Modern technological environments and individual differences in attractiveness perceptions from physical characteristics

  • Jordan Sculley

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The Coolidge effect is a phenomenon in biology where exposure to novel mates increases mating motivations, usually among nonhuman males, and with some corresponding ‘Coolidge-like’ effects observed in human men. Online environments facilitate access to many novel social, romantic, and sexual partners, potentially generating what social psychologists refer to as an ‘assessment mindset’, where a large pool of online dating options orient daters towards novel mates in the hopes of finding an optimal partner, rather than committing to a current partner or romantic prospect. Chapter 2 in this thesis directly tests Finkel and colleagues’ theory of an ‘assessment mindset’ by adapting an experimental design examining ‘Coolidge-like’ effects in human mate preference, which measures the attractiveness of familiar faces on second viewing and the attractiveness of these faces relative to novel faces, all after activating an experimental context related to the ability to choose between items (romantic dates or deserts). Findings in Chapter 2 suggest that this choice context alters social and romantic attraction to others, which may be relevant in the design of and experience with online dating sites. Further theories presented in a 2012 popular TEDx talk have hypothesised that the Coolidge effect explains men’s responses to pornography, where a plethora of novel erotic stimuli influence men to prefer novel mates, which like the ‘assessment mindset’ in dating apps may affect the quality of their sexual and romantic relationships offline. Using the same experimental design with a different manipulation (pornographic images), we were able to directly test the claims in Wilson’s TEDx talk in Chapter 3. In sum, our findings in Chapter 3 demonstrate that visual exposure/sexual arousal moderates attractiveness perceptions, however, greater nuance is required considering earlier claims. Testing these claims is important as choice and socializing are vital to a person’s well-being, physical and psychological health, adjustment, and happiness (Chapter 1). Discussion and directions for further research, such as diversifying stimuli and participant samples, are then discussed (Chapter 4).

Parts of this thesis are adapted from the following publications:

Sculley, J. R., Ritchie, K. L., & Watkins, C. D. (2021). Having options alters the attractiveness of familiar versus novel faces: Sex differences and similarities. Computers in Human Behavior, 124, 106937.

Sculley, J. R. & Watkins, C. D. (in press). The Great Porn Experiment V2.0: Sexual arousal reduces the salience of familiar women when heterosexual men judge their attractiveness. Archives of Sexual Behavior.
Date of Award4 May 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Abertay University
SupervisorChristopher Watkins (Supervisor) & Clare Cunningham (Supervisor)


  • Social perception
  • Online dating
  • Online pornography
  • Attractiveness

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