The classic “how we met” story usually starts with the moment of initial attraction: eyes locking across a crowded room, swiping right on a promising match or seeing an old friend in a new way. But would romance still have blossomed had those looks been obscured by layers of prosthetics – and the person resembled a mandrill, monster or mouse?
This is the psychosocial question posed by Netflix’s new dating show, Sexy Beasts, in which single people looking for love date a series of prospective partners, all dressed up as animals or mythical creatures, and choose who they’d like to continue seeing based on personality alone.
Bemused viewers have given the show the dubious accolade of being probably the weirdest spin on the blind date format so far. But psychologists question whether, in the wild, masking someone’s appearance really is the best way to meet a partner.
“It’s much more likely that two people will form a successful long-term relationship if they’re physically attracted to each other,” said Prof Viren Swami, a social psychologist at the University of East Anglia and author of Attraction Explained: The Science of How We Form Relationships.
“You can form short-term connections based on nonphysical cues but if you’re missing that physical ingredient, the likelihood of forming a long-term relationship dramatically declines.”
Giving the daters time to get to know each other may inform their eventual appraisal of their unmasked partners’ looks, he acknowledges, since physical attractiveness isn’t static. “If we begin to have a conversation and you find out I’m quite nice, that five you gave my looks becomes a seven. Your judgment of how attractive I am can be shaped by how you perceive me nonphysically.”
Sexy Beasts is not the first show to tackle the question of what makes people attracted to each other. It follows series such as Netflix’s Love Is Blind, in which people choose partners based on conversations in separate booths, and Channel 4’s Naked Attraction, which asks people to choose a date based on appearance alone.
“It’s a recurring formula that never really works,” said Andrew Thomas, an evolutionary psychologist at Swansea University. “Our mate choice mechanisms are finely tuned, they’ve been forged to be accurate over hundreds of thousands of years. These programmes try to take away a bit of the information used by our mating systems under the assumption that it will make for better choices. Any concept like this is doomed to failure.”
Research suggests most people base their choices of partner on a patchwork of different attributes that are subconsciously ranked in order of importance – for example, kindness, then physical attractiveness, then sense of humour, Thomas said. “The moment you start hiding things, you’re stopping them comparing something against their order and making an informed decision. They won’t know what the jigsaw looks like until the final piece is dropped at the end.”
Thomas speculated that obscuring appearances may benefit heterosexual men, since studies have shown women consistently rank them much lower for their looks than the other way round. “It allows them to bypass that initially very harsh filter around physical attractiveness,” he said.
In reality, the participants on Sexy Beasts are able to judge a lot of their dates’ physical attributes – their stature and shape, the way they hold themselves, how they walk, all of which are components of physical attractiveness.
The decision to obscure the face is key, according to the psychologists, since it is where people largely express themselves and communicate. Recent research has suggested people are even able to guess personality traits based on a photograph of someone’s face with a surprising degree of accuracy.
But the problem with artificial constructs such as masked dates are that they “don’t teach us anything about contemporary dating”, Swami said. These shows also tend to conceive of dating in a very narrow sense. “Two heterosexual people going for a drink or dinner, that’s a very western style of dating. It’s not generalisable to much of humanity.”
In any case, the psychologists agree that the secret ingredients for a long-lasting partnership are more prosaic than either personality or looks. One main barrier to the Sexy Beasts participants living happily ever after together is geography: some live in the US and some in the UK. Others include plans for the future, shared values, and – the least romantic of all – their approach to chores.