How effective are online providers of paid participants for psychological experiments?

How effective are online providers of paid participants for psychological experiments?

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I'm looking for places to recruit participants for online experiments, and in particular, for experiments using Inquisit Web. My lab used to recruit participants through M-Turk but that's no longer an option for us.

I saw similar questions:

While searching for a suitable platform to recruit and compensate participants online, I came across several resources:

  • (Might not be relevant for Inquisit, as they offer their own platform for experiment construction and presentation)

How effective are these resources, or alternatives in recruiting paid participants for online psychology studies?

Psychological Stress and Social Media Use

It makes sense to wonder if the use of digital technology creates stress. There is more information flowing into people’s lives now than ever — much of it distressing and challenging. There are more possibilities for interruptions and distractions. It is easier now to track what friends, frenemies, and foes are doing and to monitor raises and falls in status on a near-constant basis. There is more social pressure to disclose personal information. These technologies are said to takeover people’s lives, creating time and social pressures that put people at risk for the negative physical and psychological health effects that can result from stress.

Stress might come from maintaining a large network of Facebook friends, feeling jealous of their well-documented and well-appointed lives, the demands of replying to text messages, the addictive allure of photos of fantastic crafts on Pinterest, having to keep up with status updates on Twitter, and the “fear of missing out” on activities in the lives of friends and family. 9

We add to this debate with a large, representative study of American adults and explore an alternative explanation for the relationship between technology use and stress. We test the possibility that a specific activity, common to many of these technologies, might be linked to stress. It is possible that technology users — especially those who use social media — are more aware of stressful events in the lives of their friends and family. This increased awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives may contribute to the stress people have in their own lives. This study explores the digital-age realities of a phenomenon that is well documented: Knowledge of undesirable events in other’s lives carries a cost — the cost of caring. 10

This study explores the relationship between a variety of digital technology uses and psychological stress. We asked people an established measure of stress that is known as the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). 11 The PSS consists of ten questions and measures the degree to which individuals feel that their lives are overloaded, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Participants were asked:

In the last 30 days, how often have you:

  1. Been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly
  2. Felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life
  3. Felt nervous and “stressed”
  4. Felt confident about your ability to handle any personal problems
  5. Felt that things were going your way
  6. Found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do
  7. Been able to control irritations in your life
  8. Felt that you were on top of things
  9. Been angered because of things that were outside of your control
  10. Felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them

Participants responded on a 4-point scale from “frequently” to “never.” The ten items were combined so that a higher score indicates higher psychological stress (the scale ranges from 0-30 with zero representing no stress and 30 representing the highest level). 12

Overall, women experience more stress than men.

The average American adult scored 10.2 out of 30 on the PSS. One of the starkest contrasts in our survey was between the level of reported stress experienced by men and women. On average, women report experiencing significantly higher levels of stress than men. The average women scores 10.5 on the PSS while the average man scores 9.8. 13 On average, men reported stress levels that were 7% lower than for women.

There are other demographic characteristics that are related to stress. On average, older adults, and those who are employed tend to have less stress.

How we studied psychological stress and technology use

In the survey, respondents were asked about their use of social networking sites: We asked people about the frequency with which they use different social media platforms, such as Facebook (used by 71% of internet users in this sample), Twitter (used by 18% of internet users), Instagram (17%), Pinterest (21%), and LinkedIn (22%).

Given the popularity of Facebook, we also asked very specific questions about users’ networks and what people do on that platform: number of friends (the average was 329), frequency of status updates (the average was 8 times per month), frequency of “Liking” other people’s content (the average was 34 times per month), frequency of commenting (the average was 22 times per month), and how often they send private messages (the average was 15 times per month). 14

We asked people how many digital pictures they share online (the average was 4 times per week), how many people they email (9 people/day), and how many emails they send and receive (an average of 25 per day). We also asked about their use of their mobile phone the number of messages they text (an average of 32 messages per day), pictures sharing via text (an average of 2 pictures per day), and the number of people that they text with (an average of 4 people per day).

Given the important differences in stress levels based on age, education, marital status, and employment status, we used regression analysis to control for these factors. By using regression analysis we are able determine the degree to which technology use is specifically associated with stress by holding demographic characteristics constant. Since men and women tend to experience stress differently, we ran separate analyses for each sex.

Those who are more educated and those who are married or living with a partner report lower levels of stress.

We found that women, and those with fewer years of education, tend to report higher levels of stress, while those who are married or living with a partner report less psychological stress (see Table 1 in Appendix A). For women (but not men), those who are younger, and those who are employed in paid work outside of the home also tend to experience less stress.

The frequency of internet and social media use has no direct relationship to stress in men. For women, the use of some technologies is tied to lower stress.

For men, there is no relationship between psychological stress and frequent use of social media, mobile phones, or the internet more broadly. Men who use these technologies report similar levels of stress when compared with non-users.

For women, there is evidence that tech use is tied to modestly lower levels of stress. Specifically, the more pictures women share through their mobile phones, the more emails they send and receive, and the more frequently they use Twitter, the lower their reported stress. However, with the exception of Twitter, for the average person, the relationship between stress and these technologies is relatively small. Women who are heavier participants in these activities report less stress. Compared with a woman who does not use these technologies, a women who uses Twitter several times per day, sends or receives 25 emails per day, and shares two digital pictures through her mobile phone per day, scores 21% lower on our stress measure than a woman who does not use these technologies at all.

From this survey we are not able to definitively determine why frequent uses of some technologies are related to lower levels of reported stress for women. Existing studies have found that social sharing of both positive and negative events can be associated with emotional well-being and that women tend to share their emotional experiences with a wider range of people than do men. 15 Sharing through email, sending text messages of pictures of events shortly after they happen, and expressing oneself through the small snippets of activity allowed by Twitter, may provide women with a low-demand and easily accessible coping mechanism that is not experienced or taken advantage of by men. It is also possible that the use of these media replaces activities or allows women to reorganize activities that would otherwise be more stressful. Previous Pew Research reports have also documented that social media users also tend to report higher levels of perceived social support. It could be that technology use leads to higher levels of perceived social support, which in turn moderates, or reduces stress, and subsequently reduces people’s risk for the physical diseases and psychological problems that often accompany stress. 16

Awareness of Other People’s Stressful Life Events and Social Media Use

This report pays particular attention to social stress. This kind of stress comes from exposure to stressful life events. It is not directly a measure of whether someone feels that their own life is overloaded. Rather, it assesses people’s stress by understanding their social environment. 17 Those who experience stressful life events often suffer a range of negative physical outcomes, including physical illness and lower mental health. 18

It is possible that technology users — especially those who use social media — are more aware of stressful events in the lives of their friends and family. This increased awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives may contribute to the stress people have in their own lives.

Previous Pew Research reports have documented that social media users tend to perceive higher levels of social support in their networks. They also have a greater awareness of the resources within their network of relationships — on and offline. This awareness has generally been perceived as a social benefit. Individuals who are aware of the things that are happening with their friends and the informal resources available to them through their social ties have more social capital. The extra flows of personal information in social media, what we have termed “pervasive awareness,” are one of the potential benefits of digital technologies. 19 However, it is also possible that this heightened awareness comes with a cost.

We wanted to know if the awareness afforded by the use of digital technologies was limited to an awareness of what others could provide (social capital), or if it also included an awareness of the problems and stressful events that take place in the lives of friends, family, and acquaintances. Such awareness is not inherently negative. In fact, an awareness of the problems and hurdles faced by others is a precondition of empathy, 20 a dimension of social intelligence (social interest), 21 and facilitates the provision of social support. However, awareness can also have an emotional impact – a “cost of caring.” 22

To measure awareness of other people’s stress we asked participants if they knew someone – other than themselves – who experienced any of a dozen major life events in the past 12 months. We additionally asked if the person(s) the event happened to was someone close to them (a strong tie), or an acquaintance whom they were not very close with (a weak tie), or both. Our list was composed of major life events that are known sources of stress in people’s lives. 23

The survey findings were that in the previous 12 months:

  • 57% of adults said they know someone who had started a new job
  • 56% know someone who had moved or changed homes
  • 54% know someone who had become pregnant, given birth, or adopted a child
  • 50% knew someone who had been hospitalized or experienced a serious accident or injury
  • 50% knew someone who had become engaged or married
  • 42% knew someone who had been fired or laid off
  • 36% knew someone who had experienced the death of a child, partner, or spouse
  • 36% knew someone who had a child move out of the house or move back into the house
  • 31% knew someone who had gone through a marital separation or divorce
  • 26% knew someone who had experienced a demotion or pay cut at work
  • 22% knew someone who had been accused of or arrested for a crime
  • 22% knew someone who had been the victim of a robbery or physical assault

Unsurprisingly, given that most people have few close social ties compared with the number of acquaintances they have, for all of the events we queried, people were more likely to know a weak tie (an acquaintance) than a strong tie who had experienced one of these stressful events.

The average adult in our sample knew people who had experienced 5 of the 12 events that we asked about.

How we studied awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives

As with our analysis of psychological stress, regression analysis was used to test if the use of different digital technologies was related to higher or lower levels of awareness of stressful events in other people’s lives. This allows us to determine the role of different technologies in helping different users be aware of stressful events in others’ lives, controlling for likely differences in awareness that are related to demographic factors such as age, education, race, marital and employment status.

Knowing that the sexes tend to be very different in their awareness of stressful event in the lives of those around them, we further divided our analysis into a comparison of women and men. We also anticipated that some technologies might be more commonly used for communication with close social ties, and primarily provide for an awareness of major events in the lives of close friends and family, while others may be more suited for awareness of events in the lives of looser acquaintances (Appendix A: Table 2).

Women are more aware than men of major events in the lives of people who are close to them.

Previous research has found that women tend to be more aware of the life events of people in their social network than are men. 24 When we compared men and women based on the average number of life events that someone in their social network had experienced in the past year, women were consistently more aware than men, although the average was only statistically significant for close relationships.

More educated and younger people are more aware of events in other people’s lives.

A number of demographic factors were consistently related to a higher level of awareness of major events within people’s social networks. For both men and women, those who were younger and those with more years of education tended to know of more major events in the lives of people around them.

In addition, we found that women who were married or living with a partner, and women employed in paid work outside the home, were more aware of events in the lives of their acquaintances (weak ties), but that this was not related to awareness of events in the lives of close friends and family.

Social Media Users Are More Aware of Major Events in the Lives of People Close to Them

Social media use is clearly linked to awareness of major events in other people’s lives. However, the specific technologies that are associated with awareness vary for men and women.

Among both men and women, Pinterest users have a higher level of awareness of events in the lives of close friends and family. The more frequently someone used Pinterest, the more events they were aware of:

  • Compared with a woman who does not use Pinterest, a woman who visits Pinterest 18 days per month (average for a female Pinterest user) is typically aware of 8% more major life events from the 12 events we studied amongst her closest social ties.
  • Compared with a man who does not use Pinterest, a man who used Pinterest at a similar rate (18 days per month) would tend to be aware of 29% more major life events amongst their closest ties.

Men who used LinkedIn, men who send text messages to a larger number of people, and men who comment on other people’s posts more frequently on Facebook also tend to be more aware of major events in the lives of people close to them. These same technologies had no impact on woman’s awareness of events in the lives of people close to them.

Compared with a man with similar demographic characteristics that does not use the following technologies:

  • Those who send text messages to four different people through their mobile phones on an average day (the average for a male cellphone user) tend to be aware of 16% more events amongst those who are close to them.
  • A male user of LinkedIn visits the site fifteen times per month and is typically aware of 14% more events in the lives of their closest social ties.
  • A male Facebook user, who comments on other Facebook users content 19 times per month, is, on average, aware of 8% more events in the lives of their closest friends and family.

For women, the more friends on their Facebook network and the more pictures they shared online per week, the more aware of major life events in the lives of close friends and family. Compared with demographically similar women who do not use these technologies:

  • A woman who shares 4 photos online per week tends to be aware of 7% additional major events in the lives of those who are close to her.
  • A female Facebook user with 320 Facebook friends (the average for women in our sample) is, on average, aware of 13% more events in the lives of her closest social ties.

Similarly, men experienced higher levels of awareness as a result of a larger number of different technologies.

Facebook use is associated with more awareness of major events in the lives of acquaintances.

Looking beyond people’s close relationships to include a looser set of their acquaintances, we find that Facebook use is a consistent predictor of awareness of stressful events in others’ lives for both men and women. Specifically, the more Facebook friends people have, and the more frequently they “Like” other people’s content, the more major events they are aware of within their network of contacts.

  • Compared with a non-Facebook user, a male Facebook user with 320 Facebook friends is, on average, aware of 6% more major events in the lives of their extended acquaintances. A female Facebook user with the same number of friends is aware of 14% more events in the lives of their weak ties.
  • A male or female Facebook user who “Likes” other people’s content about once per day, is typically aware of 10% more major events in the lives of their extended acquaintances.

For women, Instagram is related to lower awareness of major events in the lives of acquaintances, while Twitter and photo sharing are related to higher awareness.

Women are also likely to have higher awareness of their extended network as a result of the number of pictures they share online and through frequent use of Twitter. Compared with a demographically similar woman who does not use these technologies:

  • A female Twitter user, who uses the site once per day, tends to be aware of 19% more events in the lives of their extended network.
  • A woman who shares 4 digital pictures per week is typically aware of 6% more events in their network of lose social ties.

Use of Instagram was the only technology use that we found to predict lower levels of awareness, and only for women. This might be the case because Instagram is used differently that some other kinds of social media. Scholars have found that many people make cellphone calls and exchange text messages predominantly with their closest ties. They have argued that this is “tele-cocooning,” 25 and they believe that people’s use of mobile phones leads to contact with more intimate relations at the expense of weaker and more diverse social ties. Instagram use may be tied to a similar pattern. Those who use Instagram might reduce their focus on the lives of their social ties that are not considered especially close. Controlling for other factors, a female user of Instagram who uses the platform a few times per day is, on average, aware of 62% fewer major events in the lives of their extended network than someone who does not use Instagram at all.

For men, text messaging, email, and Pinterest are related to higher awareness of major events in the lives of acquaintances.

In addition to use of Facebook, men’s awareness of stressful events in their friends’ lives tends to be higher for those who email and send text messages to a larger number of people. Compared with someone who does not use these technologies:


Cheating by participants in online studies can take on many forms. For example, a participant could make hand-written notes during the course of a memory task, or use a search engine on the web to research responses in knowledge-based surveys. Whatever the case, cheating reduces the quality of your data. Prevention, detection and removal of bad data is vital for good quality results.

There is relatively little research on reducing the rates of cheating in online studies. Thus, the methods discussed in this article mostly derive from a small number of published studies.

The Psychology Research Participation Scheme is open to everyone 18 years or older who is interested in research participation. Participants in this scheme will be reimbursed for their efforts at a flat rate of $20 per hour spent. Information about the projects is available on the website.

In order to join the Psychology Research Participation Scheme, participants have to register. Registration as a new user requires entry of a name, a user ID and a valid e-mail address. The system will then provide a password that is required for entry.

By registering as a participant, you confirm that you are 18 years or older.

To register or to check on new experiments available, please go to the paid research participation website.

IRBs, IRB Administrators, and Investigators: A Collaboration

In this section, we propose strategies that emphasize a collaborative relationship among the IRB, IRB administrators, and investigators, and that involve responsibilities for each group. We begin by describing the most salient responsibilities for IRB members and IRB administrators, and then elaborate the responsibilities of investigators. We contend that when these groups understand and face these responsibilities collaboratively, conflict will be minimized and safe, ethical, high quality research will flourish.

Beyond Google

Psychology students interested in conducting online research do not have to use Google as their only search tool. In fact, many academic search engines and databases offer free or discounted services to students. The following section describes some common resources for general academic research, including several options that may prove especially helpful for psychology students.


    AMiner allows users to access a variety of curated research materials. Students can search by subject, top-ranked papers, experts on the topic, and relevant related subjects. BASE is an academic search engine operated by Bielefeld University Library. Students can access about 60% of the indexed documents for free. The Catalog of U.S. Government Publications enables users to view descriptions of current and historical federal publications. Some publications include the full text. The CIA World Factbook includes information about the people, government, history, and cultures of 267 world entities. The site also features a collection of world maps. The Educational Research Information Center features approved content from sources that have gone through a formal review process. iSeek Education specifically assists teachers, administrators, students, and caregivers. Users can access access editor-reviewed content from governments, universities, and noncommercial providers. The National Archives Catalog gives users access to digitized, electronic, and authority records. Users can also view web pages from and the Presidential libraries. OCLC provides resources through cooperation with members in more than 100 countries. Researchers can search for academic sources across the collections of all member libraries. CORE strives to collect all freely available research materials from digital libraries and journals across the internet. The site presents information to the public through their search engine.

For Psychology Students

    ProQuest provides a database of journals, newspapers, e-books, dissertations, theses, and digitized content on a wide range of academic topics, including subjects within psychology. The APA compiles a list of articles published in more than 90 APA journals across various subdisciplines of psychology. Students can search through psychological research articles online. Elsevier participates in the revision and dissemination process for 17% of scientific articles worldwide. The business publishes about 2,500 journals in healthcare and open science. Wiley Online Library features over 1,600 journals, 21,000 books, and 200 reference works. Psychology students may access original research in all areas of psychology, including cognition health and clinical psychology and developmental, social and occupational psychology. Sage Journals makes teaching and research materials available globally by removing obstacles to access. Sage directly publishes over 1,000 journals and 800 books every year. The academic journal Frontiers in Psychology features current, peer-reviewed research in psychology. Subjects that appear in the journal include clinical and cognitive science, imaging studies, animal cognition, and social psychology. Springer Link gives students and other researchers access to over 10 million scientific documents, including books, journals, series, reference works, and protocols. The Online Books Page lists more than two million books that are freely available on the internet. Hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries, the site also provides access to thousands of research journals. The American Journal of Psychiatry website hosts all of the journal’s research articles before they appear in a print issue. Users can access the current issue and an archive of older issues. Psychology students can use Scientific Research Publishing to browse open access journals by subject or title. Researchers can search for articles related to their particular topic or manuscript.

Social Media and The Brain

From a neurological perspective, social media affects different brain functions in unique ways. It contains many combinations of stimuli that can trigger different reactions, and because of this, social media’s effects on the brain appear in a variety of ways.

Positive attention on social media, for example, affects multiple parts of the brain. According to an article in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, accruing likes on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram causes “activation in brain circuity implicated in reward, including the striatum and ventral tegmental area, regions also implicated in the experience of receiving Likes from others.” This sounds really complicated and involved, but when approached from a different perspective, it becomes a little more digestible.

The ventral tegmental area (VTA) is one of the primary parts responsible for determining the rewards system in people’s bodies. When social media users receive positive feedback (likes), their brains fire off dopamine receptors, which is facilitated in part by the VTA.

Another study that employed the use of MRI technology to monitor brain activity found similar results. As researchers analyzed the brains of adolescents browsing Instagram, they found that “viewing photos with many (compared with few) likes was associated with greater activity in neural regions implicated in reward processing, social cognition, imitation, and attention.”

Again, with social media so tightly connected to individuals’ rewards systems, users should realize the power – and possibility for abuse – of the platforms they use. Things like gambling and narcotic drugs have the power to rule over the brain’s rewards system in a similar capacity. Social media users should be aware of these parallels to avoid potential pitfalls.

Outside of the rewards systems, social media stimuli can affect the brain’s decision-making and emotional processing functions. In yet another study that observed the brain activity in adolescents, researchers found that parts of the brain that deal with emotional and sensory processing reacted noticeably when participants felt excluded. This study highlighted the effects of “online social exclusion” on the developing brains of adolescents. What this means is that when social media users are excluded from online groups, chats, or events, the brain reacts in these specific regions directly.

The research on social media and how the parts of the brain react to it is still in the early stages. While these studies reflect an effort toward better understanding the effects of social media on different parts of the brain, there’s still a lot of progress to be made.

Beauty is in the Mind of the Beholder

There’s no getting around it. In this world, you’re better off being good-looking. At all ages and in all walks of life, attractive people are judged more favorably, treated better, and cut more slack. Mothers give more affection to attractive babies. Teachers favor more attractive students and judge them as smarter. Attractive adults get paid more for their work and have better success in dating and mating. And juries are less likely to find attractive people guilty and recommend lighter punishments when they do.

Many factors can play into personal attractiveness — the way you dress, the way you act, the way you carry yourself, even things that are hard or impossible to change, like social status and wealth, race, and body size and shape. But the first thing we notice when we meet someone is their face. There are faces that launch a thousand ships, and faces that only a mother could love, and we are supremely attuned to tell the difference. The brain, among its many other functions, is a beauty detector.

The brain is such a good beauty detector, in fact, that it can judge the appeal of a face before you’re aware you’ve even seen one. When participants in a recent study were presented with attractive and unattractive faces for only 13 milliseconds, they were able to judge the faces’ attractiveness accurately (that is, in accordance with experimenters’ ratings), even though they were not consciously aware of the stimuli and felt like they were just guessing (Olson & Marshuetz, 2005).

There is no doubt that beauty (which here means both male and female attractiveness) is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, but across individuals and across cultures there is nevertheless considerable agreement about what makes a pretty or handsome face, and the evidence strongly counters the conventional wisdom that attractiveness preferences are mainly acquired through life experience. For one thing, the beauty bias is already present in infancy. Six-month-olds prefer to look at the same relatively attractive faces that adults do (Rubenstein, Kalakanis, & Langlois, 1999).

Truth in Beauty

The question is, is beauty really only skin deep, or does an attractive face actually reflect underlying good qualities? In a few ways, the stereotype that “beautiful is good” does hold. Evolutionary psychology holds that faces really are windows onto certain fundamental and important characteristics indicative of a person’s quality as a romantic partner and as a mate — qualities of health and genes, and even character.

Among the most important and consistent factors in facial attractiveness are structural qualities of the face that are highly sex-typical. An attractive man, in the eyes of female experimental participants, is generally one with relatively prominent cheekbones and eyebrow ridges and a relatively long lower face. Likewise, prominent cheekbones, large eyes, small nose, a taller forehead, smooth skin, and an overall young or even childlike appearance add to women’s allure in the eyes of male raters.

Our faces are sculpted by our hormones. These sex-typical facial features of adult men and women reflect the ratio of testosterone to estrogen or estrogen to testosterone, respectively, acting on the individual during development. We are programmed to be drawn to strong indicators of maleness (for women) and femaleness (for men) partly because they reflect an individual’s health (Fink & Penton-Voak, 2002). The reason hormones equate to health is somewhat counterintuitive. High levels of sex hormones during puberty actually suppress the immune system, raising vulnerability to disease and infection. It sounds like a bad thing. But when a person with a particularly “male” or “female” face makes it to adulthood with all his or her health intact, it means that the person has withstood the potentially debilitating influence of those high hormones. In other words it signifies a more robust constitution.

‘Your Symmetry Lights Up the Room’

No two faces are alike, and no two halves of a face are alike. Countless small variables make faces somewhat asymmetrical – a slightly wider jaw on one side, one eye a fraction of an inch lower than the other, a cheekbone that sticks out just a wee bit more, a dimple on one cheek, etc. Some asymmetries (called directional asymmetries) are common across the population – for example, the left side of most people’s faces is slightly larger than the right. But many asymmetries, called fluctuating asymmetries, arise when one’s unfolding genetic program is perturbed during development, for instance by parasites or other environmental challenges. The slings and arrows of life’s fortunes can literally knock our faces off of kilter, just like a punch to the nose. A symmetrical face, like a particularly masculine or feminine one, is a sign of having stood up better to life’s figurative schoolyard beatings.

Numerous studies have found that when men and women are asked to compare versions of faces that are more versus less symmetrical, the symmetrical ones garner significantly higher ratings of attractiveness, dominance, sexiness, and health, and are perceived to be more desirable as potential mates (Rhodes, Proffitt, Grady, & Sumich, 1998 Shackelford & Larsen, 1997). So as with masculine/feminine features, the appeal of symmetry makes perfect sense to evolutionary psychologists. In a beautiful face, we are really seeing the artistry of good genes. People prefer symmetrical faces even when they can’t actually perceive the symmetry – that is, when only face halves are presented. It may be that symmetry covaries with other desirable characteristics that reflect the same genetic endowment and overall health (Penton-Voak et al., 2001).

It may not be all that surprising that we’d rather mate with a symmetrical Greek god or goddess than with someone who stepped out of a Picasso painting. Less obvious is that a pretty or handsome face is also generally one that is, well, average. When presented with individual faces and a composite of those individual faces, participants will judge the composite as more attractive than the individual, more distinctive faces. And the more faces that contribute to the composite, the more attractive it becomes (Langlois & Roggman, 1990). The most attractive faces appear to be those whose features are closest to the average in the population—that is, more prototypical.

Averageness, like symmetry, reflects a favorable genetic endowment. Those with average features are less likely to be carrying harmful mutations. Additionally, averageness reflects greater heterozygosity — having both a dominant and a recessive allele for given traits, rather than two dominant or two recessive alleles (an advantage that symmetry also reflects). Heterozygosity confers relatively greater resistance to pathogens, in many cases, and thus, along with all the other indicators of resilience, we may be programmed to seek it out through its subtle but telltale signs.

However, it has also been argued that there may be some much simpler cognitive reasons for the preference for averages. Besides faces, people show a preference for average-looking dogs, average-looking birds, and average-looking watches (Halberstadt & Rhodes, 2000). Prototypes are more familiar-looking than less typical examples of a given class of objects, be it the face of a potential mate or the face of a timepiece, and they are easier to process. Easy on the eyes = easy on the brain.

In the Sex of the Beholder

Men and women both show the above preferences when it comes to faces, but in general men’s preferences tend to be more pronounced (Rhodes et al., 1998). Males may place greater importance on physical beauty when it comes to mate choice, while females also attend to characteristics like power and status. But a number of factors contribute to how much — and when — male face characteristics matter to women.

One factor is a woman’s own attractiveness: Preference for masculine and symmetrical features has been shown to be higher for women who regard themselves as more attractive (Little, Burt, Penton-Voak, & Perrett, 2001). Another is time of the month: The degree of women’s preferences for different attractive qualities fluctuates strikingly across the ovulatory cycle.

A group of University of Mexico psychologists have studied women’s shifting preferences for symmetrical men. They have found that this preference (which women can not only see, but even smell in tee-shirts slept in by symmetrical men) increases dramatically around the time of ovulation, when a woman is most fertile and the chance of conception is highest (Gangestad, Thornhill, & Garver-Apgar, 2005). So does a woman’s preference for more masculine-looking men. But this preference wanes during other times of the month. Again, evolutionary psychology provides a ready explanation.

Humans, like many other species, are socially monogamous but not necessarily sexually monogamous. When sex might result in getting pregnant, it’s health and fertility that are particularly desirable in a mate. But good genes in the sense of physical health is not the same as good genes in the sense of character, and what makes a good sperm donor may not make the best long-term, nurturing, helpful life partner. The flip side of high testosterone is an increased tendency toward aggression and antisocial behavior, a tendency to compete rather than help. Thus a male with less testosterone, indicated by less masculine features, may invest more in caring for offspring (whether or not he’s the biological father) and so may be better to have around for the long term.

A Thousand Ships

In myth, beautiful women are disruptive of men’s reason, even causing them to go to war. We now know that there’s truth to the idea that men make worse decisions when exposed to female beauty, and we even are beginning to understand the neural basis. A pair of McMaster University researchers found that looking at photographs of attractive women (but not unattractive women) caused a significant increase in delay discounting in men — that is, choosing a smaller immediate reward over a larger delayed one (Wilson & Daly, 2004). It’s the same tendency found to a high degree in addicts and others with impaired self-control. Interestingly, viewing attractive men did not influence women’s decisions.

The reason-unseating effect of a beautiful face partly involves the amygdala. Activation of the amygdala, which detects the value of social stimuli, has been associated with greater discounting of all kinds of future rewards, and sure enough, this brain area shows much stronger activation to attractive faces than to more ho-hum ones. (It is actually a U-shaped relationship the amygdala is also highly activated by unattractive faces Winston, O’Doherty, Kilner, Perrett, & Dolan, 2007.)

In both men and women, attractive faces cause greater activation in several other brain areas involved in processing of rewards. These include the nucleus accumbens, which also activates in response to rewarding stimuli like money the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, which may be involved in shaping future behavior from learning reward outcomes. In men (but not in women), the orbitofrontal cortex, an area that evaluates the reward value of current behaviors, also activates in response to attractive female faces (Cloutier, Heatherton, Whalen, & Kelley, 2008).

Beautify Yourself

Beauty is unfair. Not everyone can be born with great genes. Not everyone can be born symmetrical. Not everyone can be born enticingly, well, average. But obviously there are many factors contributing to attractiveness that are potentially under our control.

For women, makeup does have a strong effect. In one study, women wearing makeup were approached more, and approached faster, by men at a bar than they were on nights without makeup (Gueguen, 2008b). Effect sizes on beauty judgments for makeup have been found to be as high as those for the facial structural features mentioned earlier (Osborn, 2006).

Getting enough beauty sleep is something everyone can do to up their beauty quotient. A group of Swedish and Dutch researchers conducted an experiment in which observers rated the attractiveness (as well as health) of participants who were photographed both after a period of sleep deprivation and after a good night’s sleep (Axelsson, 2010). Not surprisingly, individuals who were sleep deprived were rated significantly less attractive than those who were rested. They were also rated less healthy.

And then there are the emotions we project through our faces. Not surprising, positive emotions increase attractiveness. We are drawn to those who smile, for example. As when they wore makeup, women who smiled at men on entering a bar were more likely to be approached and were judged more favorably (Gueguen, 2008a). Even a smile perceived only in the periphery of one’s vision will be seen as more attractive than a face with a neutral expression (Bohrn, Carbon, & Hutzler, 2010). And attractive faces that smile produce even more activity in the orbitofrontal cortex than do attractive faces wearing neutral expressions (O’Doherty et al., 2003).

So here’s the timeless message of psychological science: Be beautiful—or, as beautiful as you can. Smile and sleep and do whatever else you can do to make your face a reward. Among its other social benefits, attractiveness actually invites people to learn what you are made of, in other respects than just genetic fitness. According to a new study at the University of British Columbia (Lorenzo, Biesanz, & Human, 2010), attractive people are actually judged more accurately—at least, closer to a subject’s own self-assessments—than are the less attractive, because it draws others to go beyond the initial impression. “People do judge a book by its cover,” the researchers write, “but a beautiful cover prompts a closer reading.” œ

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2016 Amendment

3.04 Avoiding Harm
(a) Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

(b) Psychologists do not participate in, facilitate, assist, or otherwise engage in torture, defined as any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person, or in any other cruel, inhuman, or degrading behavior that violates 3.04(a).


As you’ve learned, the only way to establish that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between two variables is to conduct a scientific experiment. Experiment has a different meaning in the scientific context than in everyday life. In everyday conversation, we often use it to describe trying something for the first time, such as experimenting with a new hair style or a new food. However, in the scientific context, an experiment has precise requirements for design and implementation.

Watch the video: 12. Κοινωνικά Πειράματα (August 2022).