In Brief

You'd think the average person might feel unattractive in a roomful of supermodels. But that's probably only the case if the person is in a competitive mindset, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 88, No. 6). In fact, most people would feel more attractive than usual among such a group if they all were working toward a common goal, says study author Diederik A. Stapel, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands.

"Competition activates a focus on differences between you and other people, and cooperation activates another mindset where you focus on similarities," Stapel explains.

Instead of using fashion models, Stapel and his colleagues subtly prompted their participants--75 undergraduate students--to compare themselves with another college student, represented by a printed description. Half of the descriptions portrayed an attractive, intelligent and popular student, while the other half described an unpopular, dull person. Additionally, half the students expected to compete with the described person to win class credit, while the other half thought they would work together to complete a project.

After reading the description, the participants filled out a survey in which they rated their own intelligence, popularity and general successfulness.

Those participants who expected to compete with the unpopular student rated themselves about a point higher, on average, than participants who expected to compete with the smart student. The opposite effect happened among students expecting to work with the described students: The participants who anticipated collaborating with a smart student rated themselves about a point higher than those who expected to work with a less bright student.

The findings broaden the theory of social comparison, Stapel says.

"Historically, contrast is seen as the classic natural outcome of social comparison," says Stapel. "We show this may be a byproduct of the sort of tasks you give people."