The Effects of Male Age and Physical Appearance on Evaluations of Attractiveness, Social Desirability and Resourcefulness

Article excerpt

Younger women are perceived as possessing a host of socially desirable attributes, some of which are the same traits attributed to attractive women (Perlini, Bertolissi, & Lind, 1999). Evolutionary hypotheses would not predict similar patterns of trait ascriptions for males who differ in age and attractiveness, since neither youth nor beauty is a successful strategy for mate selection amongst females. To test this hypothesis, young and elderly females rated the traits of attractiveness, social desirability and resourcefulness in 1 of 4 target males who varied in age and attractiveness. The results indicated that neither the age nor the attractiveness of the male target influenced ascriptions of socially desirable traits. Young, compared to elderly, judges ascribed more resourcefulness to the male targets. Regardless of the target age, the younger

female judges rated the target males as younger-looking, in terms of estimated age, compared to the elderly female judges. The results are discussed in terms of possible sociocultural and evolutionary factors that may be responsible for these differences.

Differences in physical attractiveness affect the social desirability judgments which people form of others (Eagly, Ashmore, Makhijani, & Longo, 1991; Feingold, 1992). From infancy to old age, there is a strong tendency to attribute more positive qualities to those who are physically attractive relative to those who are physically unattractive. Attractiveness may be used as a cue to signal status (Webster & Driskell, 1983), a "just world" (Dion & Dion, 1987), and biological fitness (Buss, 1994). Recent research (Perlini, Bertolissi & Lind, 1999) has suggested that subject and target age are moderators in attractiveness stereotyping on female targets. The present study examined the import of these effects on male targets.

Independent analyses have been conducted on the relationship between age and both attractiveness and social desirability. There appears to be a negative correlation between age and physical attractiveness (Henss, 1991), as well as between age and social desirability (Bassili & Reil, 1981). To be sure, increasing age is associated with changes in physical appearance: skin tends to wrinkle, hair turns gray and falls out, lips become thinner, ears appear larger, eyes lose clarity, facial features become less regular and muscles lose their tone. These physical characteristics are not generally deemed to be physically attractive: in not a single culture amongst the 37 studied by Buss and his colleagues (1990) were such features considered to be attractive. This does not suggest that the elderly are perceived, as a group, to be physically unattractive: both young and elderly judges can, and do, discriminate between physically attractive and unattractive elderly targets (e.g., ages 60 -90), and these distinctions do predict attributions of social desirability (Johnson & Pittenger, 1984). What remain unclear and have been overlooked by researchers are the interactive effects of age and attractiveness on attributions of social desirability.

In a recent evaluation of this issue, Perlini et al. (1999) asked young and elderly participants to evaluate one of four target females who varied in both age and attractiveness. On ratings of attractiveness, young and elderly judges did not differ in their perceptions of either the attractive or unattractive target. However, when attractiveness was held constant, ascriptions of social desirability were based on age, an effect that appeared to be more pronounced for male judges. Despite the suggestion that sex does not moderate social desirability ascriptions based on attractiveness (Feingold, 1992), sex may moderate such personality ascriptions when the age of a female is considered. To be sure, there are sociocultural explanations for why women are perceived to be less socially desirable as they age. Cultural definitions of socially desirable or "appropriate" attributes are divided along gender lines and age lines and these definitions may favor men relative to women, or younger relative to older women. …