British journal of psychology

Critique of a journal on food and attraction: Does hunger influence judgments of female physical attractiveness?

I will begin by providing a overview of the study by Swami and Tovée entitled "Does hunger influence judgments of female physical attractiveness?", followed by offering a critique of the report by analysing different aspects of the study, especially the methodology that was employed when this was carried out.

Nelson and Morrison (2005) conducted a study in which it was found that "financially dissatisfied men and hungry men preferred a heavier mate than did financially satisfied or satiated men, respectively" (p. 354). Swami and Tovée (2006) conducted a study in an attempt to verify the validity of the findings obtained in the previous study. A booklet was compiled, containing 50 images of women where there were 10 women from each of the five BMI categories (emaciated, underweight, normal, overweight and obese). In each of the photographs the women wore grey leotards and had their heads obscured from view. This booklet was then presented to male university students where they were asked, in private, to rate the women on a scale based on how physically attractive they thought they were. Following this, participants were asked to rate how hungry they were on a scale of 1 to 7 where 1 meant that they were very hungry, 6 meant that they were very full and 7 meant that they were unsure. For the purpose of this study, only people who rated themselves as 1-2 or 5-6 were used as the researchers wanted to eliminate moderate levels of hungry or satiety. It was found that the 30 male participants that were hungry rated the women with higher body weights as more attractive than the 31 satiated male participants. The conclusion states that "these results provide added evidence that temporary affective states can produce individual variation in mate preferences that mirrors patterns of cultural differences." (p. 359)

Throughout the introduction, Swami and Tovée make many claims, particularly ones that support their study's design. An example of this is that they claim that body weight is the primary cue to female physical attractiveness, rather than the waist-to-hip ratio. They back up all of these claims with findings or results from previous studies, validating their claims. From reading the introduction, it is very easy to work out why the study was conducted as it discusses a previous study which they are attempting to replicate, thus providing informed rationale. The hypothesis is not explicitly stated, but instead makes references to a previous study conducted by Nelson and Morrison (2005), resulting in the hypothesis being very difficult to ascertain from the introduction. Apart from the hypothesis being very difficult to glean from the introduction, it is very easy to pick out lots of valid information simply because it is backed up with sound evidence and from this we can learn things in brief about many other studies.

To conduct this study, photographs of women were used rather than it being done with models in front of the participants. As a result of this, it could be argued that the results may not be true because of this. However, Swami and Tovée have provided evidence which reveals that there is no difference in ratings between 2-dimensional photographs and videos of the same people that had been rotated through 360°. The effect of hunger resulting in finding women with higher body weights could be a physiological effect of calorific dissatisfaction, or perhaps it could be an effect of just wanting the food. This study doesn't distinguish or test for both, resulting in a claim by Swami and Tovée that it is due to calorific dissatisfaction without providing enough supporting evidence. All participants in the study were asked to comment on whether each woman was pregnant or not just so they would be "aware of the range of variability of body features", however it could be considered leading as the participants may rate some of the heavier women higher simply because they don't want to be 'insulting' to a woman that's pregnant. The article mentions nothing about the ages of the models in the photographs. There is a possibility that the ages of the women could be inferred from the pictures and as a result, there may be an occurrence of the social desirability effect whereby a physically attractive woman may be rated much lower simply because she is older and participants would be embarrassed to admit that they did in fact find the model much more attractive than they stated. There was a potential ethical issue of the models themselves being emotionally harmed as participants may have said they were unattractive. Swami and Tovée avoided this by using the photographs so that there was no contact between the models and the participants who were rating them.

It was found that the hungry participants rated the heavier models as more attractive than the satiated participants did. However, looking at the "plots of attractiveness as functions of BMI", it shows that for the low BMI and the 'normal' BMI models were rated very similarly by both the hungry and the satiated participants.

To summarise, the aim of this study was to confirm the findings of the study by Nelson and Morrison (2005) and to obtain results corroborating it. Swami and Tovée (2006) repeated the study and found that their study's results confirmed the previous study's results. From this, we can conclude that this study achieved its aim and is therefore successful.

References

  • Nelson, L. D., & Morrison, E. L. (2005). (as cited in Swami, V. & Tovée, M.J. (2006))
  • Swami, V. & Tovée, M.J. (2006). Does hunger influence judgments of female physical attractiveness? British Journal of Psychology, 97, 353-363

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