Duane Hoffmann / MSNBC
By msnbc.com contributor
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/5/2006 11:56:33 AM ET 2006-10-05T15:56:33

Esquire magazine just picked Scarlett Johansson as their “Sexiest Woman Alive,” and if you are wondering what criteria they may have used, well I can’t tell you. I don’t know.

But here is one possibility: She’s easy.

No, not that way. A study released last month in the journal Psychological Science appeared to show that what we think is attractive, or beautiful, is whatever requires the least amount of effort.

Past studies seemed to show that people look at human faces in search of cues as to how likely a person would be to make a healthy baby. While that may be true, Piotr Winkielman of the University of California at San Diego and colleagues didn’t even use people in their attractiveness test. They showed test subjects patterns of dots. The sets those people liked the most were the ones that closely resembled a “prototypical” set they had been conditioned to recognize.

In short, we like familiar things. We come to anticipate how things are supposed to look by seeing prototypes. Then, when we encounter something that resembles the prototype, our brains don’t have to work too hard to recognize and process it. Winkielman calls this “fluency.” The more fluent we are, the easier it is and we show our appreciation for that ease by rating a fish, or a bird, or a car, or a set of dots, or Scarlett Johansson, as more attractive than something unexpected or unusual.

And how do we become so fluent in recognizing a prototype? “By prior presentation of converging exemplars,” says Winkielman. Prototypes can be made, he shows, by repeating the image of one — how many magazine covers has Britney scored? — so many times that we simply come to accept it.

“What you like is a function of what your mind has been trained on,” Winkielman says. 

If this isn’t enough to scare the bejesus out of you — I mean the idea that in the decades to come omnipresent celebrities like Britney, Jessica Simpson or Brad Pitt will be the only avatars of beauty and sexiness — remember that today Marilyn Monroe could never be a sex bomb. Too flabby.

Sexiness evolves according to what we see over and over. This mechanism, Winkielman noted in a statement, “accounts for cultural differences in beauty — and historical differences in beauty as well — because beauty basically depends on what you’ve been exposed to and what is therefore easy on your mind.”

Does sex really sell?
But if you’re the kind of nerdy intellectual who wonders why, say, Catherine Keener was not voted sexiest woman alive, here is a little bit of justice:

Sexiness and eroticism are very powerful human stimuli, but as it turns out they’re not good for selling much of anything other than sex. Sure, sex sells itself. The adult sex industry is proof of that. But sex does not seem to do a very good job at selling other products like beer, cars or home loans.

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When we see something sexy, it can jam up what Vanderbilt University psychologist David Zald calls “a bottleneck for information processing.” If we see a naked woman or man or a couple in a sexy pose, we can go mentally “blind” for a short period. This appears to be instinctive. We can’t help it.

Honest, honey.

This is probably why a study last year from the University of Michigan showed that people who watched sexy TV programs could not recall much about what was advertised on those programs. (In this case, that lack of recall held for violent programs, too.)

If this is true in real life outside labs, using very sexy images to sell us cars or beer may help us want to have sex, but it won’t make us want to run down to the 7-11 for a six-pack. We’ll remember the Swedish Bikini Team, alright, but we won’t recall…

(Hey, what WAS that brand, anyway?)

And Carl’s Jr. may have made a big mistake in putting Paris Hilton in that swimsuit and having her lather up that car as a way to sell hamburgers.

Of course, there is the possibility that putting Paris Hilton on TV is always a mistake, but this time the mistake could be because our brains shut out all other input when we are faced with an erotic scenario. We focus like laser beams on the sexy stuff, and haven’t a clue what she was supposed to be selling. 

Like Winkielman’s study on attractiveness, both erotica’s power and its ineffectiveness as a marketing tool are the results of the ways in which psychologists are zeroing in on just how primal is our receptiveness to sexual imagery. 

One explanation for Winkielman’s results might be that prototypes come to seem like “average” through repetition. There is a long history of research showing that “averageness” is a key to attractiveness.

For a study published in the journal Perception last year, scientists put adults and children to the attractiveness test and found that “a highly attractive face facilitates quick and accurate sex classification.” In other words, the more average a woman’s face was, the more attractive it seemed.

With much of our sex radar being innate, we don’t think about it. Just about every man I know can tell a story about talking to his wife or girlfriend and stopping mid-sentence — completely unconsciously, mind you — if a sexy woman walked by, or somebody got naked on Showtime.

But this can be true for women, too, and it may have something to do with the results Winkielman showed. Scientists at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis exposed hundreds of women to a variety of imagery, including violent and erotic imagery, and they consistently found that erotic imagery provoked the most powerful responses, even more powerful than the violent imagery.

The women’s brains processed the erotic images about 20 percent faster than any other type, and they appeared to be processed in entirely different brain structures. It was just so fast, so innate, so easy.

Such studies may help put the lie to the idea that women are not as “visual” as men when it comes to sexy pictures. They might be, but they might also have been so conditioned by society to reject such imagery that when asked for a subjective answer, they say they aren’t turned on by it.

“Usually men subjectively rate erotic material much higher than women,” lead author Andrey P. Anokhin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University, said after the study was published in May in the journal Brain Research. “So based on those data we would expect lower responses in women, but that was not the case. Women have responses as strong as those seen in men.”

All this new research is saying that we human beings have built-in radar for beauty, eroticism and sex. It comes with the territory and it may be the most instinctive, powerful stimuli we receive. We like it, but we can also be victims of it.

After all, sometimes the easy way isn’t the best way.

Brian Alexander is a California-based writer who covers sex, relationships and health. Alexander, also a Glamour contributing editor, is traveling around the country to find out how Americans get sexual satisfaction for the MSNBC.com special report "America Unzipped" and in an upcoming book for Harmony, an imprint of Crown Publishing.

Sexploration appears every other Thursday.

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