02/03/2012 08:14 am ET Updated Apr 04, 2012

Study: The Context Dependence of Hot Guys (and Girls)

What makes someone attractive to you?

Specific physical features? A particular personality type? A certain indefinable quality of character or depth of soul? All reasonable answers, sure, but there's an additional response you probably didn't give -- one that behavioral science suggests you should at least consider. Another critical influence on who you're attracted to is context.

Show women a photo of a man, research has demonstrated, and they'll rate him as more attractive when he's pictured posing with other women than when he's alone (or when he's with other men). And in other studies -- not to mention Seinfeld episodes -- the very same man gets rated as more attractive when he's described as married vs. single.

Perhaps this shouldn't come as a big surprise, the idea that what strangers think of a prospective mate colors how we think about that person. After all, with some regularity we rely on those around us as an important source of information. Why else do we read anonymous restaurant reviews on Yelp or product ratings on Amazon? So it only seems natural that other people's impressions have an impact when it comes to how we perceive attractiveness.

Researchers have a name for this tendency for other people's assessments of a potential dating candidate to influence whether you find that person attractive: "mate-choice copying." Or, as it's known more colloquially to the rest of us, junior high school.

An interesting aspect of mate-choice copying is that it, too, is very context-dependent. Yes, how other people view a potential mate influences our own, personal feelings of attraction, but the strength of this influence depends on precisely who the members of this peanut gallery are.

In a study just published, British researchers showed a series of photographs to female respondents. First, they showed them pictures of four different women, each accompanied by a character sketch that described the woman in question in either pleasant or unpleasant terms. So one photographed woman was described as warm, funny and always trying to make others feel welcome. Another was described as self-centered and a bit manipulative. And so on.

After seeing -- and reading about -- these four female faces, respondents were next shown groups of three photos at once. On the left side was a photo of a man; on the right side was another man. In the middle was one of the four females they had previously learned about, shown from a profile so that she seemed to be staring right at one of the two men (and away from the other). Half the time the central woman's facial expression was neutral; half the time she was smiling. Participants were simply told to look carefully at each set of three photos as it was presented.

The last stage of the study? You guessed it: Respondents were re-shown pairs of male faces and asked to determine which one of each set was more attractive.

The researchers found that having previously seen another woman smiling at one of the men --even in static photo form -- later led female participants to view that smiled-at man as more attractive. But this was only the case when the smiling woman had been described as pleasant; the smiles of women with supposedly unpleasant personalities had no such effect.

In other words -- and as the title of the research paper relates -- I like who you like, but only if I like you.

Lest you think the moral of the story is that women's perceptions of attractiveness are uniquely subject to social influence, rest assured that mate-choice copying occurs among men as well. Previous research has found that men's ratings of a woman's attractiveness are influenced by the belief that other men are interested in her as well. What remains unclear (and what this recent study does not examine) is whether the perceived personalities of these other men affect male mate-choice copying in the same way. Or, for that matter, whether similar processes are at play in same-sex attraction.

But what these findings clearly illustrate once again is that -- as I explore throughout my new book -- when it comes to human nature, Situations Matter more than we think they do. Even our most personal of preferences and most intimate of instincts depend on context. How do we answer the not-so-age-old question of hot or not? It depends on where we are, who we're with, and who's asking.

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