We feel more attractive when we are surrounded by ugly people. It’s not necessarily because we’re insecure—Social Comparison Theory, proposed by psychologist Leon Festinger in 1954, holds that we have few other options. The theory suggests that we are terrible at objectively rating our own talents and physical features, so we tend to make sweeping generalizations about others and then fall back on crude comparisons. “With attractiveness, it’s hard to know what that means in objective terms, so you look around you and have to compare with other people to know where you stand,” Matt Johnson, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics at Hult International Business School, told Fatherly.
“This doesn’t exclusively apply to attractiveness, but any other competencies or attributes.”
When we start off assessing the attractiveness of others, it’s hardly an exact science but Johnson does call the process “reliably subjective”. We all have our tastes, but there are certain celebrities like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Lawrence that most people are into across the board, and studies have shown that we find the most symmetrical and the most average faces more attractive.
Johnson suspects that, knowingly or not, we also assess others by way of the Most Advanced Yet Acceptable, or MAYA principle. When it comes to any decision, from choosing a store to picking a brand of cereal, most people are attracted to a delicate balance of novelty and familiarity—the upper echelon of average. This may be the sweet spot for sex appeal, too.
Once you’re finished judging everyone else’s attractiveness, how that relates to your own self-perception is largely a matter of self-esteem, researchers have found. People with very high self-esteem tend to use upward comparisons for self-improvement, those with lower self-esteem need negative comparisons to feel better about themselves. Put simply, if you feel like the hottest person in the room—but only because everyone else is so damn ugly—you probably have a bunch of insecurities.
“The more self-assured and confident you are, the less you socially compare. People who are are little more insecure will socially compare more,” Johnson says. “This is mediated by self-esteem and positive self-image.”