaction with an ongoing relationship, a negative
representation of their physical attractiveness may serve to motivate the person to
begin to look outside the current pair bond for potential replacement mates.
In the current study, the relationship between relationship satisfaction and
physical idealisation is present in women but not in men, although given the
relatively low sample size this finding should be treated with caution – with a larger
sample size, it seems likely that significant idealisation would be found in both
sexes, albeit in a weaker form in men. If perception of partner’s facial attractiveness
contributes to the maintenance or termination of relationships, this sex difference
fits well with hypotheses derived from the existence of sex differences in parental
investment (TRIVERS 1972). From this evolutionary theoretical perspective, women
have more to gain from successful relationships and more to lose from unsuccessful
relationships than men as physiological constraints rather than partner number limit
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female reproductive success. For example, while extra-pair mating may offer
benefits to both sexes in terms of increased offspring number for men and the
obtainment of both direct (material) and indirect (genetic) benefits for women, the
costs of detection differ for men and women. Sanctions following discovered
adultery are harsher for women than for men both in terms of cross-culturally stable
societal norms (WILSON and DALY 1992) and the likely response of the partner
(men and women may even have evolved differences in jealousy responses in this
domain; BUSS et al. 1992). The sex differences we have found in the current study
also correspond well with error management theory, which can predict differing
cost-benefit payoffs across the sexes. In conclusion, our data demonstrate that our
representations of the appearance of romantic partners are biased by our satisfaction
with both our relationship and the partner themselves, and that these biases are
stronger in female than male members of partnerships.
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... By marking up feature points on the target faces that correspond to identical points on the prototype faces, each original image was transformed for shape in 3.33% increments (up to 10%) towards a more dominant or submissive face. This resulted in seven images for each face identity: three increasingly dominant morphs, the original image, and three increasingly submissive morphs (for a similar procedure, see Epley & Whitchurch, 2008;Penton-Voak et al., 2007;Zell & Balcetis, 2012). For reasons of simplicity, we re-labelled the face continuum using a scale from -100% (most dominant) to +100% (most submissive) (see Figure 1). ...
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