updated 6/7/2010 9:11:34 PM ET 2010-06-08T01:11:34

The old saying claims the heart wants what the heart wants, and a new study shows that what the heart wants is people who other people find attractive. The finding strengthens the idea that attractiveness is relative, and that strangers influence personal ideas of beauty just as much as friends.

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"Of course people care about what friends and family think of their potential romantic partners. Surprisingly, we showed that complete strangers also matter," said lead study researcher Skyler Place, a researcher in Indiana University's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "If you walk into a party and don't know anyone, you might think, 'Why do I care what anyone here thinks?' In reality, we're paying close attention to what others in our social environment are thinking and doing."

The results are an example of "mate choice copying," where an individual copies the mate selections of others. The phenomenon has been widely documented in other species, particularly birds and fish, and has recently been looked for in humans as well. Place's study, published online and in an upcoming issue of the journal Evolution and Human Behavior, is unique in that it exposed study participants to real mate choice scenarios via video of speed-dating couplings.

Place and colleagues had 40 men and 40 women each watch videos of eight speed-dating interactions. Speed dating involves sessions in which men and women have numerous "mini dates," each date lasting about three minutes. After every date, the participants checked a box on a card noting whether they would like to see the speed-dater in the video.

The men's interest in the women was generally positive after watching the videos but it increased significantly if the male peer in the video appeared to be interested in that woman and if the online men were considered as attractive or more so than the study participant. When the men in the video seemed uninterested, however, the male participants' interest didn't change much.

With the female study participants, interest in the men in the video increased if the gals in the video appeared interested in him. But unlike their male counterparts, the women's interest in the men decreased if the women in the video appeared uninterested. Place said interest shown by the men and women was no different when they were asked whether they were interested in a short affair or long-term relationship.

An intriguing finding involved the sway men had on each other. Place found that the interest of male study participants in the women in the videos increased in relation to the good looks of the men in the video.

"For men, relative attractiveness of the people they're watching matters — not just anyone can influence their behavior, just other men they think are at least as attractive as they are," Place said.

From an evolutionary perspective, looking to others (even complete strangers) for dating advice might be wise.

"Humans don't exist in a vacuum," Place said. "From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes sense that we have evolved mechanisms that let us take advantage of the additional social information in our environment."

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