Rejecting attractive alternatives (as Homer and Marge Simpson have done over the years) is one factor that predicts longevity and commitment in relationships. In committed relationships, choosing to limit attention to other attractive partners is beneficial for the relationship. What happens though if you impose limitations on a partner’s attention to attractive alternatives?
In a recent study, researchers tested the old adage that forbidden fruit is the sweetest. Participants were shown two images on a computer screen for 500 milliseconds (that’s half of a second, for all of you who skipped that day of science class), one of an attractive individual and the other of an average looking individual. Each time the images disappeared, a letter, that participants had to indicate using corresponding keys on the computer as quickly and accurately as possible, replaced one of the images. In one condition the letter appeared equally in place of the attractive and average looking faces, but in the other condition the letter appeared more often over the average looking face, drawing participants’ attention away from the attractive alternative.
In this “forbidden fruit” condition where their attention was drawn away from the attractive alternative, participants reported less commitment and satisfaction in their relationships, and they actually remembered the attractive image better than those whose attention was not diverted from the image!
To test how sweet this forbidden fruit had become, participants engage in another task. This time an attractive member of the opposite sex appeared in the center of the computer screen for 500 milliseconds. When the picture disappeared it was replaced with either a circle or a square that appeared either in same place or on the opposite side of the screen. Participants had to indicate as accurately and quickly as possible (using specific keys on the computer) whether the shape was a circle or a square. When the shape appeared in the same position as the face, faster reaction times indicated that participants were attending more closely to the image. When the shape appeared in a different location from the face, longer reaction times indicated that participants had a more difficult time taking their attention away from the image. Those whose attention to the attractive other had been limited in the previous task paid more attention to the image on the screen and had a more difficult time directing their attention away from the attractive other!
Although attending too closely to attractive others can have negative effects on a relationship, so too can strictly limiting attention to attractive alternatives. It is possible, based on this research, that allowing partners some freedom to “just look” may actually make attractive others less desirable. The apple we have might be sweet enough, but the apple we can’t have seems even sweeter.